The news that the North Curtin Government Horse Paddocks have been used by the ACT Government in a land swap deal with the National Capital Authority (NCA) came as a shock to everyone in the local equestrian community. Most people found out about it from the front page of the Canberra Times on 25 March ( https://the-riotact.com/shock-and-outrage-at-west-basin-land-swap-with-curtin-horse-paddocks/365850). As far as ACTEA can make out even people within the ACT government outside the City Renewal Authority had little more notice. Even so, the Environment and Sustainable Development Directorate and its Minister have not come out of this saga covered in glory. ACTEA has spent the last three weeks attempting to unravel the secrecy and this is what we can tell you.
The City Renewal Authority has for some time been in discussions with the NCA about a deal that would enable it to infill part of the Lake foreshore to enable the Acton Waterfront precinct to proceed. The Canberra Times, on 25 March, said the Curtin paddocks had been identified for the land swap 18 months ago. In May last year, only 11 months ago, a rumour surfaced regarding a threat to rezone the paddocks and ACTEA was told by senior staff in ESDD that this wasn’t the case; that the equestrian community would be given warning of any such a move and that, in any case, alternative agistment would have to be made available.
On 23 March Sally Barnes, the Chief Executive Officer of the NCA, wrote to North Curtin agistees via Territory Agistment, advising of the land swap and offering to answer their questions. That teleconference happened on 27 March. ACTEA received a similar letter on 24 March. By this stage Territory Agistment had been offered and signed a two year contract to continue to manage the land involved in the swap as part of the ACT agistment network though 2022.
The land in question is part of Block 5 Section121 Curtin on both sides of McCulloch Street; the small unused patch to the west and about two thirds of the larger area of the paddocks to the east.
At this stage the only information coming to Curtin agistees and ACTEA was from the NCA and the Canberra Times. This is significant because in 2014 ACTEA was party to an Memorandum of Understanding with the ACT Government, developed in conjunction with the Chief Minister’s Directorate and signed on behalf of the Government by Minister Rattenbury. Among other things that MOU says:
This MoU takes a strategic whole-of-government approach to equestrian issues. This approach seeks to ensure that engagement with the sector on strategic issues happens at the front end of planning and policy processes and in doing so maintain the crucial connectivity of equestrian infrastructure.
The Government will consult with ACTEA at an early stage on proposed decisions and actions that will impact upon the equestrian sector.
More specifically, ACTEA will be engaged in government consultation processes targeting users of the Territory’s recreational areas including in relation to specific planning and development proposals that would affect existing government horse holding paddocks.
The ACTEA President met with Ms Barnes on 25 March. She was unapologetic about the secrecy around the land swap. The stated driving force for the NCA is to co-locate as many embassies as possible. Why this move is necessary when there are numerous vacant blocks in the embassy precinct is anyone’s guess, although there is unhappiness about some embassies in the suburbs.
The process of developing the site will take at least 2 years and probably longer; 25 years has been bandied about. While the NCA would like to develop the block in an orderly fashion from west to east, Ms Barnes said that is unlikely.
Using the land for embassies is not straight forward and requires several things to happen first:
Step 1: Changing the land use from broadacre to urban requires a draft amendment to the National Capital Plan, a public consultation of 6 weeks and a disallowable instrument passed by both houses of Federal Parliament. This could take a lot longer than the proposed 12 months under present conditions where neither chamber is meeting.
Step 2: Developing the necessary estate plan for the precinct may involve new surveys, which are not happening at the moment. There will need to be consultation with significant embassies. There is an area of Golden Sun Moth habitat along the Cotter Road section of the horse paddocks which is subject to Commonwealth environmental protection legislation which could force the NCA to find an off-set area elsewhere before it could be built on. All of this could take the timetable past the end of the second year.
Step 3: Embassies will be built, one block at a time in a possibly haphazard way depending on where countries want to build. Each embassy will be subject to a separate planning approval process so it will not be quick. It is possible that there will be large areas of land left vacant for some time. NCA does not intend to put up a fence around the entire site because they do not want to have to manage empty paddocks. Ms Barnes did not say so but it is possible there will be some time after 2022 before the size of the remaining paddocks becomes too small to be viable.
On 26 March the ACTEA President met by telephone with representatives of the Environment and Sustainable Development Directorate (ESDD). ESDD was initially less flexible than NCA. In contrast to Ms Barnes they seemed committed to an exit from Curtin at the end of 2 years regardless of the progress in development of the diplomatic estate. ACTEA was concerned to look at all options for horse owners, especially as the government’s stated expectation is that the horses at Curtin will be absorbed into other facilities.
The portion of Block 121 not swapped to the NCA is contained mostly by the paddock next to Yarra Glen. It will be prime real estate when the Stage 2b Metro comes on line but there is no information at the moment about when that land might be released to a developer. This residual land is presently subject to a ‘planning investigation’ to assess its suitability for development and to survey access options because urban traffic through the diplomatic precinct from the Cotter Road is deemed to be undesirable. In any case the ACT Government will need to go through its own change of land use process with public consultation and is not likely to happen any sooner than the NCA process. If that is the case for both redevelopment processes a substantial portion of Curtin paddocks could be still available past 2022. All of this was news to ACTEA despite the MOU.
After some discussion ESDD agreed that they could be flexible if the NCA was and that progress on both processes would be monitored over the next two years.
ACTEA’s next step was to ascertain why the ACT Government had ignored the MOU with ACTEA and failed to discuss any of the matters relating to changes at North Curtin with equestrians. The ACTEA President wrote to Minister Gentleman who is the Minster for Environment and Heritage (therefore Biosecurity and Rural Services), Planning and Land Management (therefore the Suburban Land Agency) and Urban Renewal. Our request for information was met with repeated statements by the Minister’s chief of staff that the Government Horse paddocks were not the Minister’s responsibility and the MOU with the government did not apply to him and our letter had been passed to the City Renewal Authority. In other words the Minster has washed his hands of the whole unpleasant smell. The City Renewal Authority is an independent body run by a Board chaired by Malcolm Snow and it would be surprising if their commitment to transparency advertised on their website applies to the current transaction. ( https://the-riotact.com/rail-corridor-housing-in-mix-for-curtin-horse-paddocks/368772)
ACTEA will continue to monitor the progress of this land deal and report to the equestrian community as news comes to light. We will also try to answer any questions you may have.