Harbinger Consultants

Culture + Complexity + Change

POLICY | National Urban Policy Conference

Last week Linda attended AHURI’s inaugural National Urban Policy Conference in Sydney. Notably, Australia is a leader in national urban policy development among OECD countries. The complexity of urban dynamics can be overwhelming, and this makes for a major challenge to the capacity of policy to capture and leverage that complexity. Many speakers referred to urban policy as a moving feast and a journey, recognising attempts to date are incomplete and imperfect, especially when weighted by economic priorities and deflecting neo-liberal perspectives. CEO of the Committee for Sydney, Tim Williams, for example, declared that “neo-liberal thinking does not serve cities” (referring to the Grattan Institute’s recent report Productive Cities) and that public interventions are warranted for balancing issues like equity and access.

Much was said about agglomeration and funding models at this conference but very little about risk such as ecological sustainability and climate change which is particularly resonant in Australia given the scale of disaster impacts and recovery over the past few years. Even with such emphasis on agglomeration, there remained significant disagreement about the implications of this and it might be worth raising the issue of suburban development and the proliferation of shopping malls as one example of agglomeration with dubious impacts on cultural, environmental and social life. There was a timely reminder to not confuse agglomeration and productivity as these terms are not interchangeable.

One of the major topics was infrastructure provision and the need to develop alternative models and commit to pipelines. In recounting the experience of Manchester and ‘new transport economics’, Lewis Atter stressed that old ways of thinking about transport were no longer relevant. There was a need to think across a program rather than individual projects and, provided one of the best quotes of the conference, “never waste a crisis, especially a fiscal one” (the Manchester example is explained further on the KPMG website).

Some resonant points arising from discussions pivot on ideas arising from innovation, convergence, governance and integration:

  1. Urban governance; crisis of Federalism; need for cooperative and collaborative approaches
  2. Fully integrated approaches to infrastructure financing and delivery – government commitments to programs and pipelines rather than projects; single assessment framework; business as usual is not an option
  3. Connect people and jobs; implications of economic restructuring and need for public interventions
  4. Make suburbs and growth areas better and distinctive: inclusive and productive
  5. Real engagement with communities; a genuine conversation to address structural, systemic and cultural lag
  6. Recognise urban competitiveness as multifaceted across social, economic, environmental, governance etc
  7. Longer term planning horizons of 30-50 years are required; with the framework established, implementation is key
  8. Rethink current incentives, charges and externalities in relation to greenfield development and property by restructuring (e.g. value-capture taxes) and rollback (e.g. negative gearing)
  9. Digital disruption is playing its hand in the productivity, competitiveness and connectivity of cities.
  10. Competitiveness is multifaceted. See Dr Richard Hu’s presentation on Making Australian Cities Effective: Competitiveness, Productivity and Transaction Costs (PDF)

In his closing address, Anthony Albanese, Minister for Infrastructure and Transport and Minister for Regional Development and Local Government, affirmed the role of Federal Government in urban policy and that national frameworks were required to ensure cohesive and comprehensive investment in the nation’s cities and infrastructure.


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