Apr 9, 2012

The sad tale of Australian cities – Opinion – The Australian

Of all the statistics and figures detailed in China’s latest five-year plan, there is one absolute  stand-out. One night over this current five year period, more Chinese citizens will place their head down to sleep in a city than in the countryside. For a nation so steeped in an agrarian past, its transformation into a predominantly urban culture will, from that night on, be complete. China’s story is repeated across the globe. Urbanisation is continuing at a rapid pace as people crowd to cities for the wealth and opportunities they offer.

Here in Australia, we long ago made that transformation. We are among the most urbanised nations on earth with at least three-quarters of us living in major cities, and it is in our cities where 80 percent of our national wealth is generated. This month, the COAG Reform Council released an important report card into the state of our cities. This report card specifically analysed the planning systems that cities have in place for their futures. Subjecting the plans to this national scrutiny was something that all State and Territory leaders had signed up to at the COAG table. The review also reported on the many Commonwealth programs that directly involve cities.

When Labor was elected to office, it was clear that the former Coalition Government’s hands-off attitude to cities could go on no longer. While they might rank highly on world liveability rankings, our cities are under considerable strain. Failure to preserve infrastructure corridors, urban sprawl, vulnerability to dramatic weather events, demographic change, poor urban design, congestion and population growth are just some of them. That’s why the Labor Government is actively engaging with our 18 major cities. And that is why the Government released last year a comprehensive plan – Our Cities, Our Future – to make our cities more productive, sustainable and liveable.

So what did the COAG report card say about our cities? In short, ‘worrying’ according to the head of Infrastructure Australia, Sir Rod Eddington. “In many areas, current planning systems are only partially consistent with the criteria set out by the Council of Australian Governments. The report paints a compelling case for ongoing collaboration between governments when dealing with our cities,” Sir Rod said.

The Property Council’s Peter Verwer saw the review as laying “the foundation for a much-needed change in the way cities are planned and managed. Cities provide the surest pathway to sparking a productivity super cycle in Australia.” Verwer pointed out that the links between housing, employment opportunities and infrastructure are key to the planning of our cities.

While no State or Territory capital emerged with a perfect score, both Perth and Adelaide received higher overall rankings than the other capitals. The Western Australian Planning Commission was singled out as a useful mechanism for delivering integrated advice across the city landscape. No other cities have a similar body that can ‘speak’ for the entire city. That said, Adelaide’s plans were the best in the nation. They were public, involved the community in their development, were long-term and had measurable goals.

The Sydney Business Chamber’s Patricia Forsyth, urged the NSW Government to bring its planning systems together. She called for the rationalisation of Sydney’s ‘myriad planning authorities’ as the report emphasised ‘that land use, economic development, transport and infrastructure planning cannot exist in isolation’.

Neither of our two biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, rated well. The report noted that both cities were reforming their planning systems, but were only partially consistent on most of the critical categories. Queensland’s planning system was described as ‘robust’ but lacked accountability and performance measurement systems.

The report saw a clear role for the Commonwealth to help create better cities. It urged that funding decisions, such as infrastructure, be made with a clear eye to the long term social, environmental and economic sustainability of cities. It believed the Commonwealth’s direct involvement in cities would become increasingly important, particularly with shared interests such as the management of airports and airport land. It called for a stronger all-of-government focus on cities and better coordination of programs.

Clearly, there is still a lot of work to do within and between all levels of Government. Perhaps the final word should go to the Planning Institute of Australia’s Kirsty Kelly who said the future of Australian cities is too important to be left to the whim of the political cycle: “Cities need bipartisan support and we are calling on all sides of politics to recognise their enormous value.”