30 March 2012 – Cities need a national agenda,  NZ on NABERS and time already for the Queensland spring

What’s not to like about improving our cities?

When Property Council chief Peter Verwer addressed the National Press Club on Wednesday it was no accident he picked cities as a topic.

Quoting Ed Glaeser, “the rock star of urban economics,” Verwer said cities are: “humanity’s greatest invention; they make us richer, brainier, greener, healthier and happier.”

  • See the video of the speech
  • The PCA has worked hard on getting cities on the national agenda.

    Today it’s not just the Canberra Press Gallery that wants to hear the story. The Federal Government has cities on its agenda. The Council of Australian Governments has established a reform committee around cites and on Monday, releases its scorecard report, the COAG Reform Council Review of Capital Cities Strategic Planning Systems by its Expert Advisory Committee on Capital Cities, chaired by Brian Howe.

    Surprisingly for such a diverse and sometimes competing bunch of interests, virtually the whole property industry, from architects to engineers, developers and green property people, backs cities as an item requiring urgent attention. As the Australian Institute of Architects chief executive David Parken says, “90 per cent of the stuff, we agree on”.

    Even social interest groups, such as the Australian Council of Social Services, see that better organised, more accessible and more sustainable cities are more equitable cities. Cities that “connects the dots, connect the departments and connect the governments,” are a good start, says the Green Building Council’s Romilly Madew.

    Individual consultants such as SGS Economics and Planning are also pouring their own resources into a big picture agenda; on Tuesday the company held the Sydney round of presentations on gritty issues around what makes cities successful. Arup has done similar work for years.

    The movement is also global. In Melbourne this week, the influential C40 group of leading global city leaders, including New York’s Michael Bloomberg, met for a three day workshop to thrash out mechanisms to share, and leverage their individual breakthroughs on sustainability and climate change.

    Shame about the politics

    Coming through now is that the falling dominoes of state Labor governments giving way to the conservative Liberal National Party Coalition is igniting negative sentiment about federal Labor-backed policies, environment and cities included.

    The growing chorus inside COAG that we hear is that the cities are a state matter and the Feds should back off.

    More specifically is the worry of some of the newbies back-pedalling on sustainability and climate change programs of predecessors, and sometimes furiously. Almost the first thing Campbell Newman announced on becoming Queensland premier last Saturday was to slash a series of green programs (some of which he helped to establish, The Australian pointed out) – including:

    • $75 million for the $1.2 billion Solar Dawn solar thermal project near Chinchilla, west of Brisbane, placing in jeopardy the Federal Government’s $1.5 billion Solar Flagships Program.
    • Closure of the $430 million Queensland Climate Change Fund, which provides $30 million a year for climate change initiatives, and the $50 million Renewable Energy Fund, which supports the Geothermal Centre of Excellence.
    • The $50 million Smart Energy Savings Program, which helps businesses improve energy efficiency
    • Waste Avoidance and Resource Efficiency Fund
    • Local Government Sustainable Future Fund and Solar Initiatives Package.
    • The Future Growth Fund, set up in 2006 with the net proceeds from the sale of state-owned energy corporations. “It had put $405 million towards transport and water infrastructure, clean-coal technology and climate change projects last financial year,” the newspaper reported.

    In Victoria the Baillieu Government has slashed programs through Sustainability Victoria and has now announced it will ditch the 20 per cent target on greenhouse gas emissions reductions that it previously supported.

    Both states cite the impending carbon tax as the reason for no longer needing state climate and green programs. And of course there’s an element of “all is fair in love, war and politics”.

    The problem is these actions are war against ourselves, and disastrous for the bipartisan approach we need to achieve progress on these issues.

    None of this looks good for the more difficult to achieve co-operation on cities.

    But Peter Verwer disagrees.

    He takes issue with the “backlash” view of conservative politics and says there is real progress in urban planning being made, in South Australia and Western Australia in particular.

    And in an interview with The Fifth Estate on Thursday he said the jury is still out on the COAG report.

    “The test will be their response to the COAG report,” he said. “It’s an experts’ report and it is extensive. The formal response is crucial.”

    Verwer’s hint was that it will reveal big performance gaps for the jurisdictions and his sense is that the premiers won’t want to ignore them.

    And in general terms, he argued, there is a momentum building on the view that an efficient (read sustainable) city is also financially productive and rewarding. Congestion, for instance, is a huge drag on productivity.

    “The talk is now about urban productivity,” he said.

    “Treasury now talks about urban productivity, but they don’t measure it; no one is measuring the spatial component of productivity. If cities are designed right, what’s that worth to the Australian economy?

    “Is it worth as much as the national competition policy?”

    Clearly Verwer thinks so.

    The GBCA’s Romilly Madew, however, agrees there are problems, but she says the logic is that the states will need to “get it”.

    “Yes, there are some elements of the state government that says ‘we’re not interested in the cities agenda’,” she said.

    “And what they don’t seem to realise is that what they are focusing on – [better] infrastructure, transport and hospitals – is what comes out of joining the dots, integration between the departments of government and between governments.”

    Madew made her comments between breaks in the C40 sessions and said the discussions there were spurring her optimism, and her feeling that cities could get on with the job of reinventing themselves sustainably, almost independently of the both the Federal and State governments.

    There was so much good news from the cities, Madew said. One was the new report that said three quarters of C40 members now measure and report on greenhouse gas emissions.

    “The big message coming out of C40 is the importance of sharing experiences from other cities,” Madew said.

    The City of Melbourne said on Friday that it would lead this co-ordinating role.

    New Zealand GBC snares the NABERS management deal

    Never mind what the coy New Zealand Government was saying a few weeks ago; the NZ Green Building Council this week trumpeted its  impending management of the NZ variant of NABERS.

    According to an NZGBC newsletter, negotiations have started to run the program, with a launch expected later this year.

    “A building in-use rating scheme is key to closing the loop begun by the Green Star rating system, which currently assesses buildings in the design and construction phases of the building’s lifecycle,” the NZGBC said.

    “Internationally, strong leadership is driving changes that market forces alone would be unable to do. It is fantastic to have a Government organisation supporting this tool that will aid owners and tenants to reduce energy use in the long term. We’re looking forward to working with EECA to bring the tool to the New Zealand market, ready for launch later this year.”

    And a plea for the reef

    And from GetUP! A plea for help to stop mining magnates Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart from pressuring the new Queensland State Government to allow them to build “the world’s largest coal export facility that would literally double Australia’s coal exports, in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area”.

    The decision will be made in 36 weeks time.

    A donation of $8 a week over the next eight months until the minister makes his decision will allow GetUp! to take up the fight. CIA links notwithstanding.

    This is GetUp!’s promise if just 500 people sign upl:

    • Provide community activists with campaign training and help give them a voice in the media
    • Hold press events and forums bringing attention to how the mining industry unfairly benefits from Federal handouts
    • Ensure the best scientific and legal research into how and why the reef should be saved is front and centre in the public debate
    • Use advertising and traditional community mobilisation tactics to ensure all Australians and the global community know what the mining industry is up to, and that large natural areas in Queensland – including the reef – are under threat right now
    • And, bring the force of our progressive community, the biggest in Australia, to defend our land and environment from vested interests

    The Queensland spring has started.

    tperinotto@thefifthestate.com.au