Anna Wiman isometric Sydney
illustration: Anna Wiman

Of the many virtues of the recent Infrastructure Australia (IA) report on cities, one has not been stressed by largely positive commentators. IA supports a governance revolution in and indeed for Australian cities. It points out something that will not be a surprise to regular readers of The Fifth Estate: our capital cities are not just badly governed. They are not governed.

At the metropolitan level our cities are orphans of public policy. While myriad separate state and federal agencies operate within the city limits, no one body is responsible for or accountable to Sydney as a whole for what is happening in – or more precisely to – our city.

If you wonder what the consequences of siloed governance models are, look out the window. Not just at Sydney Harbour, whose unparalleled beauty puts us all to sleep. Go and see what has been done to Haberfield, or Wakehurst Parkway in the Northern Beaches, and is being done to Alexandria or the Bankstown to Sydenham corridor today, and have a think about how little influence the communities and indeed councils of Sydney have over such city-misshaping activities.

In a very real sense Sydney is a fiction in the way that London or New York or even now Auckland are not, because there is no Sydney equivalent of the Greater London Authority, the New York mayor or even the one big council for New Zealand’s only metropolis.

Sydney remains a loose archipelago of islands of competing sovereignty with its 31 councils and who knows how many state government agencies all having their piece of the action.

While London has 31 councils it also has a clear hierarchy with the elected pan-London mayoralty at its pinnacle bringing not just coherence and integration to city planning and transport, but also a platform for an all-of-London conversation about the city’s priorities and options – and indeed providing a voice for all of London in dealing with or seeking support from central government.

It’s the lack of that platform, that voice, that accountability and that unified “all of city” strength that we miss so badly in Greater Sydney and indeed most Australian cities: Canberra and the ACT being the exception that proves the rule.

To be clear, in my view the problem with Australian cities is not that there are too many councils – though I would reduce their number further while giving them more powers and resources. The problem is that state governments are, whatever their intentions and values, too big, remote, siloed and unaccountable to the inhabitants of our cities.

The relationship between such governments, their agencies and local councils is also poorly structured and operationalised, with the latter often being treated at best as the poor relation and at worst being viewed much as teachers view problem students. Frankly there is a lack of respect for local government or a recognition of the partnership role they can and must play for a city to be liveable. This is despite the fact that some of the best city leadership come from local government.

Our governance problem is not a people problem as there are great, passionate and highly skilled people working in all tiers of government. I often find myself pointing out to my private sector friends how much talent and leadership there is in the public sector in Sydney – and how some of them wouldn’t last five minutes in the politically complex environment in which public servants can work.

The problem is structural and constitutional: essentially, state government is too powerful at a metropolitan level and local government is not powerful enough. Silos and poorly integrated tiers of government do not a great city make. Sydney thus has momentum but little coherence. It feels like Topsy who you will remember just “growed”.

Greater Sydney Commission needs to be strengthened

This is why the emergence of the Greater Sydney Commission has been so important – and why it needs to be supported and indeed strengthened – but needs to also be understood as only the first step in the governance revolution our cities need.

Yes, that means all Australian cities can benefit from having a GSC-style initiative to promote vital cross-government collaboration and that land use and transport integration which we have so obviously lacked.

We are seeing some of the benefits of this approach in the way particularly Transport for NSW is embracing not just mobility but also “place” in its new approach to Sydney’s transport future.

We may be on the edge of a genuine move towards land use and transport integration although the proof of the pudding remains as always in the eating, particularly in terms of government processes for selecting infrastructure. These currently favour transport modes that worsen the sprawl of Sydney against the best intentions of urban planning.

But we are, I believe, beginning to see via the GSC and a supportive Department for Planning and Environment, a much stronger alignment between planning for Sydney as a whole and local government-led spatial planning for their areas. Additionally, the GSC has helped bring the Western Sydney City Deal to fruition, at the heart of which is greater coordination between all tiers of government around a common strategy for that part of the city. Council leadership and collaboration in that deal has, by the way, been outstanding.

A democratic deficit

However, while the GSC is a big step forward, it should be seen as improving government coordination across Sydney but not yet accountability to Sydneysiders. There remains a democratic deficit. This has to be addressed if we are achieve the social license to grow the city to eight million which by IA’s calculations will be no later than 2046.

At the moment there is deep community concern about, and indeed opposition to, the extent and nature of the city’s growth. This is because is difficult to ignore the degree to which Sydneysiders feel “done to” not “done with” in terms of the current approach to growing Sydney. Some bad quality development across Sydney has reinforced this tendency as has high-handedness and poor accountability around controversial infrastructure projects with rationales that remain mysterious because the public was never engaged in an open and evidence-based dialogue about their need.

Two initiatives for a better city

In the long run the only way to address the democratic deficit in Sydney is to opt for metropolitan scale self-government. Whatever the constitutional barriers and institutional jealousies that currently prevent this obvious reform, I am optimistic that we shall see movement towards it because Sydney will simply not be able to manage sustainably a city of eight million or secure that community buy-in to such growth on a business as usual approach to city governance. To get there I suggest two initiatives, both achievable and transformative.

One is to inaugurate a pan-Sydney Forum of all the council leaders or mayors across the metropolitan area. London has its cross-party version called “London Councils” and it is a formidable partner for and sometimes feared opponent of the London mayor or indeed the UK government with its own strategies and objectives for London’s future.

While I strongly support the existence and role of the various regional organisations of councils in Sydney (ROCs) in bringing councils together, the current state-wide Local Government Association simply does not have and probably cannot have enough focus on the needs of the state’s capital. We need our own Sydney Councils group to balance the might and help shape the actions of state government action in Sydney.

The journey to metropolitan self-government could also involve the GSC coming under at first the influence of a unified “Sydney Councils” group, but over time it would come under the aegis of a Greater Sydney Council that would also have under its control Sydney Transport, managing both rail and road assets and other key metropolitan services.

To those who argue this is utopian I ask: what’s the alternative? One is surely needed given the inability of the current governance model to ensure a liveable city for all its residents now, let alone a city almost twice the size by mid-century.

In seeking this constitutional, governance objective against the defeatism of the naysayers, we should adopt the protestors key slogan in the May ’68 uprising in Paris: “Be realistic: demand the impossible.”

Tim Williams is head of cities and urban renewal at Arup and adjunct professor at Western Sydney University.

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  1. I think the ‘governance revolution’ is more than long overdue. It is the only way forward. The building and construction industry is comprised of a large group of buddies in control of the ‘Game of Mates’, with this ‘game’ powerfully bent and played to benefit the big players. As for those who fund, contract for work and perform the work, all are excluded from having a solitary voice. The big picture of how this ‘game’ works is detailed very expertly in the book ‘Game of Mates’ published in January 2017 – but the con-struction industry is not one of the examples outlined here.
    In effect, the senior bureaucrats (long ago captured by big business) direct policy (pollies happily on the puppet string) as devised by the big end of town: namely nil enforcement of regulation and no punishment for ignoring the ‘rules’ made up by and for those who benefit. Until the ‘systemic failure’ fashioned to fail is broken, the networks splintered and ‘governance’ reclaimed by, of and for the people and public good, there will be no genuine reform, no ‘consumer rights’ and no possibility of decent quality, safe buildings or any stop to defrauding consumers and the public legally – i.e. no way of stopping ‘legalized fraud’!
    I personally have been working for 12 years on behalf of consumers, and more recently on behalf of subcontractors and workers – with a nil result. This primarily because there is no consultation with or representation of the 3 key stakeholders, no political will for those pollies now rewarded for betraying the people, and no way to break the nexus of the major power brokers. This explains how the cladding catastrophe, just one of the many offshoots of a non-compliant, self-interested industry, came to be so big, so bad and so easily positioned to pull off the cladding cover up over the last 40 years. And it explains how the ‘laws’ were made to leave the innocent owners with the pain, the blame and the ‘fix-up’ costs in the hundreds of Billions of dollars; this now confirmed to be the case in the Victorian Supreme Court (via the decision of LU Simon Builders v the Victorian Building Authority on 22 December 2017)v the Victorian Building Authority on 22 December 2017) AFTER Minister Richard Wynne’s new ‘laws’ to PROTECT CONSUMERS consumers were ‘legally tested’!

  2. I agree that we need a governance revolution. The problem as I see it is that our states are essentially one enormous capital city with a very large hinterland. There is relatively little population outside the metropolitan area of the capital cities. Any metropolitan authority for Sydney would be seen by the state government as an alternative power base, or perhaps even worse, potentially another layer of government. The councils group you suggest would be a good alternative, if only someone could herd those cats towards some common goals.

  3. Thank you Tim and spot on Jeanette.
    Far too important to let the Ed Glasner ‘Triumph’ of our cities overlook/remove the rights of citizenship through purposefully poor governance.

  4. Bravo, for putting it out there. While the jury may out on what governance model would best suit our city, what’s missing is robust evidence and conversation with the public in the first instance about their vision for the future; warts and all, including hot topics such as population growth. And it can’t happen soon enough.