A week or so before announcing the mammoth Building Up & Moving Out report into the development of cities, MP John Alexander told the audience at The Fifth Estate’s Tomorrowland that Australia needs to stop its “reactionary” approach to urban planning.
“There should be real understanding that when a politician announces an infrastructure project, that [there] has been a failure of that government because it should have been planned for and rolled out,” Mr Alexander said.
Mr Alexander’s initial ambitions for the comprehensive report (that was compiled by a committee he chaired) are modest: “I’d first like [other politicians and government officials] to read it.”
“And then they need to respond by acting rather than ticking the box,” he said.
“It’s commonly understood now [that this plan] its a response to solving a problem that came about because there was no plan.
“It’s a response to siloed departments, the ad hoc-ness of responses to problems rather than looking at the problem [in its entirety].”
He compared the approach to urban planning in Australia to the national response to droughts.
“We do the same with droughts, maybe we should be doing something to stop the drought or consequences of drought though infrastructure” he said.
“This paper will be a launch pad for a point in time for the end to this reactionary culture that we have, and the commencement of planning infrastructure, attaching it to land use, and masterplanning.”
Mr Alexander said this reactionary approach to planning can lead to all sorts of problems, such as failing to include important stakeholders in the discussion.
He said that during the inquiry, the committee found water utilities were frequently excluded from planning processes, which sometimes meant freshly cemented roads and sidewalks were then pulled up to make way for water pipes.
“Who would have thought people living in those houses needed water?”
The report, released on Monday, endorsed a great wish list of ideas for Canberra to embrace, including a nation-wide “plan of settlement”.
Other key recommendations include high-speed rail, creating high-value jobs in regional areas, expanding energy performance disclosure requirements for commercial buildings, and a far more integrated planning approach that supports the transition to a low-emissions economy.
- See our story Wishlist of goals for cities and nationwide planning
Mr Alexander believes the tide is turning and that politics is making its way back to a contest of ideas (we’ll believe this when we see it), with his bipartisan committee “acting as one” to tackle Australia’s urban planning and city concerns.
“You’ll all be relieved to hear that there has been a period of destructiveness with politicians – I don’t know why you’d expect anything different – with them playing politics. Then there is the realisation that they are not getting anywhere and losing truckloads of support.
“So the way to win people back is to focus on policy plans and put forward a vision.”
Regions remain the answer to our congestion woes
At the heart of Mr Alexander’s urban planning vision is “strategic decentralisation”.
The report is divided into two sections. One is about retrofitting infrastructure and land use plans into Australian cities, and the second part is about strategic decentralisation.
“The answer to fixing cities is releasing pressure. With immigrants mainly going to Sydney or Melbourne, a big solution [for] taking the pressure off these cities is strategically decentralising and there is a lot of importance in coupling these two solutions together.
“The solution doesn’t just lie in our cities, it lies outside them as well.”
He believes this starts with home ownership for the next generations.
“We’re in a 60 year low of home ownership. It’s predicted to get to less than 50 per cent in eight years.
“We have to strategically decentralise, and the way to create incentives for immigrants to live in these places is by providing housing opportunities in those regional areas, and make them viable and provide a quality living standard.
“This idea of high speed rail – which has been tossed around for ages without anyone understanding the purpose of it – is about rapid connectivity.
“Commuting is not judged on the distance you commute but the time. With high speed rail, Wollongong, the Southern Highlands and Gosford, are 15-16 minutes from the CBD.
“The uplift of the value of that land adds the perfect storm of opportunity to value capture and fund infrastructure through value capture and then uplift these lands brought into the Sydney or Melbourne market.”
Overcoming competing stakeholder interests
When questioned about the challenges of getting support for massive infrastructure projects from all stakeholders – including home-owners located in the path of high speed rail tracks – Mr Alexander agreed this is never easy.
“One of the challenges with value capture is aligning the three levels of government, the stakeholder, the landowner, as well as the developer, in a common cause,” he said.
“[On the topic of] high speed rail coming into Sydney, once it gets into the city it will be underground so it won’t impact housing. It will create a CBD wherever it is located.
“And the three components have all agree that this will be in the Homebush area. There will be a new CBD there.”
Mr Alexander said it all comes back to the regions. These people recognise the value of infrastructure such as high speed rail: “The opportunity still lies, according to people living regional, for these regional areas to have enormous planned and sustainable growth over a [long] period of time.”
Planning governance also needs to be strengthened
Mr Alexander said better planning relies on stronger and more coordinated governance.
He said that Infrastructure Australia is a “pointless group” if there is not a land planner or master planner to determine what the land use will be. He also thinks funding mechanisms also need to fall under one integrated body.
“There should be a commissioner to bring those groups together,” he said.
“Then the only role of the government should be to keep the whip out and make sure those plans are delivered.”