Memo to our latest cities minister: here’s what needs to be done

Aerial photo of the Gold Coast, Queensland

by Professor Paul Burton, Director,Urban Research Program.

When Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister last September and announced there was to be a minister for cities and the built environment, many were pleasantly surprised. The Coalition’s 2013 election platform made the briefest mention of cities and proposed only a program of investment in urban roads and national highways to ease congestion. It seemed then that the traditional antipathy towards urban policy from the conservative side of politics was set to remain.

So, Turnbull’s innovation agenda, which included this new focus on cities, was welcomed in many quarters. Perhaps now we would see concerted policy attention given to the places where most of us live, work, study and play.

Over the next few months, the new cities minister, Jamie Briggs, undertook extensive consultation and discussion around Australia. But this process had not produced a clear statement of government policy by the time he was obliged to offer his resignation, just after Christmas.

Jamie Briggs was out of the ministry before he’d had time to develop a clear picture of national urban policy.

One of Briggs’ last major speeches was to the State of Australian Cities conference in December. He described his ambition for greater co-ordination among federal agencies and between levels of government and greater collaboration between government, the private sector and urban researchers.

However, apart from Briggs’ passing references to trying to capture some of the value uplift associated with public investment in infrastructure, we were none the wiser about the substance of an embryonic national urban policy.

A new broom?

Briggs’ successor is Angus Taylor, who enjoys the slightly different title of assistant minister for cities and digital transformation, sitting within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet rather than in Greg Hunt’s Environment Department.

With Taylor having been in the job for less than a month, we have not yet heard much detail of his views on cities and urban policy. But he has said:

“I’m the assistant minister for cities, not the assistant minister for inner cities, or even capital cities …”

And to fulfil his “deep belief that consultation and proper public debate gets to wise outcomes”, what advice might we offer to the new assistant minister? Here are some suggestions to be going on with.

Dear assistant minister,

Congratulations on your appointment. Many who recognise the importance of cities to how well we live are pleased that the prime minister continues to show a commitment to building policy in this field. We trust that you will be able to lead this process and overcome the policy neglect that has been evident for some time.

You have rightly pointed out that Australian cities are many and varied and although we do not have a clear definition of what constitutes a city, we should not be preoccupied with what happens within the inner areas of some of our capital cities.

No doubt you will be aware that previous federal urban policy initiatives have tended to focus on what happens within our cities and this is important. But too often it has been at the expense of any serious attention to the overall pattern of settlements across the country and to relations between cities.

Now would be a good time to rectify this and develop a truly national policy on settlements and cities.

We expect that Australia’s population will double by 2075 if current assumptions about fertility, life expectancy and migration hold. While the validity of these assumptions will always provoke public debate, it is unlikely that the population will not continue to grow.

It is incumbent on the federal government to think about where this growing (and ageing) population will live and work; you have a critical role in stimulating this thinking.

You might take the view that the market is best placed to anticipate where people want to live and provide accordingly. But those decisions have consequences, especially for the provision of infrastructure such as roads, public transport, schools and hospitals.

And you have already indicated that the distribution of economic activity — and especially access to local jobs — is one of the biggest challenges facing Australia’s cities, large and small.

A national spatial plan is needed

Local councils and state and territory governments already prepare spatial plans for their areas. These aim to anticipate where growth might occur and what its wider impacts might be. These plans and strategies enjoy varied success, but few would argue that we should abandon spatial planning.

If the government can produce a development plan for northern Australia, there’s no reason not to produce a plan for the whole country.

There are no obvious reasons, therefore, why the federal government should not also develop a spatially-aware national policy for settlements. This does not mean that you, minister, should be responsible for approving state or local government plans, or for signing off on development approvals — unless they were of national significance. But it might mean that you are able to build a national perspective within government on where growth should be encouraged or discouraged and where government investment in critical infrastructure might be targeted.

The government already has a plan for northern Australia. You have the opportunity to help it develop a settlement and investment plan for all of Australia.

This will not be an easy task. Many believe the federal government has no role to play in the planning and governance of our cities. This overlooks the fact that your colleagues in government make decisions every day that have spatial implications and urban impacts.

The new policy commitment to cities that you embody provides an important opportunity to make these processes more explicit and to plan accordingly. I wish you all the very best in this difficult task.

(Originally published on The Conversation)