Federal Government leadership on cities? Yes please

Was Kevin Rudd's "Minister for Cities" policy announcement in Perth on Friday (30/8/13) tokenistic, policy-on-the-run or about time?  A mixture of all three. 

Let's be clear - urban planning is firmly the role of State Governments and Local Governments to implement.  The States and Territories are the ultimate service providers we interact with the most - hospitals, schools, roads, public transport; they are the cornerstone of our federation, yet since the 1940s the States' ability to raise revenue - levy taxes - has diminished leaving them to look up to Canberra for help to implement their policy.  Where historically Australia's political scene has been city versus rural (and in some respects this hasn't changed to this day) with one political party dedicated to the bush - The Nationals, the ALP and Liberal Party have been left to fight over the seats in our capital cities. 

Over the past 70-80 years, on both the ALP and Liberal Party's watch (and in Victoria's case earlier last century, the Country party's watch), we've seen Australia's cities grow on the back of the automobile and for many the insatiable desire to own a house with a backyard in a suburb not too far from family and employment. Yet the problem we have, highlighted so perfectly by Kevin Rudd's speech, is the people who choose to rent, own, play or work in the outer growing fringe areas are running into the ultimate 'gotcha' hat-trick:  

  • private transport has nasty external factors affecting affordability (volatile petrol prices) as well as direct negative effects when solely relied upon (congestion),
  • the slow roll out of other essential infrastructure along with the early isolation that is associated with the standard suburban development phenomenon and,  
  • access to employment diminishes the further you live away from job clusters.

Central Melbourne is now on its own development trajectory.  It's a trajectory that we can quite easily sit back and say we don't need to passionately advocate continuing the momentum for thanks to the work carried out by the visionaries of late last century and the new market which has sprung up around the vision.  The density debate in Melbourne is shifting toward how can the city better utilise its vast array of brownfields sites and under-developed corridors to increase localisation of services whilst also meeting the housing needs through sustainable development patterns.   As our Project Database illustrates, urban development has already begun spread beyond the traditional centre of the city - but equally you didn't hear Kevin Rudd talk about increasing density, rather it was a speech targeted directly at the voter-land of the outer swinging seat suburbs regardless of the public transport emphasis.

Kevin Rudd's speech emphasis on Public Transport is a breath of fresh air, but to my mind he lost marks where made an apparent pitch to bringing jobs closer to where people live.  Mass government-funded incentive-driven private sector job decentralisation is a repulsive thought and a rebuke to the quality work that's been happening over the past few decades to make central areas of Melbourne more attractive for business to grow and prosper.  What's needed is leadership in driving new development into existing areas which have scope to cater for increased housing diversity and density allowing the workers to move closer to the workplace - not move their workplace closer to them.  

If it is the Federal Government's job to lead on mitigating the effects of climate change and grow a more prosperous nation, then serious policy leadership on weaning Australian cities off the car and continual low-density suburban expansion (under the misguided "housing afforability" banner) must come from them.  15% of Australia's emissions come from Transport - of which the private car is the biggest polluter and even if we switched the power source for every car in the country to some as yet mass-marketed device, we still will have congestion and isolating distance problems.   State Governments understand and are actively refreshing and implementing metropolitan strategies which are attempting to curb fringe development (Melbourne 2030, Melbourne @ 5 million and the upcoming Napthine Government planning strategy) and redirecting capital and investment into existing areas but given the same Governments' willingness to shift growth boundaries we're likely to be dealing with the suburban problem for many years yet.  The extra oompf from a small but well resourced Federal ministry in Canberra could be beneficial in keeping States and their strategies in check, as long as they same Federal Government resists the urge to use the same ministry to pander to the interests of the land-owners on the fringes of our cities.

Given the context of the speech - the final week of the Federal election campaign, polls pointing to a wipe out - the policy announcement appeared extremely meek and garnered little analysis on Friday night's news.  Actually, when talked about on the ABC's The Drum (fast forward to 27m30s) that night, it was tacked on to other policy discussion from the day and then quite literally scoffed off the show by the panelists!

That, right there, is the challenge for urbanists: getting air time and providing proper analysis.  The direction of our cities is not just about big ticket projects like the ALP-favoured Melbourne Metro or the Coalition-favoured East-West link, it's about the sum of the whole.  Canberra holds the considerable purse strings - and always will hold them unless we change our constitution (and the relationship Canberra has with the states) - we should be demanding leadership from this sphere of government, not just having Federal agencies like Infrastructure Australia working within its silo.  As Kevin Rudd said, 80% of this country's economic output is from cities - what's wrong with having leadership ensuring all the policies of the Federal Government and the tools it has its disposal are given a proper urban planning context?

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