A Commitment to Urban Australia - Response to ALP National Discussion Paper on Urban Development, Housing and Local Government

Author: Dr Barbara Norman is Discipline Leader Environment and Planning, RMIT University, and Deputy National Chair, Australian Fabian Society

There should be no misunderstanding – urban Australia is of national interest and involves the Commonwealth Government. Let’s not be tentative about this but understand that unless we clearly support the development of sustainable cities in this nation involving all levels of government, economic productivity, social cohesion and environmental sustainability will be adversely affected. It is for this reason that at the outset of this response, I applaud Federal Labour for producing this discussion paper on Australia’s Future Cities. What we need is a national commitment to urban Australia. I also welcome Federal Labor’s integrated approach to current policy development that is occurring across the portfolios illustrated most recently by the National Coastal Policy released during May -Meeting the Challenge of Coastal Growth, which recognises the initiatives in the cities policy, climate change, regional development and economic policies. This bodes well for the future.

In responding to Senator Carr’s presentation on Australia’s Future Cities, I would like to concentrate on four areas that I believe should be strengthened in the policy statement. Much of what I have advocated either personally or through bodies such as the Planning Institute of Australia is included in the nineteen policy options including addressing questions of a national settlement strategy, the impact of climate change, infrastructure planning, urban development programs for areas of disadvantage, a Commissioner for Sustainability, Commonwealth Urban Development offices, and an expanded public and community housing sector. In the short time available for a response, I will concentrate on four areas requiring further consideration:

• The national economic imperative to have our cities functioning efficiently;

• Commonwealth Land in delivering sustainable outcomes;

• Regional planning in areas under development pressure and

• Healthy Cities including urban design, open space and accessibility

 

1. The Economic Imperative of productive cities

In a Territorial review of the Metropolitan Region of Melbourne, Australia 2003, the OECD concluded:

Cities are key components in a territorial development strategy. A well-rounded national economic strategy cannot ignore the spatial structure of the economy, or the qualities and characteristics of cities that affect economic performance, social cohesion and environmental condition. Whether a city is new or old, or growing slowly or rapidly, matters less than whether local and national governments are prepared to develop policies and guide investments appropriate to the needs and potential. Not only must urban issues be given greater visibility and higher priority in national policy, new policies may be needed at national, regional and local levels, and governments at all levels must re-examine their roles and responsibilities (OECD 2003:52).

In every European nation there is a national spatial strategy. The United Kingdom, the European Union, the Canadian and New Zealand Governments and many of our neighbouring South East Asian nations have clearly articulated national urban policies. In Europe, every metropolitan city plan must meet a ‘strategic environment assessment’ of the European Union based on the principles of environmental sustainability.

National government involvement is not an exercise in appeasing the wishes of urban planners or a return to the 70’s or a usurping of the primary role of State and Local governments on urban planning. Rather, it is a contemporary and pragmatic response to rapid urbanisation as a global phenomenon and recognition that the role of our largest cities will be global and instrumental to our economic success in the future. The Planning Institute of Australia states that ‘the structure, growth and management of the nation’s cities represent a vital new source for productivity growth in the Australian economy. In its submission to the 2006/7 Commonwealth Budget PIA indicates that:

More sustainable development patterns in Sydney and Melbourne could deliver a State GDP boost of between 1% and 5%, other things equal. These benefits flow from improved operation of urban transportation systems and reduced infrastructure costs for more compact and better co-ordinated urban growth. When translated nationally, this productivity boost would lead to significant expansion in national tax revenues.

The efficient movement of freight through an expanding metropolis is another prime example. To emphasise the economic dimension of cities, the Blair Government’s 2006 Budget – Investing in Britain’s Future produced a companion document jointly authored by Treasury, the Department of Communities and Local Government and Department of Transport and Infrastructure - Meeting the regional economic challenge: the importance of cities to regional growth. In our own 2006 Federal budget, we conspicuously failed to invest one dollar in our cities except for $0.5m for the Griffin Legacy in Canberra, a worthy cause but not the highest priority in urban Australia. In summary the ALP national cities policy should include a strong statement on economic productivity derived from investing in the sustainable planning of our cities. This will bring us into line with nations of the Commonwealth, Europe, and our neighbours.

 

2. Commonwealth Land

The Commonwealth Government continues to hold considerable lands primarily in the defence portfolio and key locations such as our airports. I would argue that the Cities statement should be stronger in determining how surplus lands to the Commonwealth could be used as a strategic planning tool to deliver sustainable cities. Recent experience has been to the contrary. The leasing and subsequent development of airport land in the heart of the capital cities has significantly distorted and compromised the efficient planning of our cities. As Commonwealth lands, no state planning controls apply and there is no requirement for the airport corporations to invest back into the consequent infrastructure demands as a result of substantial commercial and retail development at airports. Brisbane City Council has led the charge and taken the issue to the High Court, and subsequently lost. In a recent letter to the Honourable Warren Truss MP, Minister for Transport and Regional Services, (17 March 2006) the Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Campbell Newman states:

In my letter of 7 October (2005), I sought to emphasise that the current situation of planning on airport sites being able to occur in isolation is simply not tenable. It is clear that the activities of airports under Commonwealth control can have major impacts on the surrounding area….

Discussions with my counterparts in other capital cities have revealed that the issues that I have raised are of common concern with respect to airports operated under the airports Act 1996.

A second example of direct commonwealth influence is its management of surplus defence lands. I would suggest that such lands should be not sold off to the highest bidder but in fact where appropriate be retained for public benefit and in some cases expanded. In relation to sustainable cities, a clear example of this is the case of Point Nepean, a coastal headland abundant with natural and cultural heritage in public ownership. Why did it take years of battle by the local community to convince the Commonwealth that such a natural icon in the heart of a metropolis was worthy of protection for the long term? The National Capital Open Space System in Canberra is a clear illustration of the benefits of such long term planning.

Market pressures to develop open spaces remaining in urban and urbanising areas such as along the coast are very hard for local and State governments to resist. In this regard, the Commonwealth could play a much greater role in environmental protection of open space though a judicious use of its own surplus lands supplemented by a national program of strategic land purchase, instead of relying on community battles in urbanising environments or coastal landscapes resting their case on missing, possibly sleeping orange bellied parrots. A successful model for the Commonwealth to examine is the NSW Coastal Lands Protection Scheme that has lasted over 50 years.

 

3. Regional planning in areas under development pressure

Our coastal capital cities together with coastal development account for 86 % of the Australian population. We are a highly urbanised nation. Areas under greatest development pressure include those on the urban fringe and those on the rapidly developing coastline. Evidence of this can be seen starkly in southeast Queensland, Surf and Bass coasts in Victoria and Mandurah south of Perth. State Governments have responded to these pressures by producing metropolitan strategies such as Melbourne 2030 introducing hard urban boundaries and protection of green spaces. Again the Commonwealth has been conspicuously absent in providing any assistance to States to support these endeavours be it in public transport funding or innovative affordable housing developments. In this context, urban communities are searching for solutions that will provide them with a sustainable urban environment.

One interesting example of this is the Geelong Alliance, a community initiative bringing a wide range of players to the table to develop a regional approach to managing the growth of the Geelong region. It is my view that such regional community initiatives should be strongly supported over the long term by a Federal program. In the absence of any regional growth program by the Commonwealth, the participants of G21 have established themselves as a limited company and in return earned a national innovation award from the Federal Government.

However, one does have to ask how have we come to a situation where managing the regional growth of a major urban region has been partly left in the hands of a limited company with accountability only to itself. At a time when we are advised by the Federal Treasurer that we are awash with money surely the Federal Government can do more than hand out awards for regional innovation but should instead invest seriously in the long term regional planning of these critical growth areas.

 

4. Healthy Cities

Finally the pursuit of developing Healthy Cities should be firmly on the policy agenda. In the context of a Cities policy, this should focus on accessibility, urban design and open space. The ALP discussion paper covers a number of these aspects. The World Health Organisation who pioneered the Healthy Cities program during the late 1980’s states that ‘a healthy city is one that is continually creating and improving the physical and social environments and expanding the community resources that enable people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions of life and in developing to their maximum potential’. To date Australia has only 3 locations: Noulanga in South Australia, Canberra and Illawarra South. However the connection between health and city planning is increasingly being recognised particularly by the Victorian Government. The Heart Foundation is also championing the cause, evidenced by awarding Mornington Peninsula Shire Council the overall national winner for its Peninsula Pathways project putting into practice ‘supportive environments for physical activity frameworks’.

The population is ageing and the most common form of exercise for the over 55’s is walking. The ‘walkability’ of a city in terms of design, security, land use integration can be a major contributor to preventative health measures and may represent a major saving to the health budget. Mental health is another area that needs more exploration in relation to the design of our cities, such as providing supportive housing environments easily accessible to relevant facilities. The 2006 Federal Budget announced “$735 million in additional funding over five years for medical research and $170 million to establish a new health and medical research fellowship scheme. In my view, it would be a significant step forward if some of those medical funds could be directed to working with the States to implement a Healthy Cities scheme across urban Australia. This would mean investing in public transport, open space, cultural facilities and urban design with a net benefit to the economy in terms of healthy outcomes. Given this, I would strongly encourage the ALP cities discussion paper to incorporate a healthy cities program including support for research in this critical area.

This short response has necessarily focused on only four areas. Clearly major issues in relation to housing, water, climate change and energy are also critical to the future of Australia’s cities. Some of these issues are covered in the emerging policy statements of other shadow Ministers and Beasley’s blueprints. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are both targeting middle Australia. Tim Colebatch wrote an article in The Age ‘Investing in the future means looking beyond the next election’ (16 May 2006). His focus was on the skills shortage. This also requires investment in affordable housing and public transport linking skilled labour to employment opportunities. Investing in our cities underpins a long-term sustainable future for all Australians. Once again I congratulate Senator Carr in producing his discussion paper and I hope that my few comments in response can make a contribution to the continuing development of this important policy.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

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