In responding to the recommendations of the Alexander Inquiry into the Commonwealth’s role in the development of cities, the Federal Government agreed ‘in principle’ to the development of a National Settlement Strategy. This is an initiative promoted by the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) with support across the built environment sector.

It is important that the Commonwealth now take this opportunity to set out how Australia is to shape its growth sustainably across all cities and regions.

The ‘in principle’ agreement was made in the Government’s response to the recommendations of the Alexander Inquiry. PIA’s submission was central to the findings of this inquiry and was based on avoiding a tipping point – beyond which we would be sleepwalking towards being a nation of unliveable megacities.

Prospect of Commonwealth / State governance reform

The Government’s response to the Alexander Inquiry was prepared pre-covid in the context of COAG and the National Population and Planning Framework. This offered limited scope for reform – only ad hoc city deals, migration opportunities and ‘congestion busting investment’ were on the table.

The Covid crisis and the National Cabinet have now disrupted Commonwealth-State relations and may bring an end to COAG via Australia’s National Federation Reform Council. This will refocus Ministerial Committees including those dealing with population and planning.

We are now closer to having the governance arrangements needed to progress elements of a National Settlement Strategy.  While the strategy itself would give clear spatial direction to the decisions made by the Council.

The opportunity is now wide open for the Commonwealth and States to undertake lasting microeconomic reform that can improve productivity and shape the sustainable growth and change of our cities and regions. The ‘in principle’ agreement must now lead to deep commitment to the key elements of a National Settlement Strategy:

  • A national ‘spatial’ vision – for a sustainable and prosperous Australia that is specific on the role of its cities and regions and which responds to a coherent climate policy.
  • A coherent set of regional plans – that are consistent in the planning and population assumptions, climate and environmental performance benchmarks and infrastructure demand parameters applied to guide growth or change for places and communities
  • The Commonwealth Government becoming more ‘spatially aware’ of its impacts – establishing a role within Government to advise the National Federation Reform Council on the spatial implications of major funding, investment, monetary and taxation policy decisions.
  • Infrastructure investment focussed on strategic outcomes for places – an infrastructure investment strategy designed to achieve regional plan outcomes including via City Deals and growth compacts integrated.

National Settlement Strategy recap

A National Settlement Strategy is needed to provide a spatial context for government action to implement strategic plans around Australia.

It would not be about forcing people to settle anywhere, nor changing constitutional responsibilities for planning. However, it would be about ensuring investment decisions are more responsive to where housing and job growth could occur – and it would provide a mandate to plan for more resilient, better connected and more liveable cities and towns.

A coherent national vision would restore a ‘line of sight’ between the planning of places, homes and jobs – and the broader growth outcomes sought by each tier of government.

A National Settlement Strategy should seek greater community involvement in the issues that concern them and lead to a balanced national discussion about the future of our cities and regions as places to live and work. It would help us look for factors that influence regional population growth and change. It should provide a framework for addressing climate change resilience and carbon reduction in the built environment.

What has the Commonwealth agreed ‘in principle’ to?

The Commonwealth Government has now agreed ‘in principle’ to developing a national plan of settlement incorporating a national vision for our cities and regions for the next fifty years.

The have ‘agreed’ that this plan should encourage integrated strategic masterplans for all tiers of government in each jurisdiction and that these enable integrated decision making on infrastructure, housing, employment and services.

For urban areas, the plans should promote accessibility, a 30 minute city and more compact urban form in a high quality urban environment. In the regions, they support centre growth and catalytic investment where it contributes to decentralisation – specifically supporting investment in community infrastructure and improved rail links. They acknowledge a ‘hub and spoke’ model of faster rail connectivity among cities and regional centres as well as an improved freight network and consideration of a high speed rail network linking principal nodes along the East Coast.

The Australian Government has agreed ‘in principle’ to establishing a clear trajectory to carbon emissions reduction and expanding the use of green building and precinct rating tools.

A welcome observation is the Commonwealth’s response supporting States and territories investigating the potential for city commissions (eg Greater Sydney Commission) and promoting governance reform that works toward achieving shared objectives for a city or region.

Of the 15 recommendations that are explicitly linked to the call for a National Settlement Strategy the Australian Government agrees ‘in principle’ to 10 of them. The Government notes the remainder, excepting the recommendation (31) dealing with reform of tax settings that distort patterns of city growth and the need for appointing a National Chief Planner.

Some Commonwealth assumptions are no longer relevant

A common theme in the Government’s response to the recommendations is that previous governance arrangements under the National Population and Planning Framework, City Deals and through the portfolio responsibilities of the relevant Ministers will continue to be sufficient to address the Commonwealth’s interests (ie Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure and Minister for Housing). In addition, the Commonwealth and State/Territory Planning Ministers have recently reengaged in a National Planning Ministers Forum.

These assumptions in the Government’s response are no longer relevant.

The demands of responding to the Covid crisis and the creation of a National Cabinet have opened the doors for a reset on how we govern this country more collaboratively. This represents an opportunity that the Commonwealth must not miss to deliver on their ‘in principle’ agreement to a National Settlement Strategy.

Next Steps

Although the Commonwealth Government’s explicit commitments from the Alexander Inquiry are modest, they reflect a growing awareness of their role in shaping our cities and regions. They are becoming less blind to the spatial implications of their monetary and taxation policy, funding and infrastructure investment decisions. They are beginning to see themselves as partners with the states and territories in shaping great places to live and work.

PIA will continue to focus on how a National Settlement Strategy should make a difference to living in Australia’s cities and improving their resilience to future economic, social  and environmental conditions. A key step is building up a coherent and mutually consistent set of regional plans around Australia – informed by consistent infrastructure demand parameters and a common response to climate change and natural hazard threats.

John Brockhoff, National Policy Manager, Planning Institute of Australia (PIA)

John is a Registered Planner with 30 years’ experience as a public sector manager and consultant in planning, infrastructure, environment and economic development.

John is National Policy Manager for the Planning Institute of Australia. John guided the preparation of PIA’s policy position on ‘infrastructure and its funding’, the Parliamentary Inquiry into the ‘development of cities’ and PIA’s call for a ‘National Settlement Strategy’.

John previously led the technical development and delivery of Sydney’s Metropolitan Strategy. He contributed to NSW Government policy for urban renewal, employment lands and the integration of land use and transport. In private practice, John led the project development and EIA of major infrastructure proposals.