Tim Williams, chief executive of the Committee for Sydney, is happy to have his say loudly and clearly. Last night (Wednesday) in Sydney he was a member of the panel at The Fifth Estate Surround Sound for Sustainable Precincts, which we will cover in coming weeks in an ebook. In our interview ahead of the event Dr Williams championed affordable housing and making intelligent choices on transport. Williams also kicked up a storm recently when he challenged the huge WestConnex freeway about to rip up swathes of inner suburban areas, fomenting a storm of protest, if recent community meetings to stop the freeway (including offering training for direct action) are any indication.
Here Dr Williams has produced a forthright set of eight debates that are critical to the future of Sydney, but must surely apply to all other cities in Australia.
Our high-performing Premier Mike Baird himself once described the remit of the Committee for Sydney as “challenging the city to be great”. In that spirit – which suggests that Sydney is doing well but can do better and must have ambition to be the best – I suggest there are at least eight debates we have to have if we are to move Sydney from good to great.
Debate 1: Housing first
It takes 11 average salaries to buy a home in Sydney. Lots of causes, both on the demand side (over-generous incentives to existing home-owners and investors squeezing out first time buyers – with the former also deploying NIMBY tactics to prevent development ) and on the supply side( byzantine planning regulations and failures of cross government coordination to deliver land and infrastructure in the right place and time). The result: intergenerational inequity. Inheritance is becoming the main road to home-ownership in Sydney: does that sound very Australian to you? Time to talk.
[The Committee for Sydney on Thursday released a new paper, Five-game changers for affordable housing in Sydney]
Debate 2: Congestion
The global evidence is in. Congestion in cities is only temporarily relieved by new road supply. New supply tends to induce more demand. Time and time again we have seen new road capacity get filled up with congestion returning to equilibrium quite quickly. So we must manage demand and develop a multi-modal congestion strategy. That means strategic road pricing or congestion-charging to channel demand to other modes and off-peak road usage. We have the technology to do this but have we the will? We need a grown-up civic dialogue to bring change.
Debate 3: Spatial inequity
While Western Sydney is beginning to get its day in the sun in terms of infrastructure investment – though a fast heavy rail link between Parramatta and Sydney CBD isn’t planned but needs to be – long-term trends there have caused poorer outcomes in health and education with more limited access to jobs and transport choices. All cities have advantaged or disadvantaged areas. The key is whether the boundaries between the two are fixed or short term so that social mobility over time can bridge the gap. Is Sydney’s engine of social mobility still in good shape or does it need urgent attention?
Debate 4: Compact city or sprawl?
Shall we go up or out? Apart from all the other disadvantages of sprawl – economic, social, environmental and the sheer cost to the community of servicing it – Harvard research shows the link between city dispersal, reduced social mobility and lower community integration. Can we please talk about density – and how to do it well?
Debate 5: Who’s the “we” in the above sentence – how do Sydneysiders shape our own city’s future?
This is the governance debate. For the most part councils are too small to deal with our Sydney’s strategic challenges and state government is too big, too siloed or distracted by the needs of the whole state. Governance that doesn’t work well for a city of four million will not manage our growth to eight million by 2055. We need bigger, more empowered councils and some form of metropolitan self-government. The UK is devolving powers and resources from central government to cities and Auckland has one powerful council for 1.4 million. Can we be a “smart city” without smart governance?
Debate 6: Australian cities are orphans of public policy yet produce most of the nation’s wealth
There is no coherent federal policy towards cities while 82 per cent of tax gathered in Sydney goes to Canberra. We have no say over how that money is spent and the Feds don’t get involved in discussions about how our cities do or don’t function – and how we might improve them. We need a more unified cross government approach to the management and funding of Sydney, don’t we?
Debate 7: New approaches to funding city infrastructure and involving the community
I’ve seen the future in Denver where a major public transport program is rolling out. All the mayors across Greater Denver campaigned in a referendum for 0.5 per cent increase in GST to be hypothecated for 30 years to rail projects and urban renewal. They won community support and on the basis of guaranteed GST income raised a bond of A$8 billion, attracting further federal match-funding. Let’s work out how to do this here, yes?
Debate 8: Cities create wealth and success by being places where talent agglomerates and shares knowledge
Sydney needs to be open to the very best of talent wherever it comes from. As Australia’s global city we embrace migration and diversity. Sydney plays its key role as a national engine of growth by being the gateway to the world’s talent. Discuss. Debate. Deliberate. I’ve had my say. Your turn.
Tim Williams is chief executive for the Committee for Sydney.