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Infrastructure Australia’s take on managing growth of Australian cities 

Photo by Sander Dalhuisen on Unsplash
Photo by Sander Dalhuisen on Unsplash

It has been said of Australian cities that they are orphans of public policy. They belong to no-one and are thus neglected, despite the fact that most Australians live in them and they create most national wealth. 

This was confirmed in the recently published and important reports on Australian cities by the Property Council of Australia which showed that the biggest threats to them come from their – by international comparisons – weak governance at the metropolitan level.

So while a London or an Auckland benefit from unified metropolitan governance for the full extent of their geographies, the City of Perth council covers just over 1 per cent of the area of the entire city. 

It’s not much better in other Australian cities – apart from the city state that is the ACT, though the emergence of the Greater Sydney Commission to improve metropolitan coordination is noted and welcomed with, essentially metros being under-governed and indeed, under-funded. 

Our cities, therefore, fall somewhere between, on the one hand, a crucial but fractured local government system and on the other, state government silos, with the role of national government being limited or inconsistent. 

This complex institutional architecture has a formative role in shaping our cities as places in which to live, work and play. I believe that it is in the context of this reality, and indeed as a significant intervention into it, that the new report by Infrastructure Australia should be framed.

 This is no modest guidance on “planning”. This is fundamentally about improving our cities’ liveability and productivity.

First a disclaimer. My company Arup helped research the report and I was involved in some of that work. But the analysis and recommendations are IA’s and the report is only one of a series by IA showing a commendable thought leadership in the cities space. So when I say that the report is important and useful bear all that in mind. 

The report seeks to provide practical ways forward for improving outcomes in our cities through better coordination through what it calls “a place-based approach to sequencing infrastructure and growth”. 

It’s also a very timely piece of work indeed, given community concerns in many of our cities about the pace of growth and quality of development. At the heart of those concerns, I believe, is not simply opposition to any growth but to bad growth. By that, I mean, there is legitimate discontent about a specific failure of urban management: the historic lack of land use and transport integration and the quality of place-making which arises because of this. 

IA is indeed clear that “communities suffer without timely infrastructure delivery’” and are “disappointed by their experience of growth”. It stresses the governance complexity is problematical for the liveability of our cities and that our infrastructure funding mechanisms have not kept pace with growth and indeed that they lack transparency, also fuelling community concern. 

Its recommendations follow on from this overall critique and interestingly and again usefully there are specific reforms or directions of travel suggested for each tier of government and indeed the private sector. 

IA stresses that the Feds need to have a whole of government vision for the future liveability of the nation and to better understand the demographic drivers of change and their spatial impact. State and local governments should collaborate more to ensure a better strategic fit between local plans and metropolitan strategies. City infrastructure of strategic importance to urban liveability should be identified and prioritised across government with IA giving support to the City Deal approach to inter-government collaboration. 

In high-growth areas, IA stresses the need for a place-based approach to infrastructure appraisal and prioritisation. 

This would involve a range of stakeholders working with infrastructure planners to understand in a comprehensive and non-silo’d fashion the growth-needs of specific places and to plan to service them in a coordinated way. 

Commendably IA also stresses the need for a more transparent engagement with communities and indeed for greater involvement by them in planning their cities. 

As to funding, there are really significant suggestions in the report around reviewing local government rates and taxes, developer contributions and user charges, value capture mechanisms and indeed a broad-based land tax. 

Finally, IA wants us to think about not just new infrastructure but how we might make better use of existing infrastructure, using technological enhancements such as smart motorways or policy interventions such as variable pricing. 

I find this comprehensive and impressive. I add: running through the report is a really positive attitude to how local government with its irreplaceable role in relation to its own places and communities must be and can be more involved in the cross-government collaborations required to manage our cities well. 

Similarly, the report echoes previous work by IA on the overriding need to change the way government identifies and Treasuries appraise urban infrastructure. 

Too much weight for silo’d values – what’s needed are plans for the broader economic and social needs of our cities

Current methods give too much weight to sectoral and silo’d values and objectives – for example travel time of road users – over projects and modes which might serve the broader economic and social needs of our cities. 

As Sydney embarks on its journey from a city of 5 million to one of 8 million by 2050, there are no more important issues for us to focus than on how we make the process of city-making more accountable and coordinated. Planning Liveable Cities will guide us on the journey.

Dr Tim Williams is Cities leader for Arup in Australasia and chairs Open Cities which advocates for next-generation infrastructure.


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