Here's what metropolitan government for Australia's cities should look like

Sydney opera house. Which is in a city in Australia. Image: Getty.

For residents of Australia’s cities, federalism means state governments have the right to assert what is in their best interests. Vertical fiscal imbalance has given the federal government licence to presume to know better than state governments what is in residents’ best interests. The possibility that they might themselves know what’s best is not a consideration.

The Greater Sydney Commission’s chief commissioner, Lucy Turnbull, might disagree. The commission values “citizen engagement” – however, it reports to the NSW planning minister.

A metropolitan planning agency that engages citizens, but is not representative of – and accountable to – those people, cannot be represented as promoting democratic governance. This is especially so when state and federal governments control the budget for metro-scale infrastructure and services. The federal funding largely takes the form of infrastructure grants and other tied grants that limit decision-making at the metropolitan level.

What’s the problem?

I recently wrote about Australia’s democratic, planning and governance deficits, and the infrastructure gaps. The role both state and federal governments play in urban regions is often incompatible with effective metropolitan governance, planning, accountability, productivity, service delivery and fairness.

To overcome these problems, Australia needs representative metropolitan governments that meet the following requirements:

  • are accountable to a metropolitan constituency;

  • undertake strategic planning;

  • are responsible for metro-scale infrastructure projects and services;

  • generate revenue; and

  • are in large part fiscally autonomous.

Autonomy means that metropolitan governments are able to enter municipal infrastructure finance markets, issue municipal bonds and negotiate service-delivery agreements with the private sector and civil society. This enables them to distance themselves from state and federal governments when deciding metro-scale infrastructure and services priorities.


Top-down approach

Australian governments, both Coalition and Labor, have over the decades repeatedly promoted some or other urban initiative. Enthusiasm for these initiatives has never been matched by their success.

National urban or spatial policies were popular in the 1970s and 1980s. In 2011, many urban academics and professionals welcomed the Labor’s national urban policy. In 2015, they welcomed the short-lived Coalition ministerial portfolio for cities and the built environment.

In a country that is 90 per cent urban, few policies are not de-facto urban. But policies with no urban intent, but with unintended urban outcomes, arguably exceed the impact of policies with urban intent. Instead of building unintended cities, it is far better that such matters are left to the cities concerned.

Internationally, the metropolitan “renaissance” since the early 1990s is based on enabling various forms of metropolitan government and governance to determine their own path in collaboration with higher tiers of government. This decentralisation does not have the prescriptive characteristics associated with the top-down creation of metropolitan governments in the 1960s and 1970s.

The “constitutive process” of metropolitan governments is central to their legitimacy and effectiveness. In Australia, this can take the form of constitutional change and the creation of a third level of government.

If the federal government were to conclude that metropolitan government is desirable – and that constitutional change is improbable – it has the option of creating an incentive framework for the creation of metropolitan governments.

This would involve tying access to federal grants to their use by metropolitan governments – which would create an incentive for state governments to legislate the creation of metropolitan governments.

The federal government has previously used incentives in this way: for example, the National Competition Policy that the Keating Labor government introduced in 1995 and Howard Coalition government carried forward.

By agreeing to share the productivity (tax) dividend from a more competitive economy, the Commonwealth was able to persuade the states and territories to undertake far-reaching reforms to infrastructure ownership, trade and professional licensing, other market access laws and utility pricing. All these matters lay outside the Commonwealth’s direct jurisdiction.

Independently of the federal government, the constitutive process can also take the form of negotiations among state and local governments. As Gabrielle Appleby has written:

Internationally understood, federalism...emphasis[es] the democratic importance of subsidiarity and localised, accessible governance that facilitates diversity, creativity, experimentation, competition and participation.

A possible way forward

So what principles of metropolitan government would form the basis for negotiations? The first is subsidiarity. Metropolitan government should provide the infrastructure and services that are best provided at a metro scale and reflect the priorities of metropolitan residents.

The second is that user charging and taxes should reflect responsibilities for the infrastructure and services expenditure. Higher levels of government devolve responsibilities far more willingly than they devolve resources. Unfunded mandates are to be avoided.

All this is more easily said than done. The services best provided at a metro scale can be debated – as can who should provide the service.

Debate is desirable when it occurs among providers and users of infrastructure and services. Undesirable outcomes are likely when those making decisions are not users who decide what they want and can afford.

So, a metropolitan government’s essential features should be:

  • Democracy: the government should be representative of a metropolitan constituency and accountable to it for infrastructure and services, and adopt transparent decision-making and budgeting processes.

  • Responsibility: the government should be responsible for ensuring the delivery of metro-scale public goods and services, and for strategic planning, integrating transport and land-use planning, city-shaping infrastructure investments and land-use guidelines for lower levels of government.

  • Autonomy: metropolitan government should generate its own revenue, be fiscally sound and have access to municipal infrastructure finance markets.

In other words, creating metropolitan governments and enfranchising a metropolitan constituency becomes substantive when the government is autonomous.The Conversation

Richard Tomlinson is professor of urban planning at the University of Melbourne.

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

 
 
 
 

Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

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As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.