What can a Minister for Cities really offer?

QWest Paterson Chairman Warwick Hemsley offers his perspective on the appointment of a Minister for Cities and the Built Environment as well as some historical context surrounding the involvement of the Federal government in our urban centres…

Prime Minister Turnbull’s appointment of a new position in the federal Cabinet that will focus on Australia’s urban centres was met with general positivity last month.

The Urban Development Institute and the Property Council both noted the importance of cities to the nation’s economy and productivity, saying that a Minister focused on cities was a positive economic step forward.

In announcing junior MP Jamie Briggs appointment as the new Minister for Cities and the Built Environment, Mr Turnbull said that historically federal government has had limited engagement with cities despite the fact that is where most Australians live.

Mr Turnbull certainly has a point, given approximately 90% of Australia’s population live in urban areas it seems remiss that government at a national level has not had a dedicated Minister addressing the unique issues that our cities face.

This is particularly important as we move toward a future where our cities are likely to grow even further, putting pressure on infrastructure capacity, housing supply and affordability, public transport and the environment just to name a few.

While the appointment of a Minister for Cities and the Built Environment is the first federal cabinet position with that title, a federal focus on urban issues, particularly our major cities, is not necessarily a new idea. Since the early 1970s there have been sporadic attempts at addressing issues affecting Australian cities at a federal level, however none have endured long term.

Tom Uren was the first Minister for Urban and Regional Development appointed by Gough Whitlam in late 1972, he was commonly considered a “Minister for Cities “ and oversaw the Department of Urban and Regional Development (DURD). DURD was created by the Whitlam government to address matters relating to city and regional planning and particularly establish cooperation with state and local government.

Unfortunately, the department was short lived as the Fraser Government abolished it in 1975.

It was not until the early 90’s when the Hawke government initiated the Building Better Cities program under then Minister for Housing Brian Howe that federal level focus was once again drawn to the capitals. The focus of the program was about building collaboration with states and territories through pinpointing capital works initiatives that the federal government could assist with funding.

The establishment of Building Better Cities stemmed from similar issues that have prompted the federal government’s move now – increasing congestion, car dependency and the need for increased infrastructure investment to promote higher density living in existing areas and limit urban sprawl.

One success story that resulted from Building Better Cities was the establishment of the East Perth Redevelopment Authority (EPRA). One of the first projects to receive a degree of federal funding under the program was the redevelopment of the old industrial area in East Perth that has since become an award winning urban development that provides a case study for what urban regeneration can achieve. The EPRA model was rolled out by the state government to other areas around the Perth Metro Area including Subiaco and has since morphed into the Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority (MRA).

Since Building Better Cities demise during the Howard government era, cities have certainly taken a back seat when it comes to federal politics.

There was some fanfare in 2011 when Anthony Albanese released the statement “Our Cities, Our Future” which lead to a State of Australian Cities report. Albanese was also appointed shadow minister for cities last year.

So here we are in 2015 with a Liberal government that is showing an interest once again in how the Federal government can assist with the future development of our cities. Turnbull seems keen to focus on infrastructure priorities that will improve housing affordability as well as promote more efficient public transport networks.

Certainly a federal focus on cities elevates the level of importance of issues that are experienced in our urban areas. In my opinion, we cannot afford to be complacent about the future of our cities. Turning to Perth in particular, while we continually poll well in surveys regarding our cities liveability, that ranking is likely to drop if we don’t change and adapt to accommodate our growing population.

In general, we need a change of attitude about living on large blocks in large houses which is no longer necessarily practical or affordable. We are slowly seeing a change, with an increase in medium and high density living options arising in both inner city areas as well as middle ring suburbs. However local attitudes to these developments can often be hostile, with residents concerned about the impact to their local area that the introduction of higher density housing may have – the typical ‘not in my backyard’ attitude.

Despite local resistance, household sizes are reducing and lifestyles are changing and we need to make sure that housing options continue to keep pace. A focus at a national level that can help drive positive projects that assist in developing further acceptance of medium and high density living would certainly be a positive step forward.

One of the biggest challenges that we face as we continue to grow is affordability. This is where public transport can play a significant role through decreasing travel costs and increasing connectivity throughout the metro area.

In my opinion this is where the federal government and the new Minister can really have an impact. Investment in public transport infrastructure, rather than focusing so heavily on road funding as they have done in recent years, could assist Perth in achieving a more integrated public transport network that includes new modes such as light rail.

It is an exciting time to live in Perth as it grows and matures and it is pleasing to see the federal government looking at ways to foster new ideas and hopefully work collaboratively with state and local government to critically analyse what projects could be funded at a national level to benefit the future of our city.