Australia finally has its own minister for cities. What should be in Jamie Briggs' inbox?

Another glorious day in Sydney Habour. Image: Getty.

The appointment of a federal minister for cities and the built environment is a signal moment in urban policy in Australia. It is a much-needed portfolio for an overwhelmingly urban nation; but the role will need new policy capacity if the government’s urban goals are to be realised.

Australian cities are among the fastest-growing in the developed world. They face problems of poor housing affordability, growing inequality, inadequate and inefficient infrastructure, unsustainable environmental demand and uneven employment distribution and productivity.

Long neglected federally, urban affairs is the gaping void in 21st-century public policy. Not since 1972 has Australia seen both the Labor and the Liberal parties commit to a cities portfolio within the Commonwealth ministry. That this has now occurred under a Coalition government is especially unusual.

Labor governments have been most engaged with urban questions. Curtin initiated a federal housing program and spurred states to better urban planning. Whitlam sewered neglected suburbs and stabilised fringe land markets, while Keating stimulated inner-city urban renewal. The Rudd-Gillard government boosted infrastructure and set national principles for metropolitan planning.

By contrast, the short-lived McMahon government’s 1972 National Urban and Regional Development Authority is the only previous Coalition urban foray of note.

Creating the capacity for urban policy

As new minister, Jamie Briggs’ agenda is not yet detailed, although it looks set to focus on integration, infrastructure and greening. What could a new urban programme look like, and what are the urban reform imperatives facing the Turnbull government?

The first task must surely be to develop permanent urban analytical and policy capacity in the federal public service. The Department of Environment, where the cities minister will be hosted, has almost no urban policy capability. The strongest federal urban capacity is in the Planning Analysis Branch of the Department of Infrastructure. The Turnbull government must build rapidly off this small but competent base.

A second task is to create federal capacity for cross-portfolio policy coordination. A cities agenda requires federal arrangements that can link across transport, infrastructure, environment, housing, finance, education, health and social services to build a multi-dimensional policy perspective on cities.

The third capacity-building task is to re-establish national coordination arrangements for urban policy. The federation gives almost all hands-on urban responsibility to the states – but the Commonwealth has the revenue.


The previous Labor government worked through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to establish consensus principles for major city planning and investment in a largely bipartisan way. That process could be revived and improved with relative ease.

A robust evidence base exists on which to ground policy directions, but it is not well linked with policy. Capability development should thus also extend to Australia’s high-quality but under-resourced university research sector. The extensive network of scholars within the State of Australian Cities Research Network could assist with this task, as could the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute.

The final capacity need is for federal policy to establish its own analytical framework. The urban sector abounds with rent-seekers. A federal urban perspective must stand above such rent-seeking to develop a sophisticated conceptual stance on how our cities work and what the levers of policy are.

New directions for policy

The overturning of Tony Abbott’s aversion to public transport funding is a welcome sign of progress. Public transport is vital for future urban productivity and sustainability.

But new arrangements are needed to make the external urban costs of private car use more transparent – whether through road and parking user pricing, or via enhanced environmental emissions charging. Such measures need to be progressive, however, so the burden does not fall unfairly on low-income, car-dependent households with the fewest alternatives.

And building infrastructure alone is unlikely to improve how our cities function. We need to make better use of existing assets, too.

This includes dedicated multi-modal network coordination in public transport, as the 2009 Senate inquiry into public transport advocated, accompanied by optimisation of existing road space via conversion to high-frequency transit routes.

Rail over road? Where urban policy is concerned, decisions about transport options are never far away. Image: AAP Image/Julian Smith.

Further areas in urgent need of intervention are Australia’s inflated and exclusionary urban housing markets. Negative gearing should be reformed as a tax credit scheme with transparency to ensure the value of the concession is targeted to the most needy urban renters.

We also need an urban taxation regime that captures the value gains from federal investment. Land value uplift from infrastructure investment should not accrue to private interests, but be recycled into the federal funding pool.

A national approach to replace stamp duty with broad-based land taxes is also needed. This would improve the flexibility and efficiency of urban housing markets while retaining a financing stream for urban investment. Land tax should be progressive, so it targets land value and housing wealth, not housing consumption.

A progressive capital gains tax on owner-occupied housing could also be applied to dampen price inflation and raise new public revenue. Similarly, a national approach to inclusionary zoning mechanisms for affordable housing would also help to ensure urban redevelopment creates new social housing supply.

Fixing the housing bubble is a key urban challenge. Image: AAP Image/Paul Miller.

As a suburban nation Australia faces serious gaps in how it plans new suburbs and renews existing areas. A national suburban policy is needed to improve the quality of fringe development, and facilitate the renewal of ageing middle suburbs for new housing.

Employment distribution in Australian cities is highly uneven. Ready access to high-quality jobs is increasingly the preserve of inner-urban households. Federal support for expansion of suburban employment nodes linked to public transport could ensure more higher-quality jobs are closer to the places households live. Ensuring land-use zoning does not exclude workers from job-rich middle suburbs is a further task.

Reform of the planning arrangements for our cities is desperately needed. National principles for metropolitan planning, as COAG established in 2009, are not unhelpful. But we need governing entities that can plan and manage cities at the metropolitan level while providing a democratic accompaniment to the current dominance of state planning ministers.

Prime Minister Turnbull has previously argued that density is the solution to our urban woes, but that poorly done density reduces amenity. High-amenity densification is possible – but the urban science on very-high-density development shows its environmental performance is often poor.

In othe words, density can help to improve our cities, but only as part of carefully crafted wider changes to spatial structure via infrastructure, housing and governance reform. Density is a means, not an end in itself. Plans to expand green space and provide for biodiversity in cities must be part of any densification strategy.

Putting policy to work

A sense of urgency is needed. The urban sphere is dominated by what Nicole Gurran and Peter Phibbs have called busy work, in which policy discussion and review defer substantial change.

Moreover urban policy is often captive to property, infrastructure and financial interests that put their private gain over the public interest. The Turnbull urban agenda needs to be more than a talking point or vehicle for shoddy deals.

Urban policy is the key policy discipline of the 21st century. It needs to be placed at the core of Australia’s federal policy arrangements.The Conversation

Jago Dodson is professor of urban policy and director of the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University, Melbourne.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.