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Few people have the opportunity to be at the leading edge of broad scale planning and development for major urban areas. Tony Powell was one of the few and performed at the highest level, making a lasting contribution to the history of urban development in Australia and the national capital in particular.
He was a gifted orator, a visionary and inclusive leader, articulate and open in all his dealings. In his spare time, he was a keen photographer and read widely particularly in art and the history of cities. He was devoted to his family.
Tony was born in Melbourne and studied engineering and town planning at Sydney University. His career spanned professional practice in local, state (NSW) and Commonwealth governments, as well as private consulting and business.
During his time with the State Planning Authority of New South Wales during the 1970s, Tony successfully argued for the reservation of land at Badgerys Creek for a second Sydney Airport, wrote the Sydney Regional Outline Plan, which was the first strategic plan for Sydney since the 1940s and instigated regional plans for the Hunter and Illawarra regions.
In Canberra, Tony was best known as Commissioner for the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) for the period 1974 to 1985. He was deeply involved in the evolution of the city as the nation’s capital and a liveable and attractive home for its growing population.
At the time of his appointment as Commissioner to the NCDC, Tony was a director of the town planning consultancy Libermann Powell & Associates and had recently been employed full-time to advise on the establishment of the Department of Urban and Regional Development (DURD) in Canberra.
The term ‘city builder’ was not in vogue at the height of his career, but it is a fitting term for his contribution to the national capital.
During his tenure at NCDC, Canberra’s population increased substantially. Tuggeranong Town Centre was established and Gungahlin planned. Major infrastructure was constructed, including the beginnings of the Canberra cycle network and the Lower Molonglo Water Treatment Facility. The National Gallery of Australia, the High Court and the National Science and Technology Centre were completed and the NCDC developed the Australian Institute of Sport as a physical entity.
Under Tony’s leadership, the NCDC persuaded the federal government to legislate for the location of the new Parliament House on Capital Hill, and the Commission undertook all the work necessary to proceed to an international competition for the new building and precinct.
As an innovative administrator, Tony saw the advantages of corporate structures aimed at enabling planners, architects and engineers to make well-informed decisions and define clear objectives for building the city.
A conscious generalist himself, he had a deep understanding of each professions’ relevance to urban development and worked readily with all disciplines. He also moved easily between long-term strategic planning and the intricate detail of planning, design and construction necessary to achieve great places and buildings.
Tony encouraged an information-based approach to policy, planning and design decisions, calling for analysis of hard data on social and economic matters to justify any proposed undertaking.
He encouraged dissemination of technical papers that enabled all interested people, not only professionals, to understand what the NCDC did. He ensured that the media was well briefed on the Commission’s activities and as the head of a Commonwealth agency was a pioneering, if initially reluctant, regular participant on talkback radio. Well beyond his retirement, he was keen to talk frankly about making cities – especially Canberra – great places.
He engaged with staff based on what they contributed, rather than their gender. At a time of widespread discrimination against women, Tony oversaw an increase in the number of female professionals in the NCDC. Having grown up in a household of strong, inclusive, and slightly unconventional women, he was comfortable with women in the workforce, regarding them as typically honest and naturally collaborative.
He sought to recognise everyone’s contribution towards the success of the organisation, and of their need for job satisfaction. Many remember wonderfully enjoyable conversations and arguments with him, as well as his guidance and direction. He regarded his ‘greatest personal triumph as saving the tea ladies’, as a designated tea-time was an interlude that people not only looked forward to, but would share ideas in.
Personally, he enjoyed addressing the staff about the important work to be done in the year ahead, and making occasional presentations, for example about the history of cities and how they worked.
He was one of the first senior executives in the Commonwealth Government to introduce a non-smoking policy to his workplace.
Tony supported the decentralisation of jobs to the town centres (as part of the ‘Y Plan’) but was also committed to a strong city centre (Civic) and encouraged the development of policy to create a stronger built-form identity for the city centre. (His Civic: The living city was published in 2005.)
During his time there was no legislative requirement for the NCDC to undertake public consultation, but Tony saw a need to engage the community in new development proposals and supported the establishment of a new external relations group and consultation protocols. His initiatives became the forerunner to statutory consultation processes that are now an integral part of the Canberra planning system.
At the end of 1974, Tony was appointed Chair of the Darwin Reconstruction Commission and in 1978, he was appointed to the Canberra Development Board. He later held appointments in national and international professional planning organisations, was chairman of the National Capital Planning Committee, a commissioner on the NSW Soil Conservation Service and a member of the Murray Darling Basin Commission, the Water Resources Council of NSW and the National Parks and Wildlife Service Advisory Committee. From early 1992, he was Director-General of the NSW Department of Conservation and Land Management.
Appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1985, he was a Life Fellow of the Planning Institute of Australia.
Tony Powell achieved a work-life balance that many aspire to today. His wife Annie was his unstinting support and intellectual equal, and he loved spending time with her and their four children. While sociable, he preferred to be with family and friends, read and garden than to attend social events. He did not take alcohol and preferred egg sandwiches and juice over more elaborate working lunches. His morning swimming sessions at Manuka pool allowed him time to think about the day ahead.
Whilst Commissioner of NCDC, Tony followed in the deep footsteps of people who had laid the foundations for a great national capital, but in his role as a city builder, he left clear tracks of his own.
Tony observed of the late Patrick Troy that he was ‘a missionary, a pursuer of causes, a seeker of solutions … fostering groups interested, like him, in making better cities’. Much the same may be said of him.
He is survived by Annie, their four children (Jennifer, Sophie, Matthew and Ivan) and grandchildren.
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