by Andrew Giles MP, Shadow Minister for Cities and Urban Infrastructure
More than half a century ago, former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam said, “Practically every major national problem relates to cities. A national government which cuts itself off from responsibility for the nation’s cities is cutting itself off from the nation’s real life.” He was correct then, and right now this is even more important, and more pressing.
The COVID-19 pandemic struck at the heart of how cities work. Lockdowns denied the connections that drive our urban economies and the communities they serve.
Now, as we plan our recovery, we have to ensure that we have learned the lessons of the past year and recognise that we should see the pandemic experience as something that has accelerated pre-existing trends, and exposed weaknesses, in how our cities function.
For national government, this means getting the framework for a national approach to urban policy right.
The approach Anthony Albanese announced in March 2021 would do just that – fixing the broken machinery that has held back the development of our cities. With cities generating around 80 per cent of Australia’s GDP, this is vital.
Labor will implement six measures to reframe cities policy in the wake of the pandemic and the recession:
1. Transform City Deals into genuine City Partnerships
2. Revitalise our CBDs
3. Renew the independent role of Infrastructure Australia in urban planning
4. Deliver a new National Urban Policy framework
5. Publish annual State of the Cities Report
6. Give local government a voice in a meaningful National Cabinet process
City Deals were intended to bring together all three levels of government, with the private sector, to realise shared visions for our cities. But this aspiration hasn’t been realised. There is little evidence of genuine, city-shaping collaboration. None are generating the private investment they should be.
Real city partnerships are required to turn this around, and to secure more productive, liveable and sustainable cities.
Rebuilding and reimagining CBDs
Our approach recognises that an imperative must be to revive our CBDs. And that this means reimagining them, and how they work. Over the past decade, around half the new jobs we’ve generated have been located in and around the centres of Melbourne and Sydney.
We can’t assume that this situation will simply right itself, nor that just pleading with office workers to return to their desks will do the job. We need a plan for our city centres, which recognises the changes likely to be wrought by a shift towards the workplace as a place of collaboration rather than of task-performance, and by the rise of dispersed or hybrid work. Labor’s vision is for equally vibrant – but different – city centres.
The economics of agglomeration haven’t changed, but new opportunities are presenting themselves as well as new perspectives of pre-existing challenges like congestion, and the impact on the infrastructure requirements of cities – most obviously transit.
The latest report by the Property Council and Ernst and Young, Reimagining Our Economic Powerhouses, makes clear that all levels of government and business must work together to revitalise our CBDs.
What’s missing here, though, is national leadership, compounded by the decision of the Morrison Government to deny local government its rightful and necessary place around the National Cabinet table. We can get ahead of the game, but we need to bring all affected and interested parties together.
Don’t forget the suburbs
Complementary to this work on CBDs is a focus on the other side of the dispersed work equation – the chance to secure thriving localised economies, rebalancing work within our cities.
To take on board the experiences of 2020 to consider how infrastructure, including social infrastructure, can address the gaps exposed during lockdown and sustain, indeed drive, twenty-minute neighbourhoods.
The work of the proposed Cities and Suburbs Unit within Infrastructure Australia will be significant here. This new unit will make recommendations to the government on the design of a new National Urban Policy framework, informed by expert evidence and community feedback. It will be bottom up, not a top down model.
The Cities and Suburbs Unit will measure the progress and performance of our cities, helping to identify the specific initiatives of local councils and state planning authorities that are effectively working to create more productive and sustainable communities.
We understand that local problems require local solutions, and big problems require buy-in and coordinated investment at the local level to work in the national interest. We need to apply rigour to places, not just to projects. Without this, any broad vision for our cities will wither on the vine.
This goes for sustainability, too. There is of course no greater long-term problem to Australia’s cities than climate change. Major flooding in Sydney a little over a year after the city was choked by toxic smoke from bushfires, brought into sharp focus the challenge of making our cities more sustainable and resilient to future shocks. However, sustainability has been largely overlooked as a key pillar of good urban policy under the current City Deal framework.
Cities around the world are taking steps to adapt to climate change, while Australia’s cities risk being left behind. Building more sustainable cities will be a key focus for an Albanese Labor Government because it’s the key to better lives for the vast majority of Australians. We won’t miss the opportunity currently being squandered by the Morrison Government in making our recovery from the COVID recession a sustainable one.
We will listen to the science, to industry, to investors and to the OECD, which is urging a Green Transformation. So, how can we make our cities more sustainable? Through coordinated planning for this, bringing together localised innovation into a national framework, and by making our cities smarter, with technological solutions deployed to address a wide range of challenges: improved energy efficiency, reduced environmental pollution, better water usage and giving people a healthier environment in which to live.
Better digital infrastructure should be a no-brainer
As Anthony Albanese has said, “If we recognise the challenges and opportunities… we can harness the urban transformation in a way that will help us build back stronger from the pandemic and the recession”.
The dimensions of these challenges, indeed these opportunities, are vast. And so must be the scope of our appetite to reshape our cities to make them more productive, sustainable and liveable.