Slings and arrows: Return of the Riverbank revamp

A new body soon to exercise development plan powers over a vast slice of Adelaide’s River Torrens-edged park lands will have capacity to override the rules protecting park lands from major development.

New Riverbank high-rise fears

A Riverbank Entertainment Precinct Advisory Committee (REPAC) was announced on September 4, 2018 by the Marshall State Government. Its 380 ha Greater Riverbank zone runs from Gilberton to Bowden. About half is subject to city council care and control – but that’s now under question.

REPAC will be different from Labor’s 2013 Riverbank model. The original authority was to sit outside of government agencies and encourage future private sector development to complement existing public investment. It operated independently of the stakeholders in the Riverbank Institutions zone. But now it’s to be dependent on their participation, as well as potential newcomers at the discretion of the planning minister.

The news coincided with the emergence three weeks ago of a city council-badged international investment brochure, highlighting a ‘proposal’ for a 27-storey hotel tower west of the Morphett Street bridge. The $300 million concept had been flagged by Labor investment and Trade Minister Martin Hamilton-Smith in December 2017, to occupy 10,000 sqm of park lands adjacent to Torrens Lake, overlooking the golf course and Adelaide Oval.

Concerns arising from the September 2018 announcement, especially about park lands development, are supported by warnings in a city council agenda paper written five years ago. It examined the implications of 2013 amendments to legislation about planning and urban renewal. Revised law now allows for creation of a precinct authority that can create precinct plans as a substitute for existing city and park lands Adelaide (City) Development Plan provisions. That plan has for years been ‘the rule book’ guiding what can be built, and where.

The potential for a new wave of high-rise development in the park lands on both sides of the river is now more feasible. REPAC aims to create a precinct master plan, and advise on major capital projects, events, branding and marketing. Membership will comprise SkyCity Casino, the InterContinental Hotel, Adelaide Convention Centre, Adelaide Festival Centre, the Adelaide Oval Stadium Management Authority, Adelaide City Council and Renewal SA. It will be chaired by Roger Cook, whose background is in commercial real estate, and former chair of the Motor Accident Commission. It will not report to the council, the traditional park lands ‘custodian’, but direct to the planning minister, Stephan Knoll.

Warnings, five years ago

The 2013 council paper warned that Labor’s then amendments could have negative consequences for SA’s planning system, at the time regarded as one of the simplest in Australia.

It would introduce the concept of “new authorities, with ‘project delivery’ powers”, roles unavailable to other planning authorities, and new planning instruments: precinct master plans and implementation plans. But it dangerously blended policy, development control and development facilitation functions and gave the planning minister new, discretionary powers.

Moreover, the council noted that he “need not adhere to the Planning Strategy in terms of growth, urban renewal priorities, land use, urban form and other key matters addressed in the Strategy”. This Strategy is the fundamental state policy guide about orderly planning – what should, and should not, be built, and why and where.

The council noted that Adelaide’s park lands were “managed under unique governance arrangements. … Given [these], and the role of the Adelaide Park Lands Management Strategy, the park lands should be exempt from the proposed precinct planning provisions…”

This plea resulted in a late 2013 compromise amendment that the Adelaide Park Lands Authority must consent to gazettal of a ministerial notice of establishment of a section of park land as a precinct. But the provision is not as clear-cut as it sounded and, on past history, the Authority is unlikely to withhold consent.

The council at the time noted multiple other risks. They included “potential [under the amended law] to override public interests, such as historic heritage conservation, long-term sustainability goals, with the opportunity to confer wide discretionary powers and limited safeguards”.

Old horrors potentially resurface

The 2013 council paper noted a concern by the Local Government Association (LGA) that under unclear criteria for establishment of a precinct by a minister there was “a risk that precinct planning could be used as another bypass mechanism to avoid other statutory processes, as with ‘major projects’ under section 46 of the Development Act 1993” (now updated and renamed but not significantly amended in regard to this section).

In park lands terms this fear links to the Labor Rann government’s delivered pledge in 2005 to disable this section of that Act as it interacted with the Adelaide Park Lands Act 2005. It ensured that future governments could not use it to lawfully allow big developments on the park lands. It means that, notwithstanding this continuing disablement, a precinct plan might bring back similar potential to trigger new park lands development.

The LGA also had concerns that developers themselves could initiate requests that a minister establish an area of land as a ‘precinct’; that a precinct authority may establish a community reference panel, but only if a minister desires it; and that ‘commercial in confidence’ provisions under the Local Government Act 1999 could frustrate transparency.

Other advisory body fears dated back even earlier, to 2011. The Productivity Commission had warned that: “… bodies making policy should be separate from those administering it, whatever the level of government involved.”

Seven years later, it appears that ministers in the new government only have ears for the siren song of international investors keen to test potential for development opportunities on Adelaide’s park lands.

Ash Whitefly is Executive Director of the Adelaide Whitefly Institute of Diplomatic Studies.

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