While many will have their shopping lists for action, the Committee for Sydney has identified 10 key issues for our cities it thinks should be Malcolm Turnbull’s top priority.
1. Ensure more homes – affordable, social and market housing – are delivered in our cities
Sydney is experiencing a housing affordability crisis that impacts all housing tenures. It is beginning to lose certain age and income groups to more affordable cities. The proportion of first time buyers in the market has reached an all-time low. Waiting lists for social housing have never been longer. A new approach to increase supply of all types – with a new push for higher density development close to transport infrastructure and jobs – is needed, and the Commonwealth must play its part.
The federal government has its own land in cities which could be used for housing development, a proportion of which could be mandated as social or affordable housing. It also provides Commonwealth Rent Assistance to private sector or community housing tenants on low incomes to incentivise increases in supply of affordable homes for rent.
The federal government can also facilitate and encourage the key process of stock transfer from the public sector to community housing providers. This enables them to access private investment to upgrade existing social homes and indeed build more social, sub-market rental and homes for sale. If there are challenges in financing the development of social and affordable housing, the Commonwealth could follow international examples and create financing trusts and bonds that link community housing providers with superannuation funds and other institutional investors.
2. Promote Sydney’s role as a city that embraces innovation – and creative disruption
Sydney is home to the majority of the nation’s ICT firms, tech ventures and startups. Our professional services firms are a significant driver of the national economy, with Sydney’s financial services alone contributing more to Australia’s GDP than Western Australian mining. Sydney’s exploding fintech industry represents an opportunity to future-proof our economy by designing and embracing disruptive technologies and business models.
To achieve Sydney’s goal of being the centre for fintech in the Asia-Pacific region our financial regulators need to keep pace with global developments, and while maintaining prudent protections for consumers, they need to ensure that innovation is encouraged and that Australian markets are receptive to new products. We also need to see the federal government more decisively promoting Sydney’s profile internationally as a leader in the region in financial services and fintech.
3. Undertake a national review of road pricing
The Committee’s latest issues paper, A Fork in the Road, shows that road pricing must be considered if we are to achieve long-term reduction in congestion, saving the nation tens of billions of dollars in lost productivity and countless family and work hours wasted. This is especially important to Sydney, which has eight of the nine most congested roads in Australia. Nothing else works as the problem is not just road supply but road demand.
In order to determine which of the many models of road pricing that may work best for our cities, the federal government must have the political will drive a review of road pricing in Australia.
4. Support policies to attract the global talent and build on our success as a magnet for international students
Sydney’s knowledge economy relies on attracting global talent. Governments can do a wide range of things to support this effort, from promoting Sydney internationally as a destination for skilled migrants and entrepreneurs, through flexibility on visas and tax, to improving the very ecosystem for innovation and the environment of the city. The Committee is working on all these but government must support Sydney’s momentum in attracting and retaining international students – and make it easier for them to become permanent residents and citizens.
Sydney already has more international students than New York and more per head than London. Cities with such graduate talent are outperforming the rest. Attracting and retaining more graduates in cities provides jobs and higher wages for blue-collar workers too. By anchoring them as citizens we ensure the benefits of their learning and entrepreneurship accrue to our cities.
5. Recognise and support the contribution of arts and cultural activities to the vitality and success of our cities
A thriving arts and cultural scene contributes to our national bottom line in multiple ways – creating vibrant places in our cities that in turn attract entrepreneurs and knowledge workers. It is no accident that Sydney leads Australia as both an innovation and a creative industries centre. Cultural and heritage tourism accounts for 37 per cent of international travel (and growing at 15 per cent year on year) and yields visitors who stay longer and spend more.
Sydney is at the heart of this opportunity – and the Commonwealth needs to recognise these links, and support our arts and cultural bodies, and promote their achievements internationally. We specifically also need to leverage the cultural accords from recent Free Trade Agreements to build on our people-to-people links and position Sydney as a key destination for talent and investment.
6. Commit to an independent, transparent and mode-neutral appraisal process for all major infrastructure projects
Too often infrastructure projects are announced by politicians before they have been appraised formally. After implementation they are rarely evaluated to see if they actually delivered the benefits claimed – if, for example, that road widening project actually reduces congestion in practice.
To avoid any risk that projects are delivered based on political, rather than economic and social objectives and objective evidence, government must ensure that major infrastructure projects requiring federal investment are only funded following a rigorous, evidence-based and transparent appraisal – and published as part of an open, civic engagement process – by Infrastructure Australia.
Appraisals need to demonstrate that a project meets a key strategic purpose for the city concerned, with greater economy, efficiency and effectiveness than any other option tested and that it accurately assesses the broad benefits of the project – raised productivity, increased delivery of homes, improved accessibility to jobs, enhanced environmental and health outcomes and the very resilience of a city.
Finally, infrastructure appraisal needs to be mode-neutral as to whether rail or road (or indeed road pricing rather than new infrastructure) will best meet the city’s strategic need. The implication will be that federal funding is applied to public transport or road projects – whichever offers the best return or best city outcomes from public investment. Far too often, the need for a mode is assumed and the evidence to confirm the need is in reality retrospectively presented.
7. Help make Australian cities more data-driven and tech-enabled
Smart Cities, utilising the Internet of Things and smart utilisation of big data, will be the economic powerhouses of the 21st Century. Despite some positive initiatives overall, Australian cities are not leaders in being data-driven and tech-enabled. We need to see some new thinking and policies. As Australia lacks the large metropolitan city governments that are leading the way internationally in scaling up “Smart City” initiatives, there is a role for the federal government in incentivising and prototyping Smart City initiatives which can then be rolled out across Australian cities.
Some examples of models that are applicable to Australia include a Smart Cities completion run by the United States Department of Transport, offering $100,000 grants to seven short-listed cities to enable them to develop detailed proposals, with the winning city receiving $40 million in grants to deliver on their smart cities agenda. Similarly, in many cities in the world, governments and the private sector have collaborated to create “i-teams” leading on innovation in public services or the Internet of Things.
8. Commit to benchmarking key performance measures for our cities
The recent shift back to federal recognition of the importance of cities to Australia’s future is very welcome. So too is the emerging emphasis on ensuring that the outcomes from federal investment should be to do with raising the productivity, liveability and accessibility of our cities. The logic of this is that the federal government needs to work with state governments to benchmark the performance of Australian cities against such key metrics.
The Committee believes such benchmarking is crucial to effective cities policy and to ensuring public interventions produce appropriate impacts that can be measured.
Benchmarking between Australian cities and against relevant international peers needs to become the norm. Only then can we know how well Sydney is or is not performing and take appropriate action. This requires a shift towards data collection and analysis for Australian cities, and management and governance of our cities being informed by such data and benchmarking.
9. Ensure the successful implementation of the Western Sydney City Deal
Until very recently Australian cities have been orphans of public policy. While individual councils and government departments can do great things, by international standards our cities lack metropolitan scale and integration and our government departments can be siloed and remote. In Sydney, the Committee helped create the Greater Sydney Commission to bring greater cross government integration and policy focus to metropolitan Sydney.
At a national level the federal government announced a new cities policy and a desire to introduce UK-style “City Deals” to Australia. We welcomed both and urge a GSC-style reform be adopted in the other capital cities and that the opportunity of city deals be fully exploited.
City deals encourage cross-government and cross-tier collaboration and governance, strategic city thinking and innovation. For example, under a city deal, someone planning a railway will view its economic implications, and explore how it can be leveraged to provide new jobs and training opportunities, and drive new business for small to medium sized enterprises.
The Committee has long supported a city deal centred around the Western Sydney Airport, so we were delighted to hear of your commitment to this policy during the election campaign.
Having secured the commitment from all levels of government, we must ensure that implementation of the policy is successful. In short, we are doing the right thing – we must now do the thing right. That means thinking what other connectivity is required to maximise the airport’s economic and social impact. What programs will be required to leverage employment and small business benefits from the opportunities? How do we ensure Penrith, Liverpool, Parramatta and Blacktown benefit from this program and connect speedily to the opportunities? How do we ensure fast links both north and south of the airport and east of it, towards the Sydney CBD?
Ensuring the city deal governance team get the support and funding they require to achieve a positive objective is now a top priority for the success of Sydney.
10. Address the intergenerational inequity young people face in Australia
As a country where a quarter of the population will be over 65 in a few decades, we understandably focus an increasing amount of policy and planning around our ageing population. The Committee has previously called for a cross-government review of the challenges and implications for Sydney of this demographic shift, in the design and delivery of services and indeed of the way our city operates.
We now ask for the same review at the other end of the age spectrum. With access to homeownership at an all-time low for those under 35, with rising educational costs, with little prospect of the kinds of superannuation pots available to their elders, and with technology transforming the very nature of employment, the young face challenges never before experienced in our cities. Governments have been slow to react. The Committee calls for more urgent and concerted thinking and policy innovation to help the next generations of Sydneysiders navigate successfully the disruption as well as the opportunities of globalisation and digital transformation.
Dr Tim Williams is chief executive of the Committee for Sydney.