Better infrastructure planning: can politicians be trusted?

By David Donaldson

October 8, 2014

There’s widespread agreement that state infrastructure decision-making processes need improvement. Funds are frequently misallocated by politicians driven by political considerations and personal obsessions instead of cost-benefit analyses. More independent input into decisions is often cited as a solution — but perhaps the best antidote would be more effective political leadership.

One solution being floated in Victoria is to appoint an infrastructure “tsar”, creating the Victorian equivalent of Infrastructure New South Wales or Infrastructure Australia, which Labor has promised to do if it wins the state election in November.

“It does help to have public processes,” said Dr John Stone of the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, though he is sceptical whether the federal and NSW bodies have led to an improvement in decision-making.

“Infrastructure Australia did start to ask questions about cost-benefit analyses, but IA are limited in what they can do. Often such agencies don’t have the resources to check or critique government proposals fully.”

He is especially critical of Infrastructure NSW, which he believes under former chairman Nick Greiner became a “lobby group” for the WestConnex road project. “There you haven’t got a body that’s bringing scrutiny,” he said.

There were some moves towards an orderly process initially by IA and “in what Public Transport Victoria were doing through network plans”, Stone admits, but the “arbitrary change without any apparent justification” to radically redraw the proposed route of Melbourne’s metro tunnel earlier this year “turned this on its head”.

Likewise, Melbourne School of Design’s Dr Peter Raisbeck questions the level of independence of IA. “They try hard but politicians tend to meddle,” he told The Mandarin.

Raisbeck proposes increased transparency to counter poor infrastructure decision-making processes around Australia. “I want to see the business case, I want to see the modelling, the basis on which decisions are made. And you don’t often see that. I’m keen to see something more open, more independent,” he said.

“It’s not rocket science but you’d be surprised how often people stuff it up. Where things go wrong, it’s usually about saving money, or trying to do it faster than they should, as was the case with Spencer Street [the redeveloped Southern Cross Station in Melbourne].”

The Council of Australian Governments should do something about infrastructure planning, Raisbeck says. But the most important thing is ensuring projects have a clear rationale. “Citizens want to see evidence-based policy, not executive decision-making where it’s hard to see why they’ve made the decisions. That usually ends up as a disaster,” he said.

When politicians meddle in planning

The change that would make the biggest difference, according to Cassandra Wilkinson, is “better politicians”.

The former director of rail and freight policy in the NSW Ministry of Transport argues the most important issue is “not so much who does the job, but that the job is done”. NSW had an “infrastructure tsar” under ex-premier Morris Iemma and but was still unable to build the North West Metro the government wanted.

Moreover, calls for better advice for politicians are “nonsense”, Wilkinson says — quality advice from public servants has been available all along. The problem is that often politicians misunderstand or disregard that advice. Quality leadership and the ability to use advice effectively is what counts.

She cites as an example of good practice the political leadership of premier Steve Bracks’ Victorian government, which succeeded in commandeering a large amount of federal infrastructure money thanks to the quality of its proposals.

“Under Bracks, the cabinet transport infrastructure subcommittee met weekly for hours at a time to get its submissions right on planning frameworks, and working out what federal dollars could add to the proposal. Public servants were impressed that the ministry took responsibility for asking for money,” she said.

“An infrastructure tsar is what you have when your cabinet infrastructure subcommittee isn’t doing its job properly.”

“An infrastructure tsar is what you have when your cabinet infrastructure subcommittee isn’t doing its job properly. When you can get it, political leadership of that quality is far more effective than appointing a capable public servant.”

Importantly, she adds, if the government “outsources” consideration and prioritisation of proposals to the public service, “they haven’t done the thinking that allows them to explain to the community the choices they have made”.

Stone also circles in on the question of political leadership, expressing concern about the rise of unsolicited proposals — where private companies approach the government with a proposal — which have long been employed in Victoria and are being pushed strongly by the NSW government. He argues this approach amounts to government allowing private interests to lead decision-making, meaning important infrastructure not fitting a private profit model is ignored.

The solution, he argues, is to “re-establish the primacy of government and the public sector as the place where planning needs to happen. That’s the only place where you can have engagement with the community and ensure you are acting in the public interest” — something he believes Perth has done well in recent years.

Wilkinson thinks unsolicited proposals are not a problem in and of themselves, but that governments “need to do as much work on the planning framework and requirements regardless of who pays the bill”. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to public-private partnerships and unsolicited proposals, especially in urban areas, where a lot of people will be affected,” she told The Mandarin.

Transparency in transport planning

Transparency is a key part of good planning. Wilkinson says politicians “seek opacity in order to control the political message, but the problem is that the lack of transparency becomes the message”. The secrecy surrounding East West Link, she says, has meant “that’s the thing people are talking about most. People could have been talking about winners and losers — there are always some people who lose out — but now it just seems like everyone’s a loser.”

Fixating on certain modes of transport or types of contracts does not help good decision-making. Instead, it’s important to recognise that transport infrastructure is part of a diversified network. Wilkinson says she is a “big fan of urban railway … but there are tasks which only a freeway will do. You can’t put trucks onto trains.”

“If they think that hiding the business case can stop them having to deal with amelioration they’re kidding themselves.”

“The most pressing challenges require spending a lot of money on core services — such as railways, ports, freeways — and the benefits of that are not well understood across the electorate … A lot of what you do in terms of economically productive infrastructure, like trucks, the electorate doesn’t care about … You want to improve at core points where the economy needs to be invested in, where people’s livelihoods and jobs are, but electoral benefits tend to be where people live, not where they work,” she said.

She also advises governments implementing large, urban projects to price in compensation early on, as many don’t adequately plan for the ability to compensate people. “Price in from the start things like amelioration property purchases and sound walls. The alternative is that they’ll wind up fighting residents about it for years, and will end up having to go to Treasury for more money,” she said.

“If they think that hiding the business case can stop them having to deal with amelioration they’re kidding themselves.”

On the question of NSW’s infrastructure deficit, she says, “this may make Sydneysiders laugh, but part of Sydney’s problem is the ambition of Sydney transport projects.

“In Melbourne or Brisbane it’s generally demand for one railway line. Sydney always seems to be delivering plans for three or four, and that has raised expectations among citizens. You end up with 20- and 30-year plans, which risks being somewhat anti-democratic, planning for things in three or four governments’ time.

“There’s something to be said for keeping horizon in view.”

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