Town planning Territory style

The recent resignation of former Labor MLA John Bailey and two other members from the Darwin Harbour Advisory Committee raises some important issues.

The previous CLP government always had a gung ho attitude towards Darwin development, along with a seeming disregard for independent planning processes and checks and balances taken for granted in other states. Baileys resignation highlights the fact that the Labor government is no better.  We dont have an independent Environment Protection Authority, local council involvement in planning approvals is merely token, and long term planning instruments like the Darwin Harbour Regional Plan of Management are treated by government as little more than window-dressing.

These deficiencies have recently been brought into sharp relief by the Henderson governments handling of the proposed Inpex gas development.  It requires a considerable leap of faith to have complete confidence that  appropriate worlds best practice environmental safeguards will be imposed by a government which has just run an election campaign on a central theme of securing the Inpex development at any cost.

This shoot from the hip development mentality goes back at least to 2002, when a newly elected Chief Minister Clare Martin announced that all future heavy industrial development, including LNG plants, would be situated at Glyde Point on the Gunn Peninsula.  The announcement seems to have been made mostly to appease green groups and amateur fishermen, and with little examination of whether it actually made any sense. 

In fact it didnt, resulting in another policy backflip as soon as Conoco Phillips Wickham point LNG project became an imminent prospect.  Developing Glyde Point for heavy industry would have taken the better part of a decade and cost billions of dollars to build essential road, rail, port, power, water and other public infrastructure which already exist near Middle Arm. 

Moreover, constructing new infrastructure would have destroyed far more virgin savannah scrub than building at Middle Arm, and its no more acceptable to pollute air, water and land around Glyde Point than anywhere else.  The real issue is that worlds best practice environmental management is needed wherever heavy industry is located.

It was hardly surprising that Middle Arm/Wickham Point was chosen both for the Conoco Phillips plant and for the proposed Inpex one.  It really is the only sensible location.

However, putting heavy industry at Middle Arm raises important wider planning issues.  Darwins population is growing rapidly and that looks set to continue, especially if the Inpex project proceeds.  There is now quite limited scope to accommodate major new suburban residential development without making a start on a new satellite town as soon as Palmerstons last suburb of Bellamack is completed. 

Previous long-term planning instruments designated Weddell (between Berry Springs and the harbour) as the site for the next satellite town, and the current governments Creating Darwins Future document still reflects that plan.  However, Weddell is immediately adjacent to Middle Arm where all the heavy industry is being placed. 

Even though air and water pollution can be prevented with proper environmental management, it doesnt make planning sense to deliberately build major new residential areas right next to a heavy industry zone if that can be avoided. 

Maybe thats why the Henderson government has made another ad hoc decision to develop Berrimah Farm and the current Darwin Prison site for imminent suburban subdivision, instead of moving quickly to develop Weddell.  The problem is that subdividing Berrimah Farm and surrounding areas fundamentally contradicts the original planning concept of leaving significant undeveloped green space between Darwin and Palmerston, and would result in undesirable continuous urban sprawl.

Theres an even bigger future development issue on the horizon.  Weddell is only the first of several planned satellite cities intended to stretch around the Cox Peninsula to accommodate major population growth over the next 50 years and more.  The recommending of the Kenbi Land Claim for grant has thrown those plans into severe doubt, but the governments Creating Darwins Future document continues to refer to possible future expansion to the Cox Peninsula.  Although successive federal Ministers have had the Kenbi report in their too hard basket for almost 8 years now, its reasonable to assume that it will one day be granted.  That will foreclose options for large-scale suburban development on Cox Peninsula.

The Howard governments land rights reforms a couple of years ago, which opened up the possibility of 99 year residential and commercial leases on Aboriginal land, might provide some limited scope, and the Larrakia people seem to be quite pro-development.  But only full freehold title that can be freely bought and sold provides an adequate basis for large-scale urban development.  Darwins history shows this very clearly.  Our development was stifled for the better part of 20 years in the 1950s and 60s after the federal government imposed an ill-conceived form of leasehold title on most of the then township of Darwin.  It wasnt until the old Darwin Town Area Leases were liberalised and later converted en masse to freehold that Darwin began to grow rapidly into the modern tropical city we know today.  Deliberately building future Darwin suburbs on leasehold land would be an extraordinarily stupid decision.

The combination of all these factors means that future Darwin development plans need to be revised urgently.  We might choose to develop the Gunn Peninsula instead; position new satellite towns southwards down the track; pursue higher density urban infill strategies to accommodate population growth within the existing boundaries of Darwin-Palmerston-Howard Springs-Humpty Doo; or some mix of those options.

The remarkable thing is that none of these issues have been the subject of meaningful public discussion either before or during the recent NT election campaign.  Its time we all began taking Darwins future development much more seriously.   

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic at Charles Darwin University, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law) and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 12 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in he early 1990s.
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5 Responses to Town planning Territory style

  1. James Farrell says:

    We dont have an independent Environment Protection Authority, local council involvement in planning approvals is merely token, and long term planning instruments like the Darwin Harbour Regional Plan of Management are treated by government as little more than window-dressing.

    If institutional lacunae are aggravating all these problems, what moves are afoot to fill them? And if the Territory politicians are all too short-sighted to change anything, would you like to see something imposed from Canberra?

    P.S. The map is too small to locate all the places you mentioned (at least on my browser), which is a pity.

  2. armagny says:

    Move. The. Friggin. Airport.

    Respectful advice from a former resident. Bountiful suburbs within 20 minutes of the CBD instead of spreading in strands out into the bush.

    Huge project, needs bigger minds that have tackled the issue to date. And some long term strategic lobbying of the feds, if they still control it…

  3. Ken Parish says:


    I looked into the political, fiscal and logistic practicality of shifting Darwin Airport when I was in politics in the 1990s and getting deluged by resident complaints about the bi-annual Pitch Black air exercises which were driving people crazy. It just isn’t going to happen. I even raised it directly with Robert Ray who was the Defence Minister at the time and got a flat, unequivocal, non-negotiable no. If they can’t justify moving Sydney Airport from the middle of a city of 4 million people, they’re not going to do it with a city of 120,000. It would cost mega-billions of dollars. The combination of civil passenger terminal, private general aviation facilities, defence base infrastructure and one of the most heavily engineered main runways in the southern hemisphere can’t realisitically be moved (sadly).

    My own view is that we can accommodate Darwin population growth at least for the next 20-30 years or so through a mix of urban infill/consolidation strategies and allowing subdivision of 5 acre rural residential blocks in Howard Springs, Virginia and Humpty Doo into 1 acre blocks. The latter would potentially quadruple the population of those areas (presently around 10,000-15,000) with a reasonably modest infrastructure cost to upgrade roads, power, water etc., while urban consolidation within Darwin City Council boundaries could add at least 25,000 to the current population. Of course, you’d have to construct a light rail system linking Humpty Doo and Darwin CBD via Virginia/Coolalinga, Howard Springs, Palmerston, Berrimah and Winnellie, but we really need to do that anyway in the fairly near future.

  4. Marks says:

    A question I would have is whether or not States which have strong EPA and Council input into planning decisions actually have better planning outcomes?

    I think that a long hard look at the effectiveness of such institutional input would be a good idea before setting it up.

    All we might end up with if we are not careful is a combination of NSW Council ethics and public sector lightning speed for development approvals.

    BTW I thought that major projects in the NT had to use Commonwealth procedures for environmental approval anyway.

  5. Jacques Chester says:

    In any case, for a town that relies on air travel as heavily as Darwin does, the airport is in a great location.

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