The Griffith Manor House Open Letter

tl;dr: sign our letter if you care about the future of the Inner South

Canberra is a growing metropolis. At 108 years old, we've come a long way from when Walter Burley Griffin began sketching out plans for a garden city capital, to becoming a thriving city home to over 430,000 people from all walks of life.

Those people need to be housed.

Preferably, they need to be housed near the workplaces, businesses, schools and other facilities that they need for day-to-day life, in homes they can afford.

With the cost of housing skyrocketing in recent years, and the ever more urgent need to reduce our transport emissions, we need better housing options in the places where people want to live, rather than pushing new Canberrans further and further out into urban sprawl. It is in this context that the ACT Government's Demonstration Housing Project, an initiative launched as a result of a successful campaign by former Greens MLA Caroline Le Couteur, aims to show Canberrans how new models of urban infill - increasing density within Canberra's existing suburbs, rather than expanding outwards - that are not permitted by current zoning rules could work.

One of the projects being pursued as part of the DHP is the Griffith Manor House, which provides a four-unit complex with a similar overall footprint to a two-storey single-family house. The Manor House is designed to be a compromise medium-density housing solution, providing multiple dwellings on a single block while maintaining a low-density plot ratio and height, allowing it to be easily situated within existing low-density zones that only permit a single dwelling per block. It's a model which has been used successfully in New South Wales for years. And it's a model proving incredibly controversial here in my own suburb of Griffith.

I must admit that I've only started paying attention to local planning matters quite recently. My interest in urbanism has grown out of my interest in public transport and the realisation that effective public transport networks depend on efficient land use - a realisation helped by communities such as New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens and books like Donald Shoup's The High Cost of Free Parking. I can't say that I spend my every spare moment poring over the deep technical details of planning proposals, but in the last few years I have developed a greater appreciation for how planning policy fundamentally shapes the built environment and the way of life of a city, and this has in turn helped to shape my politics.

Back in March, this newfound interest led me to go along to a public meeting of the Inner South Canberra Community Council, which is where I first learned about the Manor House.

Canberra's "community councils" are non-governmental associations that are funded by the ACT Government to serve as the representative voices of the residents of Canberra's districts on local matters. They play a key role in the ACT's democracy, pressuring the Government on suburban issues and serving as a critical link between MLAs, planning bureaucrats and the constituents they are supposed to serve in a unique city-state jurisdiction that uses a very different form of local government from anywhere else in Australia. However, the community councils (and their subsidiary neighbourhood associations and residents' groups covering individual suburbs) have a reputation for being anything but representative, and for prioritising the "historic character" of their suburbs and the interests of a certain class of established resident.

The meeting I attended demonstrated this quite well. I was almost certainly the youngest person in the room, where I would estimate the average age was over 60. Of the handful of under-50s, the majority were ACT Government officials, there to speak in their official capacity rather than as residents. There were barely any non-Caucasians I could see. It became clear very quickly that the ISCCC's active membership base is largely older, established homeowners who live in detached housing - a sharp contrast to the many young professionals renting apartments in Kingston and Manuka.

When we got to the Griffith/Narrabundah Community Association's report, the GNCA made clear that their top priority was fighting the Manor House. They had provided everyone in the room with form letters to submit to the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate as part of their public consultation process on Territory Plan Draft Variation 375 (which overrides the existing rules in the Territory Plan that would otherwise block the experimental Manor House under current zoning). The GNCA felt that the one-off exemption to enable the Manor House would undermine the entire ACT planning system, setting a precedent that would undermine the sanctity of the RZ1 single-dwelling low-density zones all over Canberra. "We don't want it anywhere, and if it has to be somewhere, RZ2, not RZ1," they said. If this block of flats is approved, next thing you know it'll be rezoning everywhere!

I left feeling dispirited and angry that the official voice of my district was so narrowly focused on maintaining the "character" of the RZ1 zone and protecting the interests of existing landowners rather than addressing the deeper questions of what compromises are necessary to protect our heritage while enabling the urban infill we need. I channelled that into my own submission to the DV375 consultation, and a post on Bush Capital Memes for ACTION-Oriented Teens, our local NUMTOT spinoff group.

Ultimately, the consultation resulted in 526 submissions against the Manor House (mostly from the GNCA's form letters), and a grand total of four submissions in favour.

While there was a well organised and effective campaign in favour of the status quo, there was absolutely no organised effort from those of us (in Griffith, the Inner South, or Canberra more broadly) who support change.

Right now, we are waiting for DV375 to continue its way through the ACT's planning machinery, as EPSDD's planning bureaucrats consider the feedback and make a decision on whether to recommend the Draft Variation proceed further. If EPSDD decides to proceed, the next stop is the Legislative Assembly's Standing Committee on Planning, Transport and City Services, which has the ability to convene a public inquiry and make recommendations, before the final authority, Minister for Planning Mick Gentleman MLA, makes his decision.

This month, the GNCA has started a parliamentary petition with the goal of forcing the PTCS Committee to hold an inquiry and recommend that DV375 be withdrawn.

Over at BCMAOT, we decided that this is our opportunity to finally get our act together and advocate for the future that we want to see - a future with less exclusionary zoning, where innovative housing projects won't be shut down to protect the entrenched interests of existing residents at the expense of future Canberrans.

So, we've started the Griffith Manor House Open Letter - an effort to ensure that the voices of pro-density Canberrans are heard in this debate.

As a proud resident of the Inner South for over six years, and a Canberran for over 11, I believe urban intensification - not complete planning anarchy, but responsible, sensible intensification that provides a diversity of low-, medium- and high-density housing options all over our city - is necessary for Canberra's future and the Inner South's future.

I'm happy to tell my MLAs that I say Yes In My Back Yard to housing that will enable more people to live happier lives in the city I love.

I hope that this campaign marks the start of a better organised voice for those of us who want urban planning that looks towards the future, not the past.

Credit for drafting the text of this letter goes primarily to Howard Maclean with some additional help from myself and a few others from BCMAOT. Support for this letter and assistance in drafting has come from people on both the left and right of the political spectrum - this is a cross-partisan issue that transcends some of the usual divides.

If you agree that Canberra needs a better variety of housing options, I invite you to add your signature. The official home of the letter is at - please share with your friends!

Dear Members of the ACT Legislative Assembly,

We have become aware of an ongoing campaign by a narrow but vocal minority opposing the Griffith Manor House Demonstration Housing Project (Territory Plan Draft Variation 375) that has mostly recently surfaced as a petition hosted by Elizabeth Lee MLA. This minority is not representative, but they are extremely energetic, and risk creating an appearance of popular support. We write this letter to you in part to disabuse you of such a misapprehension.

The Manor House Project is a long overdue examination of opportunities for the densification of the Inner South. We write to you to indicate our strong support for it, and other measures to reduce exclusionary zoning and increase access to housing in the Inner South and across the Territory.

Our lives, like the lives of all Canberrans, are and will be shaped by urban planning decisions like this one. Decisions that will determine where we can live, how much of our lives we spend commuting, the number and diversity of local businesses, and the financial burden of mortgages or rent. Decisions that will determine if our communities are accessible to all, and sustainable for our children. Decisions that can either entrench poverty or relieve it. Decisions that determine access to shelter, water, data, heating, fresh food, good jobs, finance, education, culture and at what price in debt, tax, emissions and convenience.

As young people without property and their allies these matters are central to our future and our children’s future. This opposition to density and development sacrifices that future to placate misplaced fears and traps Canberra in an unsustainable vision of the past.

For decades now, planning decisions in the Inner South have put these sentiments above the welfare of individual Canberrans and the overall prosperity of our city. Exclusionary zoning is not a victimless crime - it drives urban sprawl, generates traffic and congestion, increases emissions, and inflates the cost of housing. We can see the evidence of this already - Canberra’s house and unit rents are the least affordable in the country, and continue to skyrocket. We are the ones who pay those costs.

Canberrans who are born in the Inner South deserve the opportunity to raise their own families in their community. Australians who migrate to work in the Inner South deserve affordable, family-friendly housing nearby. The problem of housing supply should not be perpetually exported to the extreme fringes of Canberra, imposing ever longer commutes on those without the fortune to not already own property closer. Continuing the pattern of urban sprawl on Canberra’s outskirts prevents the development of community and social capital.

The Griffith Manor House represents an excellent way to balance the competing concerns of heritage and housing justice. It would increase the supply of housing in Griffith, revitalise local communities, increase the customer base for small business (and consequently, viability and diversity thereof), strengthen civil society, and decrease housing costs. Simultaneously, it is consistent with the Griffith streetscape and other heritage concerns. We are optimistic that the demonstration project will provide useful evidence regarding the value of the manor house typology which will inform future planning work.

We call upon all members to support Draft Variation 375 that would permit the Manor House. We call upon all members to honour the ACT Planning Strategy Strategic Directions. If we want our city to be compact, efficient, diverse, sustainable, resilient, livable, affordable, and accessible, we need developments like the Manor House.

Above all else, we ask that members consider the interests of all Canberrans - including future and young Canberrans. Clinging to exclusionary zoning laws such as this to appease a loud minority of landholders is not in the interest of the Territory.


[You - Sign the Letter!]

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