Opinion/Comment, Politics

Australia “sleepwalks to three mega cities” while regions suffer.

The impact of the Commonwealth not extending its population planning efforts beyond adjusting immigration rates is being deeply felt across Australia.

By David Williams

First published at The Sydney Morning Herald – Tuesday 24 September 2019. See: https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/nation-is-sleepwalking-towards-a-three-megacity-debacle-20190923-p52u1y.html

A recent Infrastructure Australia audit warned that business-as-usual growth would incur substantial losses in national productivity – from a doubling of congestion costs to $38.8 billion in the next 12 years to a deterioration in employment choices and work-life balance.

Inner city Melbourne most densely populated area in Australia

Inner city Melbourne is the most densely populated area in Australia

Estimates released on Wednesday by the ABS shows the most densely populated area in Australia was inner city Melbourne.

More than ever, Australian communities are looking for leadership to shape a future that sustains the creative dynamism and lifestyles of our cities while building on the diverse strengths of our regions.

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To do this properly requires a different mindset. It means asking how we want places to function and being aware of how migration, infrastructure investment and service delivery affect them.Advertisement

Apartment buildings in Chatswood. Planning Minister Rob Stokes says Sydney's changing demographics require "an increase in variety, not just an increase in volume" in housing.

At Monday’s Sydney Morning Herald Population Summit, NSW Planning and Public Spaces Minister Rob Stokes called out the narrow focus of treasuries around Australia as they work on a population framework. He made the claim that “the economy exists to serve the population” and not visa versa.

The Planning Institute of Australia agrees: population growth and infrastructure investment are not an end in themselves, they are tools to shape more liveable and sustainable cities and regions.

The deep collaboration needed to guide them goes beyond treasury officials; it requires a shared vision and consistent ways of understanding how Australia is changing.

Last year, the institute called for the Commonwealth and states to work together to deliver a National Settlement Strategy – and a federal parliamentary inquiry and many peak groups have since made similar recommendations.

A National Settlement Strategy would not be about forcing people to settle anywhere, nor changing constitutional responsibilities for planning.

It would be about outcomes; for example, ensuring investment decisions are more responsive to where housing and job growth could occur, and providing a mandate to plan for better connected and more liveable cities and towns.

Planning Minister Rob Stokes at the Herald's Population Summit on Monday.
NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes at the Herald’s Population Summit on Monday. Credit:Louise Kennerley

Australia is sleepwalking its way towards becoming a nation of three megacities – centred on Melbourne, Sydney and South East Queensland – with regions which struggle with social and economic equity issues.

A National Settlement Strategy would seek to correct this trajectory, which most people recognise as being neither desirable nor in the national interest.

Issues such as the amenity of our cities, the future nature of work and where it is located are hugely complex, and they ought to be addressing through a coherent national planning strategy.

Instead, we have a patchwork quilt of planning and infrastructure projects and useful but disconnected city deals. We also have a largely top-down approach to planning.

A National Settlement Strategy would seek greater community involvement in the issues that concern them and their cities and towns, leading to a more balanced national discussion about our future.

It would prioritise seeing population growth and change as an influence in achieving the desired outcomes rather than as a separate debate.

A coherent national vision would restore a “line of sight’’ between the planning of places, homes and jobs – and the broader growth outcomes sought by each tier of government.

It would lead to the more deliberate use of Commonwealth and state policy and investment to achieve a shared spatial vision.

Such an approach is neither revolutionary nor unique. Most OECD member nations have implemented national urban polices to increase liveability, enhance economic development, alleviate inequality, and deliver better infrastructure and creating world-class places.

They use them to provide a framework for meeting international environmental obligations and sustainable development goals.

The institute believes the Australian community expects a better living and working environment with growth and change – and a strategic approach to achieving this that respects the character and specific needs of our major cities while promoting thriving regional economies.

The involvement of the Commonwealth in the recently formed forum of state planning ministers was an encouraging first step towards that.

But follow-up is needed if we’re to respond in a timely way to urbanisation and other trends, the effects of which are accelerating.

If Australia is serious about bequeathing great cities and communities for our children – and this is something all planners are passionate about – we must listen to recommendations to create a partnership across all tiers of government to deliver a National Settlement Strategy.

David Williams is the chief executive officer of the Planning Institute of Australia, which represents qualified urban and regional planners across the country.

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