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Published 09 August 2012 05:03, Updated 10 August 2012 07:45
There’s an icy knife cutting through state planning functions. South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania are slashing funds for their government architects – the public servants who smooth the decision making around projects by co-ordinating state agendas and the needs of private developers.
Architects say that the short-term savings, which are typically only a few hundred thousand dollars per office, go against the current trend of involving planning authorities in developments as they are conceived. They say this adds no time or cost to developers’ timetables. Government architects, in fact, can speed up approvals.
Cutting state architect functions – such as in Queensland, where the government architect has been left with no support staff – means that authorities are likely to get less bang for their buck. Rather than playing style police the government architect is a senior public servant able to identify and manage different needs and priorities early on that otherwise may become apparent only when it is too late to make changes.
Someone is needed to co-ordinate thinking and work with project design teams from early in the process, says South Australian government architect Ben Hewett. This doesn’t slow developments down. In fact, it can speed them up. South Australia guarantees approval within 10 to 20 working days for developers submitting themselves to the design review process.
“As a discipline, we connect multiple scales of thinking and work simultaneously,” he says. “From the strategic vision that the government might have through to the details around a place – how you might enter a park and make sure it’s safe, beautiful and inclusive for people and everything in between. We say that we do that, but it sounds a little bit like we know everything about everything! We’re architects, we come across that way.”
Design review does not just benefit authorities and communities. Developers benefit, too.
David Bertram is project manager for a $250 million residential project in Adelaide. It took 5½ months to design the 427 apartment inner-city project – working with all the government bodies that had an interest in it – and approval was given in six weeks.
“That process was one that a lot of developers would gladly embrace if they had known they were going to be assured of an outcome,” he says.
In South Australia, where the government architect’s role in the approvals process is enshrined in law – the assessing body “must have regard” to his advice – the office is being cut from 11 staff to just eight.
But the biggest blow comes from the closure of an allied body, the Integrated Design Commission – just two years after it was established
The commission, an Australian first, is an agency with a broad remit that allows people with interests in developments to make recommendations to the government architect. The task, commissioner Tim Horton says, is to provide strategic direction on issues that typically would not feature in the early stage of development design.
“This means bringing [interests like] child development, social inclusion, health or environment agencies in to the conversation about our built environment,” he says.
Horton gives as an example the commission’s work on a pilot project with Unley Council in Adelaide. It is a suburban area of large blocks with big yards and lanes running behind housing. Land tenure and sale rules prevent the building of smaller dwellings – to suit an ageing population – that would make use of those yards and laneways.
The current set-up in effect prevents ageing residents staying on in their community. Making that happen requires the involvement of town and transport planners, social workers and health professionals. It is a broad approach that’s not usually considered but which an agency like the commission – which closes in December – is able to provide.
“We’re not promoting smaller living units within your classic suburb,” Horton says. “We looked at how get smaller units linked to in rear laneways to create a safe frontage to the property and a safe rear to the property, with eyes across both streets.”
The setting up of commission was announced by former Labor premier Mike Rann in December 2009. Horton, an architect, started there in July 2010. In May, less than two years later, the government of Rann’s Labor successor Jay Weatherill said it would close the agency, saving $1.5 million.
Weatherill says the government is looking for ways for the commission’s functions to be continued outside government.
It is a starker story in Queensland where a polarised political atmosphere compounds the cuts that have left people reeling. The Liberal National Party government has cut 3000 public servant positions and a number of programs.
The cuts have claimed the scalps of the government architect’s two part-time staff and the secretariat supporting the Board for Urban Places, a panel of 32 professionals that reviews public-funded projects that is chaired by the government architect.
Incumbent government architect Malcolm Middleton declines to comment. Feelings run high, however, as Australian Institute of Architects Queensland chapter president Shane Thompson makes clear.
“Anything that was successful under the previous government, simply by its nature, has to be got rid of by the current government. It’s pretty petty,” he says.
Housing and Public Works Minister Bruce Flegg rejects the idea cuts are politically motivated but says the “incompetent management” of the previous government is to blame.
The risks of not having a design review function are great in a state such as Queensland where regional authorities struggle to meet the rapid infrastructure demands and social challenges brought by the resources boom, Thompson says.
“There’s lots of housing being built very quickly but there are questions in planning and design circles about what these places will become if there isn’t adequate consideration [given] to ensuring they have the right level of government services to support them, for example, family services,” he says.
Flegg says his government is concerned that new developments may not meet all community needs.
“That’s why I fought hard to preserve [the government architect],” he says. “It was part of consideration for cuts.”
Private companies and local authorities, however, will have to play more of a role. “The non-government sector have their own resources in relation to that,” Flegg says. “Those sort of neighbourhood environmental issues around the built environment sit better in local government.”
He offers hope, however, that funding could be found for the board. “Where a situation is possibly unworkable, the government architect may be invited then to submit what they consider to be a minimal level of support – and we will attempt to provide what we can.”
But it remains a low political priority. Tasmania’s first government architect, Peter Poulet, resigned in January and has not been replaced. Premier Lara Giddings says she hopes it will be filled again as state finances improve. The redevelopment of Hobart’s 8.4-hectare Macquarie Point rail yards site is about to kick off, so it is crucial to have a government architect to influence the development, the AIA’s Tasmanian president, Karen Davis, says. The Tasmanian Opposition says it would dissolve the role, which at an annual $260,000, is a luxury it cannot afford.
Making government architect budget cuts clearly undermines the trend for making developments more efficient by including a review process from the time they are conceived. Including creative thinking upfront doesn’t lengthen the process or impose costs on developers. It can cut them. The risk then, is that authorities will continue to cut their own noses off to spite their cost-cutting faces.
“I’ve never met anyone in government who wanted a bad outcome but too frequently they get bad outcomes. Why? They’re frequently ill-equipped,” says Australian Institute of Architects national president Shelley Penn.