Our governless cities

19 June

Jamie Briggs - Director - This article first appeared in The Weekend Australian, 17 June 2017

Our cities are growing very fast and decisions made today will have long lasting consequences for the livability of tomorrow. More people are wanting to live in our big cities than there is space to accommodate, we’re seeing transport networks choke with congestion, our hospitals and schools struggling to keep up with demand, and constant discussion about how Australians can afford a home.

These “city life” experiences are fueling national debates about how we ensure our cities are fit for a bigger and ageing population. But any change to housing policy, or the healthcare and transport networks, will be ineffectual if we don’t take a step back and resolve who actually governs our cities.

Right now, everyone and no-one is the answer. By dent of history, Australian cities have a unique number of elected representatives and government officials across federal, state and local government concerned with their development, their management and their future, but no-one single entity with the power to deliver an overall plan.

The multilayered governance structure means often everyone has a key but no-one can find a lock. The lack of clear lines of responsibility across the three tiers allows the vast number of elected officials to point fingers and score points for short term political reasons rather than fix issues and make a lasting, meaningful difference. Despite decades of infrastructure planning, funding and delivery, our cities are still clogged and we are peddling hard to catch up with the backlog.

As a community we no longer appreciate that infrastructure is the backbone of our cities. It creates the corridors for our homes, provides access to jobs and connects our communities. But infrastructure planning requires buy in at all levels of government and despite attempts to improve the decision making framework and think longer term in recent years, the governance of our cities is still too often based on a tribal battle of one layer of government versus another, motivated by partisan politics.

Infrastructure Australia and their state counterparts are attempting to bridge the gap between infrastructure decisions being based on economic, rational and evidence based policy rather than politics, but these different governance bodies alone can’t fix a flawed governance structure. And whilst they can make recommendations, they do not have the power to make the ultimate decisions.

Without a clear map of responsibilities and accountabilities, the system is still designed to encourage conflict rather than cooperation.

In reality, the importance of governance structure grows as the cities do. The bigger they become, the further they stretch, the higher demand on resources. Whilst historically, state governments have owned the vast load of cities responsibilities (with some power given to local government), the political reality and demands of the voting population has meant that the federal government has in recent years been much more involved in the development of our cities.

This has in part been a fiscal reality too, as major urban projects like WestConnex have such large price tags that it makes them beyond the capacity of one level of government to deliver on its own. This is being highlighted further with the high capital cost of urban rail deployment requiring sharing of the fiscal challenge between governments at federal and state level and the absolute need to involve the private sector.

But with so many fingers in the pie, and vested interests across all the project decisions, the question remains how do we best get things done to align all needs?

Our major cities are international symbols and their success is fundamental to our future - they are the economic heartbeat of our country. For our economy to grow, and for our cities to be ones that all Australians can truly call home, agreeing to governance structures that achieve the objectives of long term city planning, funding and a focus on the needs of our community must be a priority. This means giving a little to gain a lot.

The NSW Government has recognized this to a degree with the establishment of the Greater Sydney Commission which is attempting to connect Sydney’s sprawling needs through district plans connected to each other. This, if delivered well, is a step in the right direction in driving long term, city wide thinking. But there is one challenge with this model in that there is limited capacity to decide and implement a plan.

Equally, the Federal Government has announced its commitment to ‘city deals’ and this framework provides hope for better decision making and governance if used in the proper way. The British examples of this have been successful in driving economic improvement and creating more places for the community to work and live. Our city challenges are complex and these ‘deals’ must reflect and empower a new way to govern our cities that create a better way forward.

Our hope is that we can find a way forward with each level of government giving a little to build a better structure to plan and build the cities we need for our future.

Just like New York and London, global cities deserve their own distinct governance. Not more government, but smaller, focused government empowered across jurisdictions to make plans, decide and build. This will ensure the focus is on the needs of the city, its people and their collective future, not on politics.


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