Density debate is overdue

How serious is the ACT government about implementing the much-discussed Gungahlin to City light rail project? Treasurer Andrew Barr’s recent musings about borrowing the money to build it will have sent shivers down the spines of many ACT taxpayers.

On the other hand, the ACT budget contained only relatively modest expenditure on design work and setting up a Capital Metro agency. This suggests that Labor might be hedging its bets until after the next election when, as both sides of politics no doubt hope, the Greens will no longer hold the balance of power.

Whatever its ultimate fate, no other project encapsulates the difficulties of Canberra’s planning and development so much as light rail.

The issues touch both planning and financing. The city that was planned by the National Capital Development Commission and built from the 1960s to the 1980s implemented a decentralised vision, in which employment would be focused on a number of town centres, separated from each other by open space and connected by fast, convenient parkways. The idea was that if you lived in Tuggeranong, you were just as likely to work in Woden or even Belconnen, as in Civic (Canberra City).

Since self-government, this idea has not exactly been rejected but neither has it been fully embraced. Gungahlin still lacks employment, and it took many years to improve transport between the new town centre and the southern parts of the city. Labor’s spatial plan, moreover, in providing for a build-up of employment in Civic, departed in significant ways from the NCDC vision.

Even if we accept that the city’s population will grow to 500,000 over the next 30 years, it is difficult to agree with the government’s approach to accommodating the associated development.

There is an apparent determination to line inter-town connecting roads (such as Northbourne Avenue itself, Flemington Road, Adelaide Avenue and even the northern part of Athllon Drive) with apartment buildings, even though common sense would indicate that this is not a sensible way to build-up the market for public transport (because there is a trade-off between the number of commuters who will use a service, and the number of times the service has to stop to pick-up passengers). It has so far been in vain that concerned citizens have pointed out the loss of open space and of views which, once gone, are lost forever.

The planners have still not grasped that infill and denser development require thought, sensitivity and a willingness not just to consult the community, but to listen to what is being said. Unfortunately, the government and ACTPLA are inclined to be contemptuous of citizen concerns about Canberra’s future.

The community councils, for example, protested about the exemption of certain ”knock-down and rebuild” developments from the need to seek development approval.

As subsequent events have shown, it is too easy for non-compliant new dwellings to be erected, because the building certifiers who do the approvals are working for the proponent of the development not (as was formerly the case) for the government. More generally, residents who take their case to the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal report being treated with disdain by the tribunal even though, in a number of cases, they have demonstrated a misapplication of the development rules by ACTPLA.

Developers are concerned to maximise their returns. When government itself is a major developer (as is the case with the Land Development Agency and ACT Housing) a major imbalance results. Repeatedly, it is left to citizens to argue the case for more sensitive design, less scale and mass, and more realistic attention to parking and traffic issues.

Future generations will owe a debt of gratitude to the citizens of Reid if they are successful in moderating ACT Housing’s plans to fit as many high-rise blocks as possible into the Cooyong Street area.

This brings me to the financial side of the light rail (or tramway) project. The case seems fairly clear that we don’t actually need light rail now, or in the foreseeable future. There is still no publicly available business case for light rail (that is, how many people need to actually travel on the line to cover the costs of financing its construction and rolling stock, together with paying recurrent operational expenses).

The private sector, which must have done its own sums, has clearly declined to assume any of the risk. Even if the light rail is built, it will almost certainly run at a loss.

A comparison with the bus system is instructive. The buses do not have to pay for the roads they run upon.

Yet despite many years of effort, the proportion of the costs of running the bus service that are covered by fares remains at less than 17 per cent (this equates to an annual subsidy of roughly $90 million). Canberra can ill-afford more loss-making public transport.

With a deficit of $339 million for 2012-13 it is a good question as to what the city can, in fact, afford. The Treasurer projects a surplus in 2015-16, but the reality is that it is a surplus as wishful as Wayne Swan’s. As with all governments, there is a propensity to over-estimate revenues and to under-estimate expenditures.

It was certainly unnecessary for some commentators to berate the Treasurer for not bringing in an even bigger deficit. He has probably gone as far as he dared in attempting to make up for a contraction in the territory’s growth following the expected Coalition victory in September. Indeed a slowing of the rate of growth may be a good thing.

Each new burst of development, especially on greenfields sites, requires existing ACT taxpayers to fund the additional infrastructure that is needed. The budget shows the extent of the continuing costs for the development of Molonglo.

Meanwhile, the city will continue to expand at the edges. The Treasurer recently announced that land would be released for new development on the western fringes of Belconnen, a very expensive place for ACTION buses to service.

In Canberra’s 100th year, it is appropriate to think about where the city is heading. It is good to contemplate the legacy of Walter Burley Griffin. But we should also think about the legacy of the NCDC and the convenient, car-based city that it designed. Perhaps, in balancing the need for different densities, we might focus on keeping the best of the past while planning for change.

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