Move towards a National Urban Policy

10 December 2010

The Federal Government has released two papers (a discussion paper and a background paper) in preparation for the release of a National Urban Policy next year. This process is taking place in parallel with the development of a population strategy, also to be completed next year.

The Urban Taskforce has never supported a national policy merely for the sake of having something that’s national (see, for example, this October 2009 media release). Our support for any policy has always been conditional on:

  • the policy not being harmful to urban development; and
  • the policy adding something concrete and positive to the urban development process (in terms of significant federal funding for urban infrastructure or reduced red tape).

It seems that the newly released discussion paper fails on both these counts.

The discussion paper states – point blank – that “expanding low density ‘greenfield’ suburbs of detached houses accessed mostly by car [is] no longer considered environmentally sustainable …”.

All levels of government have been committed to ecologically sustainable development since 1992, but, until now, no-one had ever suggested that this should end the idea of a house with its own backyard. We’ve never previously heard any state or federal government declare that Australia’s traditional suburbs are “unsustainable”. (Even Bob Carr just talked about Sydney, not all of NSW).

The Federal Government’s policy decision will make it harder to develop new housing on the edge of existing urban areas. That’s because state and territory planning systems are all based on the principle of ecologically sustainable development – under a 1992 intergovernmental agreement. The Federal Government’s attempt to re-define “sustainability” will influence state and local planning authorities.

It will also lead to less government investment in new urban infrastructure at the edge of cities. We can safely predict that there will be fewer new suburbs and less new houses if this policy statement is not rescinded. As a result, the Federal Government will have to accept its share of the responsibility if the housing shortfall deteriorates.

It is of course, preposterous to suggest that new homes shouldn’t be built just because the residents might use a car. Like or not, cars are part of our modern society. You can’t deprive people of a home of their choice, just because they may choose to put a car in their garage.

Large areas of Australia’s biggest cities – Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide – are not well serviced by public transport. These services are unlikely to dramatically improve within the next ten years.  Cities such as Bendigo, Ballarat, Geelong, Newcastle, Toowoomba, Townsville, Wollongong and Cairns do not have any meaningful intra-urban mass transit system and this is not going to change in the foreseeable future.

Ecologically sustainable development is an important principle. It ensures that development meets the needs of Australians today, while conserving our ecosystems for the benefit of future generations. That’s why urban development doesn’t occur where it would have an unacceptable impact on biodiversity. In fact it generally takes place on cleared land previously used for low-value agriculture or obsolete industry.

The paper suggests that urban development presents a risk to Australia’s food supply. However, agricultural land adjacent to major urban areas make up less than 3 per cent of land used for agriculture in the five biggest states.

We will be very active in seeking a change of position from the Commonwealth.

We will be arguing that home buyers should be in charge of their own destiny and decide for themselves what kind of lifestyle they want. Some will seek out pedestrian friendly apartment living close to public transport in the inner suburbs of our major cities. There is clearly a serious undersupply of this kind of compact home. But many home buyers will still insist on a house with its own backyard in a suburban community. It’s the job of governments to allow more of both kinds of housing – not to try and re-direct people away from the housing type of their choice.

On a positive note the discussion paper highlights governance problems resulting from a multiplicity of councils covering our capital cities, although no clear solution is presented. The report says that for “cities that have many small councils there may be merit in a national and community discussion involving all levels of government on reforming Local Government through the creation of larger entities that can plan, finance and coordinate over larger population areas, and achieve greater economies of scale in service delivery and asset management.”

The report also acknowledges that more action needs to be taken by state governments to ensure strategic plans are implemented . It says that “there are elements of State and Territory planning legislation, such as whether States can undertake rezoning not initiated by Local Government, and the extent of third party appeals, which could be amended to enhance the ability of jurisdictions to put strategic plans into effect.”

The discussion paper on is on exhibition and submissions will be accepted until 1 March 2011. Please contact us if you have suggestions for our submission.

Further details are available here.