Aug 22, 2016

Australia needs to go to town on Cities policy – Opinion – Huffington Post Australia

One of the first rules in effective political campaigning is that you don’t make up policy on the run. If you haven’t planned it, if you can’t fund it and if you can’t implement it, then don’t announce it.

During the recent election campaign, Malcolm Turnbull broke this rule when it came to his announcement of three so-called “City Deals”. City Deals originated in the UK, where they are strengthening the bonds between the national and local government and leading to genuine improvements in economic growth and urban planning.

But in Australia, when Mr Turnbull talks of City Deals, it is unclear exactly what he is talking about.

The deals he announced in Townsville and Launceston during the campaign merely applied the City Deals label to Coalition announcements that mirrored Labor infrastructure commitments earlier in the campaign relating to the Townsville Stadium and the University of Tasmania.

In Western Sydney, the supposed City Deal was a vague statement to provide cover for the Coalition’s failure to fund a public transport link to Badgerys Creek airport.

When done properly, City Deals have something to offer.

But their implementation is certainly more complex than the Coalition’s last-minute announcements would indicate.

UK City Deals are bespoke packages negotiated by local authorities with the national government predicated on the notion of a mutually beneficial transaction. Typically, these deals focus on investment in infrastructure or transport, employment and skills training, housing and support for local business.

But these City Deals don’t just emerge from nowhere. In many areas where deals have been signed, pre-existing relationships between local authorities and businesses have formed a strong foundation for success. Greater Manchester, for example, has benefited from a well-established Local Enterprise Partnership, which has smoothed the path for the introduction of new financial powers.

As part of this, the Combined Authority can “earn back” a portion of additional tax revenue from the growth that is generated by local investment in infrastructure. Other places such as Newcastle and Sheffield have implemented tax increment financing in areas that have been identified as “key development”.

It’s a move away from a centrally determined, one-size-fits-all to the decentralisation of power through this devolution.

In Australia, our dilemma rests in our system of governance and constitutional arrangements. We have three tiers of government that require consideration and consultation, one more than in the UK.

Yet this need not be a spanner in the works. If anything, the Glasgow and Clyde Valley City Deal in Scotland shows us that an agreement can be formed between three tiers of government. This City Deal, signed in 2014, is made up of eight local authorities, and supported by both the Scottish Government and UK Government, which will kick in £500 million each. The eight local authorities are required to stump up £130 million between them. It’s too soon to know how well this will work, but one thing is clear. If you get the process right, it provides the best chance of success.

Here in Australia, we should be wary of any proposal that puts the Federal Government front and centre. If we’re to learn anything from the UK experience, it’s that City Deals work better when local authorities create and own them.

In Australia, there is an opportunity to use City Deals to incentivise collaboration across local government and also with the states and territories to maximise the economic potential of our cities. This would also ensure City Deals were adding growth to an area, not simply shifting it from somewhere else.

There is also an opportunity here for government to move from a silo approach to a cross-departmental framework that is more holistic. Labor understands this is a key element when it comes to ensuring our cities function. When in Government, I released the first ever National Urban Policy. It looked at cities as a whole, drawing in portfolios such as Communications, Environment, Transport and Regional Development, to name a few, and assessed what we needed to do to make our cities more productive, sustainable and liveable.

However, the current Government has already made this task harder for itself than need be. It has isolated and divided portfolios to cater for its own political need. For instance, Urban Infrastructure, Regional Development, and Cities all sit separate from each other.

It’s clear that the Turnbull Government has used the term “City Deals” as cover for a lack of a comprehensive urban policy plan.

Urban policy requires both the right policy framework and investment.

The Government’s track record in this area is poor. Between the September quarters of 2013 and 2015, public sector infrastructure investment fell by 20 percent.

During the election campaign, the Government failed to support important public transport projects such as the Brisbane Cross River Rail, Perth Metronet, Adelink light rail, Western Sydney Rail and the Melbourne Metro.

Funding for public transport remains an essential component of addressing the challenge of congestion in our cities.

This, coupled with policies which create jobs closer to where people live, must be at the core of government economic policy objectives.

Anthony Albanese is the Shadow Minister for Cities.

This piece was first published in the Huffington Post Australia on 22 August 2016: