More construction jobs will be lost as the full effects of the COVID-19 crisis start to hit the sector in the coming months, Planning Minister Mick Gentleman has conceded.
In evidence to the Legislative Assembly inquiry into the Barr government's response to the pandemic, Mr Gentleman said the government was expecting a slowdown in the construction sector, despite a recent uptick in the number of applications for new projects.
Mr Gentleman referenced Barry Morris' decision to pause his One City Hill project as he explained the challenges facing the sector amid the pandemic. The prominent property developer said this week that he had been banking on demand from the international student market - which has been decimated by the pandemic - to get the landmark project off the ground.
Mr Morris remains open to pursing a commercial development on the prime inner-city site.
"I certainly hope we don't see that happening more frequently across the ACT," Mr Gentleman told Thursday's hearing.
"But we will see, we believe, a reduction in the number of construction jobs in the ACT as purchases wane into the future.
"This is a concern for us as government and I think as a community."
Although construction sites were never forced to close as restrictions were imposed on other parts of the economy, the industry has shed thousands of jobs in recent months. The ACT lost eight per cent of its construction sector workforce between mid-March and mid-May, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
The jobs losses, coupled with gloomy forecasts about the industry's medium-term prospects, prompted local property groups to urge the government to pull out all of the stops to support the sector, including through the fast-tracking of approvals for major projects.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr last month flagged the possibility of streamlining the planning approval process as part of wider policy changes to assist the economic recovery from the COVID-19 shutdown.
Mr Gentleman and senior planning officials did respond directly when asked to comment on that proposal during Thursday's hearing.
However, Mr Gentleman and directorate staff said the planning authority had already managed to speed up assessment times as a result of bringing on extra staff, and realising efficiencies from having employees working from home.
The territory's much-maligned development application system has achieved some of its best results in the past 18 months during the worst of the pandemic.
It processed two thirds of applications within the legal time frame in May, up from just 20 per cent in September last year. Average assessment waiting times dropped to 60 days in May, which was still above the legislated limit but far lower than what it has been for much of the past year.
Also appearing via video-link at Thursday's hearing, ACT Conservator of Flora and Fauna Ian Walker revealed that it would be months before Namadgi National Park would be fully reopened to the public.
While the Mount Franklin Road, Bendora and Coree areas were reopened late last month, large parts of Namadgi still remain off limits three months after the devastating Orroral Valley bushfire was extinguished.
Mr Walker said more work needed to be done to make it safe for the public to enter the remaining sections of the park, including the removal of dangerous trees.
"The transition to reopening the park will be exactly that - a transition," he said.
"Our teams have been out there vigorously undertaking operations to make the park safe. Over the coming months we will progressively open the park for access."