Pride in our collective Aussie ingenuity is as much a part of our imagined national character as the increasingly elusive quarter acre block and the iconic Hills Hoist.
The findings of a recent Senate enquiry into the future of our cities and regions show Australian problem solving at its big picture best. Australia’s population is expected to double by 2075 and a government Committee was formed to consider how national policy might foster collaborative and flexible urban planning responses.
Chaired by John Alexander OAM, MP, the Committee members attended twenty-five public hearings and considered 174 written submissions ranging from individuals to local councils, universities, developers and charities. Australians across the nation spoke up and proffered their observations and expertise.
The result is Building Up & Moving Out, a report in three parts that takes the long view and lays out concise options for sustainable growth in our cities and regions fifty years into the future.
Cities Leadership Institute spoke to John Alexander following the release of the Committee’s report. Here’s our conversation. . . .
Cities Leadership Institute: Affordable housing and adequate transport are significant issues for many local communities. The Committee believes ‘that all Australians should have access to high-amenity affordable housing no matter where they live.’ What impact does densification of the urban form have on these two areas of concern?
John Alexander: This enquiry was divided into two sections. One was to concentrate on the retrofitting of infrastructure in our major, urban areas and the land planning for densification around them. The other part was really concerned with strategic decentralization. The infrastructure that is needed and the how that should evolve.
There is an understanding that there had not been a plan of settlement for Australia. So we have an imbalance of settlement and an imbalance in our economy. Major urban areas have not been well planned and the land use has run way in front of the infrastructure so we are constantly having to play catch up. When we plan to put in infrastructure, every single time, without exception, it has to be put in place because there was no plan.
One of the fundamental findings of the enquiry was that we have to stop this ‘catch up’ and have a sense of planning forward. Complementing this was that infrastructure planning must be attached to land use planning. There is recommendation after recommendation that there should be a Master Planner. A Master Planner would sit alongside Infrastructure Australia to work out new and sustainable funding models, including value capture to capture those values on tax payer funded infrastructure. It would be negligent not to capitalise on taxpayer funded infrastructure and that is what has happened in the past.
Cities: Is this quite a new and radical idea for Australia?
JA: Value capture? The Harbour Bridge was funded through value capture!
Cities: So why is it not more widespread?
JA: That’s very good question. It’s not happening anywhere in Australia to the extent that it is happening overseas. We went to China just at the end of this enquiry and, as you will see from the report tabled following that trip, all Chinese infrastructure is funded by value capture.
Cities: Why do you think we have been slow off the mark with that? Is there a poor understanding of value capture?
JA: I don’t think so. I think for a long time I was a voice in the wilderness so I’ve been talking about it for eight years at every opportunity. I put it to Mike Baird when he was shadow treasurer. He was the first person I put this concept to, that addressing the problems of congestion and lack of planning in Sydney could be funded through capturing the uplift of properties situated close to train stations as a way of funding the actual infrastructure. And then under Andrew Robb, I applied the same concept to funding high speed rail to link up and create decent growth corridors.
Cities: On the face of it seems a very elegant solution.
JA: Well it’s equitable. It’s fair. It’s unfair for someone to have an unearned benefit that is funded by your fellow taxpayer.
You know it’s a way to involve the federal government, who should be collecting these monies, quarantining them and hypothecating the cost of the infrastructure - which is not just the building of the line but schools and open space and whatever else is required. It’s a way to align the federal government and the state government and local councils.
It is local councils that should really be in control of this land use. They should know what they want for their community. And they should be conveying to the state government this is the infrastructure that we will require that must have commensurate capacity to the use we are proposing. When they package that land use and that infrastructure together they are matched by the uplift of the value of the land.
Just like a GST, the federal government doesn’t keep anything. They just quarantine it until it goes back to the states. All that the federal government should be interested in is that there is a master plan of infrastructure that is comprehensive and once you meet that criteria, you have the money. It would stop this situation you have a light rail built from Randwick. Under this model that infrastructure project would only get approved for federal government funding if you could prove what the whole roll out of the light rail system would do for Sydney. For example how it integrates with heavy rail, how it integrates with ferries and car traffic and where is the land use and where is your plan for densification.
Cities: How does projected population growth impact forward planning for integrated infrastructure?
JA: The important thing coming out time and time again is, and it’s not a sophisticated argument about this immigration matter, that if we have a plan of growth and reverse this imbalance of settlement it will make regional areas far more attractive to live in.
Looking at plans that are situated around Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney shows that with fast rail you can get people from Wollongong, the Southern Highlands or Gosford into Sydney in 50 minutes or so. And there are similar plans down in Melbourne. A regional area might be an area between Newcastle and Maitland. It might Goulbourn and the Southern Highlands. It might be Nowra. It might be Wollongong. It might be Ballarat. These are places that could have really affordable housing. You could hop on a train and commute to work or go into those major 'megatropolises' in half an hour.
When you look at going from Sydney to Melbourne, the Yass area becomes a tri-city region over time and that’s the thing – you have to do your planning 50 years ahead and more.
If you said, well in 50 years that area might be 2 or 3 million people what happens to the surrounding towns as they benefit from this critical mass that has developed? The planning of strategic decentralisation would take the pressure off major cities and allow them to rebuild as required.
The beauty of having fast train travel from Newcastle or Wollongong into Sydney is that you are taking a lot of cars of the road, because a lot of people do travel into Sydney from those regions already. If they stop commuting by car, they come by train and you bring millions of more people into Sydney to make it a world competitive mega-city. That’s the bigger picture planning that the even Bill (Shorten) has said, on infrastructure and immigration, we should achieve a bi partisan agreement on this. Sharon (Bird), the co-chair of the Committee, and I said the same thing. We think that these things should be determined through enquires which deal in facts and some of those facts should become recommendations. Then it’s up to the agencies and the departments to roll it out and it’s up to the government to stay on the hammer and it’s up to the opposition to challenge the government are they staying on the hammer of this roll out.
So you largely get rid of the politics. Anytime you see a politician announcing in the future an infrastructure project you should think ‘Hmm. Something has gone wrong here’. It should be in the plan.
Cities: Do you see the role of a Master Planner as part of a national institute for cities research? Of depoliticising infrastructure planning?
JA: I think the structure needs to be somewhere along the lines of having, at the federal level, Infrastructure Australia and Master Planner Australia and then state and territory counterparts so you have a consistency of planning and intent.
We’d still have to look after the mess that has evolved because we didn’t have master planning. But let’s shift the focus to long-term planning so we don’t commit the sins of the past and continue to create these problems that then have to be addressed.
Cities: The Committee heard repeatedly that the benefits of good urban green spaces are diverse and wide ranging. Can we look at the benefits of good urban green spaces?
JA: That’s an essential piece of infrastructure! And an example of the master planning of land use. If you have endless, wall to wall apartments it just doesn’t cut it. If you look at the idea of having denser, moderately low rise 4 or 5 level structures like in Barcelona or France, you have to have, commensurate with that population, open green space. In lots of ways denser accommodation provides a net gain in green space because you are more intelligently using the space for housing.
Cities: What really is the Australian model for cities?
JA: The Barcelona model, the Paris model, has very little high rise and achieves similar levels of density to Seoul in South Korea which has nothing but high rise. Now, if you think about our recent past where you have an abundance of single dwellings on ¼ acre lots – to ask us to go from that to our current form of densification seems a big leap for me. In a country where our single biggest asset is real estate, maybe that’s not really necessary.
When you look at the opportunity to strategically apply decentralisation by using high speed rail to nearby regional areas it becomes less necessary to actually have this high rise development. I’m sitting on Oxford Street, Epping, next to a building going up that is going to be 22 levels and across the road is 22 levels and this building is going to be knocked down and a building of 20 levels going up. Is that necessary? It might be nice for these locations to have two landmark high rise buildings as part of a planned precinct of denser development. But real consideration must be given into what is the Australian way of life - which is to have open space, which is to have, you must have, you absolutely must have, ten tennis courts per 1000 people.
Sometimes people take me seriously when I say that!
I am half serious. It doesn’t have to be tennis. You have got to have recreational facilities commensurate with the number of people you are bringing in. You should have lots and lots of open green space, where kids can play cricket or touch football or that new game that Australian are playing now, soccer, and they have proper facilities where they can do that. And dads can play netball with their daughters after school and stuff like that. There has got to be ratios for that. What are best city practices for that?
That’s got to be a feature of what Australia is like, all of those things are really the fabric of Australian life. It’s about participating in sport as a way of building communities and breaking down barriers. In Bennelong I think we do it unbelievably well. We have multicultural soccer games. We have events where people from all sorts of different backgrounds get together to participate in sports and other cultural events. Sport is a great medium to bring people together. But you’ve got to have the space to play.
Cities: It also needs that incidental space, for kids to play, for people to meet, for community to happen.
JA: Absolutely! One of the big flaws that people make is they think ‘How many tennis courts can I get on this block of land?’ when it’s actually much nicer, and of far greater value, to have some space around it. The same with home units. Your home unit is more valuable if it has a really good gym and an outdoor pool and some real green space - not designed by an architect, but by real people who live there. How would I like my space, what use can I get out of this space? Can I combine this with the development next door to have some meaningful open space?
I think all those things need to be explored to develop and refine, generation after generation, what is the ideal Australian community with certain basic principles.