The federal opposition has joined with industry leaders to put cities back on the national agenda with a meeting hosted by shadow minister for cities Anthony Albanese earlier this month to launch the Labor Party’s Urban Policy Dialogue.
The dialogue was to start the process of replacing the national Major Cities Unit, axed by the Abbott government as soon as it came to power, and to formulate Labor’s future policy position on cities, Mr Albanese told The Fifth Estate.
Mr Albanese said this first meeting of the dialogue was a chance to have a “good discussion about cities and why they are important”. It was also a way to give stakeholder groups an opportunity to have input into the new ALP platform, which will be formally adopted next year ahead of detailed policy development leading into the next election.
It is a real opportunity for us to get input [from stakeholders]; it is quite a representative group of sectors,” Mr Albanese said.
“There was a consensus about the need for national leadership.”
Attending the meeting was Opposition leader Bill Shorten, ALP members Chris Bowen, Jan McLucas and Alannah McTiernan, along with key industry groups including the Business Council of Australia, the Property Council, Australian Institute of Architects, the Grattan Institute, Planning Institute of Australia, Council of Capital City Lord Mayors, Growth Areas Alliance, Infrastructure Partnerships Australia and the Water Services Association.
The starting point for discussions was the former government’s “Our Cities Our future” policy, which was abandoned by the Abbott government, as was the Urban Policy Unit. The dialogue group, Mr Albanese said, would attempt to replace the unit.
The dialogue will be meeting again in January 2015 and Mr Albanese said there was also support for a public forum.
Part of the role of the group would be to distribute information, he said.
“The importance of the dialogue will be not just connecting up the sector with the ALP but also with each other,” Mr Albanese said.
“We will be building the capacity of each sector to get together on areas of common interest.”
Australian Institute of Architects chief executive David Parken, who attended the first meeting as well as last month’s Parliamentary Friendship Group for Better Cities, said the hope was for bipartisan support for a cities agenda. The dialogue group was a clear demonstration that progress was being already made to put cities back on the federal agenda, he said.
“Politics is about a competition of ideas,” Mr Parken said. “I hope to see us get to bipartisan support for doing something with cities; they are too important to politicise like a ping pong game.
“The value of the built environment is absolutely massive, with about 1.5 trillion dollars invested in commercial property and about four trillion dollars invested in housing.”
Mr Parken said cities policy and planning should address people’s access to a high quality public realm, something he said was “extremely important in terms of the quality of life discussion”, as well as climate change mitigation through deploying proven technology to ensure both new and existing buildings are high performance. This includes using solar photovoltaics to take some buildings off-grid.
“With solar PV, there has been a high level of innovation and dramatic price decreases,” Mr Parken said.
“Why shouldn’t we be implementing and rolling out things? Being locked into a high [energy] cost scenario is not sensible.”
He said this applied not only to commercial buildings but also to built assets such as retail shopping centres and residential apartment buildings.
There was simply not enough spare money in the economy or the public purse to waste it making mistakes, Mr Parken said. Instead, there is a need for co-ordinated projects that see all three levels of government working in partnership together to deliver “better outcomes than we’ve ever generated”.
“Just doing what we’ve done in the past will deliver what we’ve always had.”
Mr Parken said it was not good enough to assume “it’s all okay because Australia has some of the world’s most liveable cities, and the market is good right now, so we’ll just leave it to the market.”
There is a genuine affordability crisis around housing that constitutes a case of market failure, he said, and there are also questions around crowding out and access to services.
“There is a role for the Commonwealth [in solving these issues], and now there is also a bunch of dedicated people trying to advance that conversation.
“On matters of defence and national security the government responds to circumstances as they arise; they need to apply that same flexibility more broadly.”
Mr Parken said Lucy Turnbull’s address to the friendship group arguing the productivity agenda had a spatial dimension was an important point.
Issues such as congestion were a drag on productivity “and also a drag on people’s lives, their social context”, he said.
“There are impacts on the family, on partners, on caring for aging parents, and there are also health costs with that.”
Mr Parken said that given 82 per cent of taxation – federal income – originated in cities, this pointed to a mandate for the federal government to work with industry to ensure cities are being planned and developed in “an informed and positive way”.
This would require discussions to work out what a liveable city is, and what our cities should look like in the future.
The Commonwealth needed to take a principle-based approach and then encourage the states to plan better, particularly around infrastructure and also around ways to fund it.
“We need to have a whole conversation about how we’re going to do what we’re going to do over the next 10, 20, 30 years. Infrastructure has at least a 50 to 100 year lifespan – so when we make those investments, they have to be the right investments.”
Mr Parken said backbenchers were important to progress, pointing to the work by Liberal MP Jane Prentice in initiating the friendship group.
“People don’t think enough about the back bench. They [tend to be] MPs that are in touch with their community and reflect community values and expectations,” he said.
“Politics needs to reflect community values. Leadership is also about listening.”