A National Agenda for More Productive, Sustainable and Liveable Cities
Members of the National Press Club, Parliamentary colleagues, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
Forty-two years ago at Sydney’s Blacktown Civic Centre, a great Australian made some important observations about whether the Commonwealth Government should have any involvement in urban policy in this country.
A national government which has nothing to say about cities has nothing relevant or enduring to say about the nation or the nation’s future.
Gough Whitlam was launching his successful 1972 election campaign.
Whitlam vowed that after 23 years of conservative inaction on cities, a Labor Government would prioritise urban policy, working with states and local government to improve productivity, sustainability and liveability of urban Australia in the national interest.
Whitlam’s assessment of the importance of cities to life in this country is even more relevant today than it was in 1972.
Cities matter. They produce 80 percent of our GDP and are home to four out of five Australians.
Indeed, in the Asian Century they matter even more than they did in 1972.
The opportunity is clear: by 2030, the Asia Pacific region will have a middle class of 3.2 billion people, almost twice as many as Europe, the Americas, Africa and the Middle East combined.
By 2025, this region will produce over half of global output. Australia is fortunate to be at the world’s economic epicentre.
We must compete with our innovation, our skills and ability to deliver high value outcomes.
In the 21st century, productivity is the main weapon we have to grow national wealth, lift living standards and stay in front in the battle for international competitiveness.
Creative cities policy which boosts productivity will be critical to our success.
It’s often said that change is the only constant in life.
Change is putting Australian cities under real pressure – pressure that will become more intense in coming decades.
Our population is expected to double by 2050.
By then, the populations of Sydney and Melbourne will be approaching eight million people.
In the interim, the ongoing rise of the digital age will trigger huge changes in the way we live and work – shifts that will have dramatic consequences for the way our cities function and the ways in which they need to adapt to be successful in the future.
If we do not address these shifts productivity growth will slow.
The next Labor Government must follow its predecessors in implementing urban policy which drives productivity, sustainability and liveability in our cities.
That’s why today Labor Leader Bill Shorten has announced that I will have Shadow Minister for Cities formally added to my title to emphasise Labor’s priority in policy development before the election and implementation after it.
A GREAT DIVIDE
The approach to cities is one of the great divides in Australian politics.
The division is not over the nature of urban policy, but whether the national government has any role in cities at all.
The current Government has followed its conservative predecessors and declared that urban policy is a matter for the states, dismantling the Major Cities Unit on literally its first day, abandoning the Urban Policy Forum and withdrawing from all public transport funding.
This is backward looking.
As I’ve said before, the problem isn’t that Tony Abbott is stuck in the past, it’s that he wants the rest of Australia to go back there and keep him company.
Labor must do more than oppose this rewind, although oppose it we must.
We should use this period of Opposition to develop a constructive and positive agenda for the future.
Urban policy is too complex to be left to a single level of government.
Today I want to illustrate that complexity with a very specific example of a key challenge facing today’s urban planners – the mismatch between areas of population growth and areas of employment growth.
The 2013 State of Australian Cities Report identified that population growth in Australia was strong on in the middle and outer rings of our cities where housing was more affordable.
But it also noted that the decline of manufacturing and the rise of knowledge-intensive industries meant jobs growth was concentrated in and near central business districts.
For the first time in decades, population and jobs growth are not geographically aligned.
The report said:
This can create spatial polarisation and pockets of social disadvantage.
State of the Cities 2013
We are witnessing the rise of a new phenomenon – drive-in-drive out suburbs where people cannot afford to live near their workplace.
We hear a lot about the policy implications of Fly in Fly out communities, but far less about the much greater number who live in Drive in Drive out suburbs.
This trend is changing lives in ways that cause real concern.
Allowing this trend to continue is a recipe for entrenched inequity and economic stagnation.
There are many policy issues at play here.
There’s housing affordability, land supply, jobs shortages in the suburbs, inadequate public transport and access to education and training.
It requires a considered and national response.
It requires policy leadership and involvement of all levels of government working with the private sector.
I’m particularly attracted to consideration of the 30 minute City concept promoted by some policy thinkers in this area including the Bus Industry Confederation. I am aware that some argue for the 20 minute City, but better to underpromise and overdeliver.
This is the simple concept that most of peoples day to day work, educational, shopping or recreational activities should be located within 30 minutes walking, cycling or public commuting from their homes.
The national Government can provide leadership in urban policy in cooperation with other levels of Government, with industry and with the community.
Here’s 10 ways.
- Investing in properly integrated transport systems involving public transport and roads
- Investing in active transport solutions which connect up with public transport, education and employment hubs;
- Addressing housing affordability through the use of urban planning, land supply and use of incentives;
- Aligning greater housing density with public transport corridors;
- Promoting jobs growth in outer suburbs. This could be through direct investment such as Badgerys Creek Airport and Moorebank Intermodal project, or by giving consideration to incentives for location of business;
- Promoting jobs growth in middle rings around cities by investing in research precincts around universities and hospitals;
- Supporting connectivity and productivity through fibre-to-the-premise National Broadband Network;
- Supporting renewable energy including buildings and precincts that produce their own power in new developments;
- Enhancing sustainability and resilience of household and industrial water supply and rehabilitating our urban waterways which for too long were used for industrial waste;
- Cooperation between Governments to promote the development of second or third CBD’s to decentralize jobs growth.
A comprehensive approach is about building on success to make our cities more and more productive.
An Infrastructure Australia report produced in 2013 neatly summarized the potential productivity gains to be extracted from policies that bring workers and their workplaces closer together.
… higher density residential areas can offer more affordable housing options with better access to services and employment and support more liveable, vibrant communities.
Success in our cities is also a virtuous cycle, where higher living standards draw global talent, attract global business and investment and boost trade opportunities.
In short, this agglomeration of activity results in “bigger effects than the sum of their parts”.
A future Labor Government will pick up where of its Labor predecessors left off.
When Labor took office in 2007 we inherited a government that had no urban policy, no planning expertise and no structure through which to deliver policy.
So we built one from the ground up.
We started by establishing the Major Cities Unit to re-establish a planning skills base.
We created Infrastructure Australia.
Our aim was to break the nexus between the infrastructure planning cycle, which by its nature is long-term, from the short term political cycle.
We invested more in urban public transport than all our predecessors since Federation combined. Projects such as Noarlunga to Seaford rail extension, Gold Coast Light Rail, Perth Citylink, Victorian Regional Rail Link, and Moreton Bay Rail were promised, funded, built, opened or at least well underway.
We produced the national urban policy, Our Cities, our Future blueprint to guide future Government action.
We appointed the Urban Policy Forum, tasked with overseeing the implementation of this policy.
We worked with the States and Territories through COAG, which appointed Brian Howe and Lucy Turnbull to oversee the development of Capital City plans.
We created the Australian Council of Local Government as the nations’ first forum for direct engagement between the commonwealth and local government.
We introduced the Liveable Cities program, offering councils financial support for projects that contributed to improving life within their local community.
We initiated the suburban jobs plan to support states and territories plan the development of employment precincts, manufacturing hubs and multi-function developments near residential areas.
We didn’t just talk the talk. We invested. Australia was ranked 20th in the OECD for infrastructure investment when we came to office and 1st when we left.
20th to 1st.
In summary, we established the means to identify problems, built capacity within the commonwealth bureaucracy and worked with other levels of government to deliver better outcomes.
That’s Labor’s approach.
And it stands in stark contrast to our successors.
The current Government has raced away from urban policy at light speed.
In 12 months the government has:
- Abolished the Major Cities Unit;
- Attempted to water down the independence of Infrastructure Australia;
- Cancelled all Commonwealth investment in urban public transport, including the Melbourne Metro and Brisbane’s Cross-River Rail project, which had been prioritised by Infrastructure Australia;
- Handed out $3.5 billion in advance payments for East West and Westconnex, making a mockery of their commitment cost benefit analysis and milestone payments.
The current Government has no minister with responsibility for cities, no policy and no engagement.
The Government has insisted that its roads-only approach will leave space for states to invest more in urban rail.
This argument has already collapsed in the face of reality.
Given a choice between building a road with a Commonwealth funding contribution or a rail project without a funding contribution, States are opting for the former.
As the Productivity Commission said they would do. As does common sense.
Labor does not oppose building roads. In Government we doubled the roads Budget and built or rebuilt 7500 km of roads.
But Labor believes in building both roads and rail.
We support an integrated transport system – something you can’t deliver unless governments work together across transport modes.
PREJUDICE AGAINST PUBLIC TRANSPORT
Let’s look briefly at the context of the Tony Abbott’s exclusive support for road funding over public transport, as outlined in Battlelines.
In that book Mr Abbott described public transport as:
… generally slow, expensive, not especially reliable and still a hideous drain on the public purse.
He went on:
…there just aren’t enough people wanting to go from a particular place to a particular destination at a particular time to justify any vehicle larger than a car, and cars need roads.
Whilst it’s absurd that Joe Hockey thinks poor people don’t drive cars, it’s even more absurd that Tony Abbott thinks nobody wants to take public transport.
From the sublime, to the ridiculous.
There is no issue too big for Mr Abbott to show just how small his world view is.
He enjoys what John F Kennedy once called “the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought’’.
While I am convinced the former Labor Government was on the right track on urban policy, winding back the policy clock to 2013 will not be enough.
We need new ideas.
In Government Labor created the Urban Policy Forum as the vehicle for engagement with stakeholders.
But the current Government has yet to convene that forum after more than a year in office.
Its disinterest in cities and proper process has not been missed.
In July, in an important speech in Sydney, Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott said urban development should be elevated, “to the top of our social, economic and political discourse.”
Ms Westacott is spot on.
Coming from a business perspective, she can see that effective urban policy is a key to unlocking productivity gains.
Mr Abbott stands isolated amongst western leaders, with his disinterest in cities. Rather than mimic the UK with appointing Knights and Dames, he could do worse than mimic David Cameron’s engagement with cities policy.
If Mr Abbott doesn’t want to listen, Labor does.
Today I announce the Opposition will create a new National Urban Policy Dialogue to contribute to the urban debate.
I am pleased that key stakeholders in business, industry, other levels of government and academia have agreed to participate.
The Dialogue’s deliberations with Bill Shorten, myself and key Shadow Ministers such as Chris Bowen and Mark Butler will help guide Labor’s thinking as we finalise our policy for Productive, Sustainable and Liveable Cities going forward.
REGIONS AND HIGH SPEED RAIL
For example, I’m keen to engage business on the opportunities for greater development of regional cities as well as our capitals.
Beyond our Capitals, we have 10 major regional communities with more than 100,000 residents – the Gold Coast/Tweed, Newcastle, Wollongong, the Sunshine Coast, Geelong, Townsville, Cairns, Toowoomba, Albury-Wodonga and Launceston.
Ballarat and Bendigo are not far behind.
Each of these cities has untapped potential for growth in economic activity – potential enhanced by the NBN and the opportunities it provides for decentralisation.
Prosperous regional cities will take pressure off the capital cities and boost national productivity.
One way to drive that prosperity is to proceed with planning for a High Speed Rail line between Brisbane and Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra.
Completion of this project would revolutionise interstate travel, allowing people to travel between capitals in as little as three hours.
But it would also be a shot in the arm for regional centres along its route.
High-speed rail could provide genuine opportunities for companies to relocate from a capital city to a regional city.
In Government Labor allocated funding to establish a planning authority for high-speed rail and to begin to secure the corridor.
While the current government dumped that plan, a returned Labor Government will continue to pursue high-speed rail for what it is – a game-changing nation building project.
Labor would also return to the promotion of sustainability in cities through more effective building design.
Our Australian Urban Design Protocol, Creating Places for People, together with the Rating Tool for Infrastructure Sustainability were examples of the Labor Government working with the sector to deliver practical outcomes.
LIVEABILITY – THE NEW FRONTIER
As Aristotle put it more than a few years ago, “men come together in order to live, but they remain there to live the good life”.
Quality of life, or liveability, matters.
If we want people to live in suburbs of increased density, we need to ensure cities are energetic, diverse and vibrant places rich in human experiences.
This doesn’t just mean improved design standards for new homes, apartment blocks and public buildings, but a more thoughtful approach to how we create and manage the spaces in between.
Our urban spaces need to put people first, so that they feel safe and comfortable about moving around our cities.
As Danish architect Jan Gehl puts it, “First life, then spaces, then buildings: the other way around never works”.
Rather than city buildings simply being offices or residential towers that exclude outsiders, greater use of mixed precincts should incorporate retail or entertainment options.
We should show more imagination so the spaces between their buildings include areas to gather and engage with others.
We should encourage more public art and green spaces in cities.
Greater diversity in urban design generally makes for more vibrant cities, particularly if we focus heavily on mixed use precincts.
We also need to make it easier to get around, so that more people want to walk, cycle or use public transport.
Another example of a way to encourage this trend is to provide more bicycle racks at train stations and end of trip facilities in workplaces.
On Perth’s new Citylink rail line funded by the former Labor Government, lock-up bike sheds have been built on the platforms so commuters can secure their bike with a swipe card before boarding their train.
That’s a small cost for an initiative that is making a real difference.
We should also have a national conversation about the role of motorcycles and scooters, which are the fastest growing form of motorised transport.
Recent European studies suggest truly extraordinary improvements in congestion through a greater reliance on motorcycles.
As well as seeking new ways to encourage greater population density, a Labor government will renew its focus on stimulating jobs growth in outer suburbs of our cities.
One example is to focus on infrastructure projects that attract business, like the planned airport at Badgerys Creek.
An airport is the only piece of transport infrastructure that employs more people once completed than during construction.
It drives employment across a region in logistics, tourism and the supply of goods and services.
The idea of liveability plugs directly into another area that will receive much more attention from the next Labor Government – support for communities.
In some parts of Australia with relatively high population density, people live within 50 metres of dozens of people they have never met.
People want to feel that they live in a community, not just in a collection of buildings that happen to be in the same vicinity.
We need not only to see a more efficient economy that produces jobs and prosperity.
We also want a richer society – one that takes full account of the human elements of city life.
People want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They want to belong.
It’s the reason we barrack for our favourite footy team.
This week, I am more than distracted by my beloved Souths being just one game away from our first Grand Final since 1971.
Those who said we should just follow another team when Souths got kicked out of the comp didn’t get it.
It’s tribal. It’s about our sense of identity. It’s about who we are.
This spirit of community is something people also want from their cities.
Governments that embrace and respond to this need will find the community a willing partner.
Earlier this month, I attended a community meeting at Millers Point. The Baird Government wants to sell about 300 public housing units to wealthy investors for a windfall profit.
I grew up in public housing myself and went to school with mates from Millers Point, so I understand the sense of pride and connection locals have with their community.
In this part of the world, people knock on doors to check up on the welfare of elderly neighbours.
They might be poor in financial terms, but they are rich in terms of their sense of belonging.
When Mike Baird looks at Millers Point, he sees dollar signs.
When I look I see people and a community. People who deserve respect.
We can and should do better.
Successful cities are not disconnected enclaves of wealth and disadvantage where people’s wealth determines their postcode.
Successful cities are inclusive cities.
Stronger communities, doesn’t necessarily mean more government, in some cases it will mean less.
In many forms civil society is taking its own action.
Just look at the growth in the share economy.
The extraordinary growth in car share schemes, UBER taxi schemes and Airbnb home stays are challenging traditional markets.
This internet enabled intimacy is driven by human imagination and ingenuity, that operates beyond the traditional State.
But it is Government policy that determines access to high speed broadband that is the facilitator of this initiative of individuals.
Those who argue for the Government’s second rate Fraudband scheme on the basis that, “it’s all we need today”, are behind the pace already being set by civil society and underestimate the capacity of human endeavor and the pace of change.
Like the computer executive who once argued there would never be a mass market for home computers, they will be embarrassed by history.
Today I have outlined a framework for where Labor is at two years out from the next election.
American author Mark Twain once noted that:
You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.
When it comes to our cities, legislators need imagination.
The imagination to envisage cities which are dynamic, productive, sustainable, connected and vibrant.
Cities which are centres of opportunity.
Beyond imagination, decision makers need commitment and capacity.
Commitment to deliver.
And capacity to bring local communities, business and Australians with them on the journey.
Our cities will grow in coming decades. Whether that happens in a planned way or by accident is up to us.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.