The new government has a plan for Australia’s cities

Things could be looking up for urban planning if Greg Hunt has his way. Michelle Robinson

The new Coalition Government has been elected with a mandate to reduce the national debt and make Australia “open for business”. Does this mean fixing Australia’s cities will be left to market forces? History suggests “yes”, but the responsible minister, Greg Hunt, seems determined to swim against the tide.

The former Labor government oversaw an orderly expansion of federal funding of city infrastructure via Infrastructure Australia, including significant money for public transport. Infrastructure Australia’s funding required projects proposed by the states to fit within wider metropolitan infrastructure strategies. The previous government also set up a unit to monitor the current state of Australia’s cities.

Conservatives prefer to keep government out of urban planning

The Constitution places responsibility for urban planning and development with the states. Federal government intervention to address the urban development problems of Australia’s cities has waxed and waned according to the ideology of the party in power.

The 1972-1975 Whitlam ALP government funded urban renewal, infrastructure to overcome sewerage backlogs, and a new cities program to relieve metropolitan growth pressures. The Fraser Liberal-National government that followed scrapped these initiatives and left the problems back with the states.

The Keating ALP Government of 1991-1996 provided $816 million in its Better Cities program. This funded major development projects to demonstrate how cities could be made more efficient and equitable.

Federal funding for urban projects then largely disappeared under the 1996-2007 Howard coalition government, except for some national highway links.

The expectation is that history will repeat itself. We’d expect the Abbott government to limit its involvement in the cities to funding several highway projects. So the thoughts of the new Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, who has the carriage of city issues, about the Federal government’s role come are somewhat unexpected.

Greg Hunt has a plan for planning

Hunt has set out his views in the September issue of Urban Policy and Research. He has several proposals for Commonwealth involvement in planning our cities.

First, he proposes integrated planning commissions for each capital city. These will come from each state and not be imposed by the Commonwealth. They will involve all three tiers of government as well as planning, social and business sectors. These commissions would develop 30-year plans and create the necessary reservations and options for such things as a second international airport at Avalon.

Second, Hunt says: “It is in the planning space that genuine bipartisanship is most needed”. Hunt suggests planning commissions would include the state planning ministers and shadow ministers, as well as representatives of the federal government and relevant local councils.

There should be clashes of ideas rather than phoney cooperation. To ensure commissions have the necessary freedom, their proposals should be non-binding recommendations to state and local authorities.

Third, to make the plans accountable, Hunt proposes a set of performance targets. He supports a National Liveability Index, which would frame specific targets for each city. This would give a much more targeted focus for detailed planning than the generalisations of the current National Urban Policy.

All the right noises, but will it work?

The proposed integrated planning commissions are positive in principle. But the states would be unlikely to agree unless the commissions come with significant Federal funding.

The states have traditionally given local government short shrift in involvement in strategic planning. The Whitlam government was able to by-pass the states and fund improvement schemes for regional organisations of councils, because it did not change state control of metropolitan planning.

Only in Brisbane does local government have a genuine say in metropolitan planning, because of the size (one million people) and traditional independence of the City Council. This would probably be the only place where the necessary institutional framework for a Hunt-style planning commission might conceivably exist.

The proposed non-binding nature of the plans deviates from current Australian practice. It is closer to European thinking, where metropolitan strategies are schematic and flexible. In northern Europe, there is multi-party agreement on the general directions of long term city development, with details filled in as circumstances dictate.

On a similar basis, Hunt’s proposed planning commissions would need bipartisan and state and local acceptance of the general outlines of their plans to have any real world effect, and not just bipartisan involvement in their preparation.

Nevertheless, the fact that the new government is coming in with some positive thinking about city planning is more than we might have expected.