The problem with funding for cities is that it’s everywhere and nowhere. A great range of spending measures have an impact in and on cities, whether in terms of direct spending on urban infrastructure or less directly on people who happen to live and work in cities, and that represents about 90 per cent of us. But is that spending on public services and investment in infrastructure guided by a national policy for cities?
What passes for a national debate about the pros and cons of a ‘big Australia’ often touches on productivity and the changing dependency rate brought about by an aging population but the design and location of major urban infrastructure is by the far the most important element to consider.
Our major cities are struggling to cope with population growth as house prices move beyond the reach of new households, unless they are willing to trade affordability for punishing daily commutes to the job hotspots that remain in their CBDs. And many of our schools and hospitals have reached capacity.
There is little or no appetite in government for fundamental tax reform, including in the areas that affect our built environment. Negative gearing and capital gains tax reform are off-limits and the recent RBA report on the costs of ‘zoning’ suggest that Federal and even State governments remain convinced that less rather than more planning is the answer to managing our expected growth.
But to manage the growth of our existing major cities and to help others transition from small to larger cities, we need more planning. We do not need more detailed regulation of every development application, but all levels of government need to be aware of the spatial consequences of their spending decisions.
If the budget signalled new approaches to assessing major infrastructure projects so that they could be judged by how well they supported a national urban growth management plan, then the whiff of the pork barrel might be replaced by the sweeter smell of sensible planning.