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Cities performance leaves way too much data off the table

If we can’t manage what we don’t measure, then crucial gaps in the indicators proposed for the federal government’s National Cities Performance Framework plunge its effectiveness into doubt as a tool for improving the resilience and sustainability of our cities and the people that live and work in them.

The Interim report, released this week, outlines the framework and data-driven indicators that will be made available as a digital dashboard for the public and others to assess cities across economic, social and environmental aspects.

It aims to show how well cities are performing against the Smart City policy priorities of jobs and skills; infrastructure and investment; liveability and sustainability; innovation and digital; governance, planning and regulation; and housing.

These have been converted into 41 proposed indicators that will be being applied to 21 of Australia’s largest cities and also Western Sydney.

Gaps in the architecture

However, even the Property Council of Australia, which has hailed it as “vital policy architecture” has noted that there are some gaps in the data it proposed to deliver.

A proposed indicator that would reveal the ratio of population growth to dwellings constructed has not been included “due to lack of data”.

“We believe there is one area of potential improvement for the Interim Framework and that relates to housing affordability and the ability to properly assess housing supply,” Ken Morrison PCA chief executive said.

“The big gap is the lack of data on housing supply which is a critical part of the housing affordability equation, and we again call on the Turnbull Government to reinstate the National Housing Supply Council to plug this gap.”

Ironically, news broke this week that 2016 Census data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows there are around one million empty dwellings in Australia, and that in Sydney close to one in five dwellings are empty. Sounds like available data to us.

And here’s another one – while the data will include air quality in terms of particulates in the air, and overall carbon emissions, a proposed indicator on carbon emissions from specific sectors was also left out due to… lack of available data.

The Fifth Estate is seeing something of a pattern there that looks scarily like the Trump approach. Don’t measure it, don’t monitor it and then you can wilfully refuse to manage it.

Mr Morrison said that the framework brings “some rigour” to the question of whether our “big and small cities are successful or not”.

“What gets measured gets done – and this framework will assist policy makers in our big cities as well as our smaller cities and regional centres.”

Policy makers it may not assist terribly well are those concerned about vulnerability to natural disasters.

Yet another proposed indicator that got left out due to lack of “fine grain data” was “share of dwellings in disaster-prone areas”.

Lack of this information also leaves insurers, property owners and even planners in the lurch.

Other indicators proposed by the vast number of groups and organisations that were consulted on the development of the framework that got pushed off the agenda include:

  • Percentage of children with access to quality outdoor play areas, an indicator of liveability. However, percentage of people with green space within 400 metres walking distance is in.
  • Changes in total number of species – because data is missing for some cities and is not comparable across cities where it does exist.
  • Emergency Services Response times – which could indicate how prepared a city is to handle an emergency. Nope, there’s not enough data for that.
  • Percentage of mandated compliance checks undertaken by local government – which could help measure how well councils are enforcing regulations. Not included due to lack of data availability.
  • Is the water, sewerage and transport infrastructure in place or planned and fully funded with timing certainty or not? Not included due to lack of available data.

Mr Morrison said there is a need to plan for the growth of our cities, and that the framework could be a useful tool.

“The economic and social ecosystems of our cities need not be haphazard,” he said.

“We can plan not just for the placement of roads and infrastructure, but also for the vital building blocks that lift private sector investment, create long-term jobs, and improve skills, health, liveability and the environment.”

The Cities Reference Group established in April of this year was heavily involved in the development of the framework.

It includes representatives from the PCA, Green Building Council of Australia, Planning Institute of Australia, Australian Institute of Architects, Consult Australia, transport groups, the Smart Cities Council Australia and New Zealand, Australian Local Government Association, Infrastructure Australia, Housing Industry Association, ASBEC, AHURI and others.

Consult Australia chief executive Megan Motto said the framework is a “new era for cities and how they are managed.”

“Australia is changing. In half a century, future Melbourne will be the size of present day Melbourne and Sydney combined.

“Future Sydney will have doubled – times two in shops, in traffic, requiring homes, schools, hospitals and employment.”

Ms Motto said a “data-driven approach” to managing the future is critical, and this is why the framework is important.

“For the first time, it will bring together data sources from housing to commuter time and employment to air quality, breaking down siloes to provide a holistic and much-needed planning approach to our cities.”

In launching the report, assistant minister for cities and digital transformation Angus Taylor said the Smart Cities Plan aims to “create the foundations for success across all cities and regional centres.”

“Delivering on this commitment starts with common goals, agreed across governments, and an ability to measure their delivery over time. If we can’t measure it, we can’t improve it.”

The government is now calling for feedback on the Interim Report, with comments open until 18 August 2017. It aims to have the framework completed by late 2017.

Read the report and have your say here.

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