Two themes gained broad agreement at the second meeting of the Parliamentary Friendship Group for Better Cities in Canberra this week – putting cities back on the federal agenda and ensuring they deliver affordable, sustainable and diverse housing close to centres of employment.
Since the networking group kicked off in August, five more key industry associations have joined – the Australian Institute of Architects, the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council, the Planning Institute of Australia, the National Growth Areas Alliance and the International Association of Public Transport Australia and New Zealand.
Chairman of the Committee of Sydney Lucy Turnbull gave the keynote address on the topic of the land and housing challenge – how to make cities liveable, affordable and efficient. This was followed by what one attendee described as a lively discussion and Q&A session that revealed the high degree of consensus across both industry and the three major political parties on elements such as planning, public transport and the need to ensure key workers on lower incomes are able to live close to their places of work.
ASBEC executive officer Suzanne Toumbourou told The Fifth Estate the reason ASBEC joined the group was because it has long been ASBEC’s position that cities should be on the national agenda, and the group offers a degree of national coordination and a framework that is also a welcome chance to engage with Members of Parliament.
“It is essential that everybody comes together,” Ms Toumbourou said.
“The group demonstrates that there is consensus and there is also huge awareness of the big contribution cities can make to sustainability.”
She said that in while it is possible for all the individual organisations, including those that are members of ASBEC, to “chip away individually” at the sustainability challenge, “Working together means we get meaningful progress. It also demonstrates our seriousness and commitment.”
On ASBEC’s own agenda Ms Toumbourou said is the need for incentives for developers and owners of property to demonstrate best practice, and an alignment of voluntary and mandatory standards for sustainability.
“ASBEC has also called for a harmonisation of rating tools across the nation,” she said.
“If we don’t have a consistent framework and language, we don’t even have a way to begin to develop a financing model.”
The bottom line, she said, is that “there should be a quantum leap in the affordability and sustainability of housing in our cities”.
Kirsty Kelly, chief executive of the Planning Institute of Australia, and also a member of ASBEC’s resilience, cities and regions taskgroups, said there was a lot of commonality, and an agreement that all parties at the next election need to have a cities agenda.
“That was very heartening to hear,” Ms Kelly said.
She said that there was generally about 80 per cent or higher agreement on all the key aspects of what makes a liveable, sustainable and affordable city.
Ms Kelly said the discussion also touched on the issues of the need to invest in infrastructure such as schools and hospitals, and also “soft infrastructure” such as green space.
Schools needed to re-open in inner city areas that were now attracting young families. There was also a growing need for childcare facilities and spaces for active, outdoor play.
This was part of the trend to more compact, walkable neighbourhood in the inner-city and it was a “challenge to the traditional mindset and models” in terms of planning.
“We may see vertical schools rather than the standard models,” she said.
There was also the need for more affordable housing for key workers. There are signs of hope though in South Australia, where the state government has mandated “inclusionary zoning”, where the requirement for a proportion of affordable housing in a development has been strengthened.
“Affordability is really important as we deal with urban renewal in our cities,” Ms Kelly said.
“For example, in Brisbane’s West End where there has been considerable urban renewal, and it has had quite a bohemian atmosphere that attracts a young demographic, there is social diversity, but changes in property values [upwards] with development changes the neighbourhood, and it leads to a whole social diversity issue.
“Planners aren’t and don’t want to be social engineers, but we want planning that is flexible and gives people choice.”
Broader engagement around climate change adaption and mitigation, sustainability and liveable cities was another challenge.
“How do we get people involved in their future? There are mega trends that are impacting their lives – such as climate change – that are going to require serious grunt and evidence for making decisions,” she said.
There was also a need, she said, for governance structures and models that break out of the electoral cycle and enable long-term planning.
“We need agreement on the principles of how things happen. We are going to have to do more with less, and all levels of government – and companies also – will need to maximise the value of their investments to achieve triple-bottom-line returns,” she said.
The use of funding, she said, needed to focus on getting “the biggest bang for the buck” in terms of value for the community in the cities, because “it’s not just about opening big roads”.
Cities needed integrated transport planning, looking at better, more reliable and faster transport within cities.
Michael Apps, executive director of the Bus Industry Confederation, which is acting as secretariat for the Friendship Group, said feedback from the industry stakeholder groups was that there was real value in the opportunity to mix and network with a wide range of politicians, as well as groups beyond their individual sectors.
“As individual organisations we are perceived as being silo-based or single focused,” Mr Apps told The Fifth Estate.
“I look at us as a community of organisations that each have a role to play in improving the functionality and liveability of cities.”
He said there was a general feeling across all the groups that there was a broad-based agenda that “all gels”, where each industry group was not only working in its own space, but also “strengthening the glue that pulls it all together”.
“The Members of Parliament have found it a good environment just to have a general conversation outside parliament, a tripartite discussion about where the federal government fits in terms of cities,” Mr Apps said.
“We are also starting to see stronger channels of communication between people in the industry associations.”
“It is also acting as a good mechanism to get politicians to think outside the square about what makes our cities tick.”
Mr Apps said plans are already in motion for three events next year, with each group putting some subject matter on the table that will facilitate a discussion with the politicians about urban issues and the federal role in cities. He said the aim is to grow the momentum in the lead-up to the next federal election. He noted that between all the industry groups, they can potentially have a strong impact in terms of votes.
Jane Prentice, Liberal MP and one of the co-convenors told The Fifth Estate that elements of Lucy Turnbull’s speech mirrored her own previous experiences as a Brisbane City Councillor, particularly Mrs Turnbull’s comment that “cities now are judged by their transport and we’ve got to get that right”.
Mrs Prentice said that planning and ensuring connectivity remained the big challenges for most cities, and that advance planning to integrate the different modes such as bus, train, bike, pedestrian and other forms was vital to achieve a good result.
The other key point she said needed addressing was keeping the mix of people in inner-urban areas inclusive of lower income groups such as artists and artisans that give an area like West End its vibrancy.
“It’s given us a number of topics going forward,” she said.
Mrs Prentice said feedback both from within her own party and other parties and some of the independents, such as Indi MP Cathy McGowan, was that more MPs want to become involved with the group and with continuing to reignite the cities discussion and grow the momentum for a national cities agenda.
The industry groups also are gaining real value from the kind of integrated discussions that cross sectors and foster a collaborative approach, she said.
“I think they are all surprised they are getting a voice,” Mrs Prentice said.
Greens Member for Melbourne Adam Bandt said, “The group is filling a space left by a government completely uninterested in developing a comprehensive approach to Australian cities.”
“It is proving to be a useful place for people interested in making Australian cities more liveable, resilient and productive to explore ideas and reach common ground.”
Increasing density is one of the topics that arose in the context of the housing challenge, and one that is a hot topic in Mr Bandt’s electorate.
“Increased density in our cities must go hand-in-hand with a plan to improve liveability,” Mr Bandt said.
“However, at the moment, we’re seeing big developments going up in the inner city without community control, investment in public transport or social infrastructure. This threatens the liveability of our cities.”
“We’re also seeing these developments price some members of our community out, and no plan to provide desperately needed affordable housing.”
Terri Butler, Labor Member for Griffith in inner Brisbane, who attended on behalf of ALP co-convenor Andrew Giles, said the Friendship Group demonstrated there was significant scope for collaboration for better cities.
She said the concept of “walkable urbanity” that is not “reserved for the wealthy” was one that resonated for her own electorate, where development pressures and rising land values are making it difficult for key workers to find housing close to employment.
Ms Butler said this was also an issue that impacts business.
“Businesses need people from all walks of life including low-level roles – like clerical workers – as much as they need the highly paid professionals,” she said. “It becomes an issue of labour force participation.”
In terms of sustainability in housing, she said developers had to factor in what people were going to buy.
“It’s not enough to just complain about developers; people have to value renewable energy and efficiency of energy and water,” Ms Butler said.
Of critical importance to encouraging that sense of value, she said, is for government not only to have the right policy settings but also to send the right messages in their own communicating. For example, Queensland premier Campbell Newman describing people who choose rooftop solar as “latte sippers and champagne drinkers” was the wrong message.
“Why it is so important is it is about the perceptions of investors, market participants and consumers,” Ms Butler said.
“Political leadership affects behaviour and changes the way the nation thinks about itself.”