National cities plan needed for a growing Australia, argues major report

By David Donaldson

Tuesday September 18, 2018

Melbourne, Australia – March 1, 2017: View of skyscrapers and new apartment construction in Melbourne CBD

Australia needs a national plan to encourage denser, better connected and more sustainable cities, argues a major parliamentary committee report. Among its many recommendations are two new ministers, a statutory office and high-speed rail.

With Melbourne and Sydney each zooming past 5 million people, expensive housing, an ageing population, an increasingly service-oriented economy and looming climate change, cities are shaping up as a major issue in Australia’s policy landscape.

But there’s little central coordination on their development at the moment.

A national plan

“Australia’s cities and regions are not sustainable in their current form, and will become less sustainable as the population grows and ages.”

Following several months of work, a parliamentary committee has come to the conclusion that a “national vision” is needed, calling for a “national plan of settlement”.

“Our cities need to be better planned, better connected, more compact, more diverse and more sustainable,” argues the 472-page report published by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities on Monday.

The committee wants the federal government to encourage denser, more sustainable and more liveable cities. It recommends following the idea of the 30-minute city and a polycentric urban layout.

An east coast high-speed rail network, joining major cities and providing growth opportunities for the regional centres in between, should be “given priority”, the committee believes.

“The national plan of settlement must set out a vision for our cities and regions for the next fifty years and beyond,” the report says.

“It must take account of the fact that Australia’s cities and regions are not sustainable in their current form, and will become less sustainable as the population grows and ages. Achieving the required economic, social and environmental outcomes for the sustainability of our cities and regions will require a high level of integrated planning.

“This is not achievable without the coherent vision which comes from master planning both land use and facilitating infrastructure.”

Setting government up to respond

To oversee the plan, the committee wants a minister for cities and national settlement with a place in cabinet.

There would also be a senior minister with responsibility for housing. The minister would monitor housing affordability issues and lead any joint federal, state and local government response. The role would include identifying Commonwealth land holdings that could be used to improve housing affordability, and ensuring cabinet decisions promoted housing affordability.

The housing minister would also “investigate viability of nationalising and streamlining planning regulation” — an approach which has helped to increase housing affordability in Japan.

Among the 37 recommendations, the committee urges the creation of a statutory office of the national chief planner, whose role would be to provide independent expert advice on urban and regional planning and development, incorporating Infrastructure Australia and the Infrastructure and Project Financing Agency.

It wants the the federal government to encourage its state and territory counterparts to investigate setting up city commissions, along the lines of the Greater Sydney Commission.

The federal government should also review how its policies spatially impact on cities, including on issues such as the distribution of population, housing, employment, industry and services. Some of the policy areas noted in the report include immigration, negative gearing, foreign investment, subsidies on private vehicle sales and petrol, and poor coordination between levels of government on infrastructure investment.

Regional areas are not left out, either, with the committee examining how to grow sustainable regional centre.

“The successful development of both cities and regions is intrinsically linked,” reads the report.

“Regional development needs to be seen as part of a broader pattern of national development, with cities, towns and regions being developed as part of an integrated whole.”

Value capture ‘fundamental’

Value capture, where government recoups part of the increase in private land values when it builds new infrastructure, could help fund much needed projects. Hong Kong’s MTR is an example of value capture helping pay for a major transport system, the committee noted.

“The development of value capture as an organising principle of infrastructure planning and procurement, and the reform of the taxation system to match its requirements, are fundamental to the significant investment in infrastructure required to ensure the efficient growth and functioning of Australia’s cities and regions,” says the report.

The committee also recommends that the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities and the national chief planner apply international best practice approaches to urban development to the development of national settlement plans and the design of policies and programs.

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