Town planning: how to restore faith in the system?


p2151-Gary-Nairn-1By ERWIN CHLANDA
While the new Planning Commission (PC) is busy making plans for Alice Springs in 20 or 30 years from now, the elephant in the room is wreaking havoc with the current land management of the town.
We put this to PC chairman Gary Nairn (pictured) who’s in town for a further round of discussions about the Draft Regional Land Use Plan.
His commission has now joined the Department of Land, Planning and the Environment and the Development Consent Authority (DCA) in dealing with land management, making rules and rulings many of which the government has neither the resolve nor the means of enforcing.
And Land Ministers – from either party, of course – retain unfettered and ultimate powers to do anything they like, and routinely allow land developments or special use applications in contradiction not only of zoning requirements, but also of public expectation.
NEWS: Should local government have full planning powers?
NAIRN: I think the system works very well in the NT, for a small jurisdiction. In other states local government has certain planning powers. The Property Council does an audit of planning systems each year and for the last three years in a row, and against certain criteria, the Territory has come out on top each time. This is because of the simplicity of the system compared to other states. Some of the councils in the NT wouldn’t have the capacity of doing the work that is required.
NEWS: The DCA is meant to be a representative body yet it consists of a chairman who doesn’t live here, and four persons who are all white, male, middle aged, have a business background and no doubt vote conservative.
NAIRN: The chairman is the chairman of all the DCAs, to provide some consistency across the Territory, and the local government councils nominate some of those people. The Minister appoints the rest.
NEWS: Even the council appointees are sitting in their own right, not as representatives of the council.
NAIRN: Once you sit on any sort of board, under corporate governance laws you sit there in a role within that organisation, to make the best decisions [for it], not necessarily those that the body that nominated you wants you to make.
p2164-South-Edge-1NEWS: In the case of a plumber setting up business in a rural residential area, the DCA acted in conflict with the Planning Scheme [see Footnote 1], the Ombudsman agreed with the DCA, the Environmental Defender said the Ombudsman got it wrong, and the Speaker said the Parliament, which appoints the Ombudsman, can’t do anything about that. Where does the victim of this process go from there?
NAIRN: I know nothing about this case. I haven’t heard the reasons why the DCA approved it. No planning is absolutely exact. There are numerous examples throughout the Territory about people running businesses illegally on rural blocks. It’s a matter for the government having the resources for following up on these sorts of things. It’s not a planning decision, it’s a development decision. The DCA is not a planning body. Its role is to test developments against the Planning Scheme which the PC reviews.
NEWS: Isn’t it putting the cart before the horse to be looking into the distant future when the system as we have it right now is dysfunctional? For example, DCA chairman Denis Burke has stated that there are “issues with enforcement right across” the rural areas of the NT.
NAIRN: You can’t put high level strategic planning on hold because there are some hiccups in the present system.
NEWS: You are seeking public comment on long term planning issues. Are people likely to put their mind to that if they don’t trust and respect the present system?
NAIRN: We need to be doing both of these things. You get the strategic planning right, which is the guiding framework, you’re more likely to get the details right.
Mr Nairn says the PC has had a presentation from the Chief Minister’s Department  “which highlighted a whole series of opportunities that could well happen,” such as mining. The PC would be the first to be criticised if it were not prepared for them: “If the opportunities do happen we have to make allowance for the future,” he says.
p2299-Ron-Sterry-1NEWS: We already have provisions for residential real-estate at Kilgariff, Ron Sterri’s Coolibah Estate (at left), Bowling Club, Mount Johns stage 2, the old Drive-in and Melanka sites, 1500 blocks or dwellings, give or take. We have a falling real estate market and a population that has been stagnant for more than 10 years. To crank up the construction industry the government had to provide 10 year rent guarantees for 50 or so new dwellings (including 20 of the 40 units at South Edge (pictured above right).
NAIRN: These blocks will allow for some mid-term growth. That’s all included in our plan which is also about additional services, additional infrastructure, such as roads, intersections and so on.
NEWS: Shouldn’t we be playing catch-up before we are looking at new residential areas? Fix the system? We have rural blocks that are used as road train parking areas.
NAIRN: There certainly does seem to be a problem with enforcement and that is presumably a resources issue within government. There is no point having the rules if nobody takes any notice of them and nobody does anything about it.
NEWS: Why should the public have interest in what the government may be doing with land in 20 to 30 years’ time when it can’t get its act together today?
NAIRN: I accept there is a problem but I don’t have direct control over that. It’s something we pass back to the government because it does get raised. But I don’t accept that people are not interested in the future of their town.
NEWS: Talking about people’s interest in their town: In the case of the plumber, the submissions were 37 to five against allowing the application. In Parliament that would be a landslide. Yet the DCA allowed the application. Our land administrators treated the objectors with complete contempt.
NAIRN: We had similar situations in Darwin where spot rezonings have taken place. When there are a lot of spot rezonings it’s not good planning. It needs to be done in a much more overall sense rather than looking at a particular lot in isolation. That’s the reason why we’ve been going flat out over the past couple of years, putting in place more detailed planning. It makes the process much more transparent and harder for someone to come along and do something in areas that are not nominated for those particular uses. The DCA will have a guide to what it can or cannot approve. And it will happen less often that the Minister will overturn decisions where you have recent, up-to-date and forward looking strategic plans nominating the areas where certain things can happen or cannot happen.
NEWS: How does that help?
NAIRN: It puts a lot more pressure on the Minister. He or she must table in Parliament within six sitting days reasons why recommendations of the Planning Commissions are not abided by. It’s added another level of accountability. We’ll hopefully get some confidence back in the public.
NEWS: Can the Minister not simply say, I thought it was a good idea at the time? [See Footnote 2.]
NAIRN: He or she cannot. Detailed reasons must be given.
NEWS: Can the PC override what the Minister does?
NAIRN: Of course not. He’s the elected person. People will make their views known in the normal democratic way, when there is an election. That’s the same situation elsewhere.
NEWS: The current Minister lives in Darwin, he has just been denied pre-selection, he’ll be out of a job at the end of this Parliamentary term and if he stands as an independent he’s likely to be answering to constituents 1500 kilometres away from here. He’ll be representing a whole bunch of people with little or no interest in Alice Springs. This brings us back to the accountability the Town Council would have as the authority in charge of planning, as it is the case in most other states.
NAIRN: The Minister is advised by people who live in Alice Springs and work here, such as departmental officers. Two of the Planning Commission’s seven members are Alice Springs residents. The DCA has only the chairman from elsewhere and the other members are locals.
p2299-sewagepondsNEWS: The sewerage ponds (at left) – what’s their future? [See Footnote 3.]
NAIRN: We highlight that in our plan. The system can cope with about 3000 more people north of The Gap before it needs to be upgraded, and expansion of the ponds where they are, or a complete relocation.
NEWS: It is land where 1000 residential blocks could be.
NAIRN: I appreciate that. It could be. But it would also be a very large capital cost.
NEWS: That could be offset by land sales.
NAIRN: Yes, but you’d have to build a whole new treatment plant before you can do that. We recognise that possibility and we’ve highlighted it.
FOOTNOTE 1: A plumber set up shop on a rural block in contravention to the Planning Scheme which says Home Based Contracting means “the storage on the site of a dwelling of materials and/or vehicles associated with a business operated by a person resident in the dwelling, but which business does not operate from the site of the dwelling”.
Yet that’s exactly what the DCA approved (after a 400 square meter shed had already been built, complete with offices), and the Minister signed off on it.
A massively expensive and stressful legal process seems to be the only way for the objectors to get justice here.
FOOTNOTE 2: Chief Minister Adam Giles, as the acting Minister of Lands, in October issued an Exceptional Development Permit for Lot 1287, 165 Ross Highway, in violation of the two hectare block size limit in that area.
Mr Giles is either oblivious to the ongoing battle “blockies” have been waging for decades against reduction of block sizes in their areas, or he couldn’t care less about those objections.
His “reasons for decision” are illustrative of the kind of explanations the Ministers of Land may be giving to Parliament.
Mr Giles says in part: “No submissions were received from owners or occupants of any of the lots adjacent to the subject site or elsewhere in Ragonesi Road.” What Mr Giles does not say is that the Alice Springs Rural Areas Association Inc, on behalf of its 100-odd members and supporters, did lodge an objection.
A copy of the Reasons for Decision is available from the department’s office, is not on the net but the Alice Springs News Online has a PDF copy we’re happy to email to people upon request.
FOOTNOTE 3: The Government owns the sewage treatment plant, two square kilometres of freehold land not encumbered by native title.
It is currently occupied by a facility that stinks and evaporates billions of litres of water in the driest part of the driest continent on earth.
That plant is doing a job that a modern recycling plant could be doing on two hectares of land, eliminating waste and smell.
We’re talking here about two square kilometres of land between two magnificent mountain rages and within five minutes’ drive from the post office. See also the Sewerage Dossier in our foundation archive.


  1. The sewer ponds are interesting. I think that with the benefit of hindsight most would agree that their current placement is not optimal. However, there they are.
    What can now be done to rectify that? I suggest two points for consideration: What would be the cost of building a new “state of the art” facility?
    And, what would be the cost of rehabilitating the current site to bring it up to the health and safety requirements needed for residential dwellings?
    To leave the sewer ponds where they are looks like postponement of an issue that will eventually have to be tackled. But to move them and rehabilitate the existing site will cost lots and lots of money.
    I predict that this can will be kicked down the road until at least 2500 of the mentioned 3000 new residents north of the Gap are actually here.

  2. @ Hal Duell, Posted December 4, 2015 at 8:20am:
    Hi Hal, I suggest the value of the hundreds of residential blocks that could be created on that picturesque land (once the smell has gone) needs to be part of your calculation.
    Kind regards, Erwin Chlanda, Editor.

  3. @ Erwin Chlanda, Posted December 4, 2015 at 8:45am: I agree. Any estimates from your end? I think the current value of a block in Kilgariff is $160,000. Would that be a fair guess based on today’s prices and today’s money?
    Another possibility is a sewer farm block could be worth substantially more than a corresponding block out at Kilgariff. Here I am thinking of ease of access to town and their location in a beautiful valley.

  4. @ Hal Duell, Posted December 4, 2015 at 9:51am
    Hi Hal, this is one of those “don’t quote me” occasions. (I can’t believe I’m saying this; I hate it when I hear it as a reporter!)
    OK. I’ll have a go: Two square kilometers equals two million square meters. A good, old “quarter acre block” is 1200 square meters. That’s 1666 blocks.
    Deduct 20% for streets and parks which leaves 1333 blocks.
    The Kilgariff price of $160,000 is a “starting from” number. So let’s say $200,000 per block, taking into account also the reasons you are giving, and you get $267m.
    Deduct $20m for a recycling plant (which fits on a couple of hectares) and you have space for $247m worth of real estate on what’s now the smelly “turd farm” that wastes billions of litres of water a year in the driest part of the earth’s driest continent.
    The land is owned by the people of the Northern Territory (via PWC and NT Government). It is freehold and as such not encumbered by native title.
    Development costs? Kilgariff Stage 1B, 47 lots, went to Siztlers for $4.7m or $100,000 per lot. That’s $133m for the 1333 blocks.
    How much for the rehabilitation of the ponds? No idea, but I guess it would be a mere fraction of the $134m margin.
    Kind regards, Erwin Chlanda, Editor.

  5. @ Hal and Erwin: Understand where you are both coming from but “rehabilitation” of Lavender Hill may be more expensive than bargained for.
    The problem, as we have seen in Nightcliff (the dumping ground for Darwin back in the back yard dunny days) is Nighcliff Gardeners’ Disease, aka meliodosis.
    It takes a long stretch of the imagination to describe the Alice as tropical but my understanding is that you have conditions sometimes which can cause the beast to wake up.
    I think you are both on a good idea; I am just not sure what hoops whoever wins the contract for the rehabilitiation would be put through.
    Had it been done a few years ago, no problem; now I am not so sure.
    By the way, you two should get a room!

  6. Just a thought: If the blocks at Kilgariff cost $100,000 to develop and are sold for $160,000, that’s 60% mark-up – not bad. And you want to attract first home buyers, it’s not making it any easier for them.

  7. Why are we still thinking in terms of technology that was outdated years ago. Israel is producing potable water from sewerage using nano technology for under 60 cents a tonne.
    There will be no sensible solution until someone puts a commercial value on the nutrients contained in the sewerage.
    I have just pumped out the septic tank here at Willunga, the content has been trucked to a site further South, sprayed onto lucerne which is then destined to be trucked to the NT for cattle food.
    In the meantime two universities in the Eastern states are happily growing algae of high nutritional value from the nutrient content in the sewerage and fattening feed lot cattle on it.
    The smell could be of $, not poo, but once again we are not thinking of lateral solutions and could have been at the very front of the race but for small minded thinking.
    What other arid place in the world would go to such great expense to pump up fossil water, use it once and then treat it as a waste product and let it evaporate. Spare a thought for the farmers who go to great expense to buy fertilizer, put their produce through our guts and watch the waste nutrients go out out sea while they have to buy new nutrients.
    And we are predicted to run out of phosphate for them to buy within 20 years, yet feed another nine billion people by 2050 with 30% less arable land and the possibility of wars over available water, while all we can talk about is how many housing blocks we can create per Ha (the real estate yield) for people who at the moment don’t exist here.


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