Leaders from a wide swathe of the built environment have banded together with all three major political parties to advocate for a cities agenda.
The group, including the Property Council of Australia, Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, Real Estate Institute of Australia, Council of Capital City Lord Mayors, Bus Industry Confederation, Australasian Railway Association, the National Heart Foundation and the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, last night (Wednesday) launched the Parliamentary Friendship Group for Better Cities.
The move was designed to fill the gap created by the axing of the Major Cities Unit, one of the first actions taken by the incoming Abbott government last year.
Former director of the Major Cities Unit, Dorte Ekelund, was the keynote speaker for the event, which was attended by about 75 people from industry, the community sector and all three levels of government.
The group has been co-convened by Liberal Member for Ryan, Jane Prentice; Labor Member for Scullin, Andrew Giles; and Greens Member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt to reignite the debate about a sustainable future for Australia’s major cities.
The group’s mission is to address the void created by the disbanding of the Major Cities Unit and create a platform for collaboration between industry and all levels of government to develop long-term strategic plans and policy pathways that will make Australia’s capital and major regional cities more liveable, more resilient and more productive.
Other member groups include the International Association of Public Transport and the Cycling Promotion Fund.
Michael Apps, executive director of the Bus Industry Confederation, said the federal government needed to put cities back on the agenda.
“Federal decisions around transport infrastructure have such a large impact on our cities. From our perspective, the bus industry is about moving people, and moving people about the city is impacted by the shape and functionality of the city, so the federal government needs to be involved,” Mr Apps told The Fifth Estate.
“Cities are in the national interest. There are economic impacts, health, social and liveability impacts from how cities are planned. It is about the wellbeing of people, and it is important to think about it from a national perspective.”
Mr Apps said that the goal was a “20 minute city”, where most things people need were within 20 minutes of their home, including employment.
“None of us are anti-car, but what the government needs to do is the things that will make more walking, cycling and use of public transport happen.
“Roads are communication channels, but for the federal government to have a view of the world that building more roads will solve congestion is simplistic, because they build them and then those roads fill up very quickly. Investing in these in isolation actually doesn’t make any sense in the long term, and in the context of cities going forward.”
Mr Apps said that given the challenges ahead of a growing population, affordability issues and an ageing population, the federal government needed to be thinking strategically about cities. “Announcements about projects are not a vision, a plan or a policy outcome. When the federal government are providing billions for urban road projects, they should make it a condition that state governments integrate busways and bus lanes.”
Mr Apps said the new group comprised members with a broad and diverse view of what the government should do to make cities liveable.
Ken Morrison, chief executive of the Property Council of Australia, said he thought it was important politicians from all parties come together to recognise the importance of cities, because cities are where Australia’s prosperity comes from.
“Governments already have enormous influence on cities, they own assets in them, they invest in them and they have control of planning, so it’s important they have a good understanding of cities,” Mr Morrison told The Fifth Estate.
“The economy, productivity and sustainability all have an urban dimension to them. You can’t be spatially blind in Canberra, because federal policies have an impact on the ground.
“The reality is we are the most urbanised country in the world, and cities are central to any policy area you can imagine.”
Mr Morrison referred to recent comments by Jennifer Westacott, the new executive director of the Business Council of Australia, who said the debate on cities needed to be sparked again.
“This [group] is a good first step to spark that debate. You need to start somewhere.”
Mr Morison said the government had come into power and dismantled many things including the Major Cities Unit and the National Rental Affordability Scheme, though had also strengthened Infrastructure Australia. The Treasurer, Joe Hockey, has led a debate around productivity and the economy, which needs to refer to cities and incorporate an understanding of cities, and there has been a long running debate on sustainability, which Direct Action aims to address and that will also have an urban dimension, Mr Morrison said.
Challenges including the growth dynamic, changing demographics and structural changes to the economy that will see a greater emphasis on service industries as well as place and connectivity made policy around cities “more important than ever”.
While the government was making the economy the “main game”, he said it needed to be looking at how productive cities were, and in terms of infrastructure investments, ensure they were paying the broadest dividend.
“This is the start of a dialogue. The intersection points [between all the attendees] are enormously broad, and that also shows how important it is.”
Amanda Lynch, chief executive of the Real Estate Institute of Australia said REIA saw the future of our cities as a critical investment.
“We recognise that Australians have an intrinsic connection to their homes but also understand that homes are greatly influenced by the cities they are part of. People will obviously enjoy their homes more if the city that they reside in is well designed,” Ms Lynch told The Fifth Estate.
“If people think about the times that they have viewed potential property purchases, they will probably recall not only thinking about the style of the home but access to transport options and green spaces as well as the close proximity to schools and other amenities such as restaurants, not to mention employment options. Ms Lynch said that housing supply was a recurring issue REIA has been raising frequently in policy submissions to the government.
“There is currently a chronic under-supply of housing in Australia and there has been for some time. This supply side issue impacts on affordability and REIA has been very concerned in recent years by the sharp decline in first home buyers entering the market. New housing stock also needs to considered in the context of infrastructure needs, which can greatly shape the character of a neighbourhood. REIA is also committed to working with Government on tax reform issues, which can directly impact on housing affordability in Australia.”
The Council of Capital City Lord Mayors is also one of the founding supporter members.
“The CCCLM hopes that the existence of the Group will help make federal leaders more aware of the issues facing the bulk of Australians,” a spokeswoman for CCCLM said.
“We welcome the opportunity to join federal parliamentarians and other organisations in conversations on cities and urban issues. The Group is important because it creates a direct conduit between federal parliamentarians and urban Australia – this is important because the majority of Australians live and work in cities.”
Jane Prentice, Liberal member for Ryan and one of the parliamentary co-convenors of the group, said: “We need better planning, addressing current infrastructure needs while also preparing for the future. This includes planning infrastructure corridors, and strategic locations.
“Building sustainably comes hand-in-hand with better planning. Additionally, supporting and communicating successful Direct Action policies between different levels of government as well as between the councils of our capital cities will help to ensure sustainable planning best practice. Brisbane City Council has delivered real action and led by example.”
Mrs Prentice told The Fifth Estate it was very important for stakeholder groups and all parties to have ongoing and open-ended conversations, and said this is why the group has been initiated with tripartite support.
“If we do not take action now, politicians of the future will speak about those living in the suburbs as ‘The Forgotten People’ of the next generation.”
Andrew Giles, Labor MP for Scullen, is also the chair of Labor’s Caucus Committee for Cities. In his comments on the launch of group, he paid tribute to keynote speaker, Dorte Ekelund, and the work of the Major Cities Unit, the axing of which he described as “counter-productive”.
“The MCU played a crucial role in formulating policy, and with state and federal coordination on cities – all essential tasks for any government that takes our cities seriously,” he told The Fifth Estate.
“Eighty per cent of Australians live and work in the cities, so there’s a lot at stake for all of us to get cities policy right. I’m determined to use the parliament as a forum to raise issues affecting our cities. I believe that it is crucial the people are brought along with any debate or discussion on this important topic as we can’t rely solely on the consensus of technocrats.”
Environmental sustainability in terms of our cities was also a crucial issue that needed to be addressed, Mr Giles said.
“Australians have shown their enthusiasm to do their bit for the environment on an individual basis, but there needs to be a structured and coordinated approach from all levels of government.
“Pricing carbon went some way to ensuring that environmental considerations were factored into building and development projects, as well as helping households and businesses adjust to a clean energy and sustainable future.
“I see consultation and inclusiveness are the key ingredients in bringing people along to improving the way our cities work, including when it comes to sustainability. This involves all three levels of government, and their respective bureaucracies, talking to each other and a wide range of stakeholders, including community groups.
“Labor already has a comprehensive cities policy as part of its national platform, some of which we managed to implement in government.”
Greens MP and member for Melbourne Adam Bandt, said he hoped that as part of the outcomes, sustainability will move from being an “add on” to being central to policy making and public funding decisions.
“I think it will be a bit of a jolt for parliamentarians to think long term about our cities, but when the experts come and sit across the table from you, it makes you justify your own position,” Mr Bandt told The Fifth Estate.
“No-one’s got a monopoly on having a good idea about how to make cities sustainable. Collaboration leads to new ideas and ways of thinking, and this group is an opportunity to share ideas and come up with plans that might transcend the electoral cycle.”
Mr Bandt said that at the moment the push for good policy around the key urban issues will start from outside government. This includes aspects such as social inclusivity, housing affordability and environmental sustainability.
“The federal government doesn’t have a proper cities policy, they pour billions of dollars into projects but there is no overarching policy to see the money is spent in a sustainable manner,” he said.
He identified housing affordability, sustainable transport, water sustainability, energy and climate change adaptation and mitigation as policy areas which impact on cities where the government does already play a key role.
He wanted to see the government tying the public purse strings to better policy outcomes.
“The government needs to set indicators around wellbeing and sustainability when it comes to money being doled out,” Mr Bandt said.
“There is a need to embed sustainability in government decision making by law. We would like to have grants to state and local government tied to sustainability requirements. The federal government could say, ‘before we give the states money for the Housing Partnership, we want to see a policy for affordable and sustainable housing’.”
Mr Bandt said that just as any major government decision has to produce a financial impact statement it should be required also to produce a sustainability impact statement.
Overall, he hoped the new group would create common ground.
“This is a fantastic opportunity to involve the community in developing sustainable cities, and the federal government has a role to play in that. The talent that was there [in the Major Cities Unit] has been gutted, it is time to argue for it to be enlivened again.
“This is also an opportunity to realise people might have more in common with other people than they think.”
The Australian Institute of Landscape Architects vice president Suzanne Moulis said, “We are very pleased to be one of the founding supporting groups and support this initiative. It is a tremendous privilege and achievement for the profession.
“Our cities and their suburbs need help influencing liveability outcomes. They need designers that consider how we use all open spaces, and that work to benefit our communities by improving social and environmental outcomes.”