Claims that COVID-19 will see the end of cities are rubbish, a former Prime Minister says.

Speaking yesterday, Malcolm Turnbull, in conversation with Danni Hunter, CEO of UDIA Victoria in an online event, acknowledged that COVID would challenge cities across Australia.

But he said benefits associated with greater density – combined with good transport and open space – remain despite the pandemic.

These include greater amenity and better access to place to which people wish to travel.

By contrast, cities which depend on private transport are unfavourable to older Australians, younger Australians and those unable to afford cars.

As for COVID, Turnbull said cities must offer multiple transport options including walking and cycling.

Tools such as videoconferencing which enable working from home are also critical, he added.

“If we say that density is the solution not the problem, a good question is, ‘but what about COVID – isn’t density a problem?’ …” Turnbull said, asked about an article he wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald in 2010 in which he defended density.

“ … The shape of cities is going to change. But given that human beings are social animals and given that we are so fascinated about being with and near each other, I think people who proclaim that this is the end of the city are kidding themselves.

“Cities have recovered from much worse crisis than this.”

Turnbull’s comments come after he made cities – along with innovation – a signature policy of his prime ministership between 2015 and 2018.

This included establishing a ministry portfolio for cities and launching a smart cities policy in 2016.

A key part of this of which Turnbull is proud involves city deals – agreements whereby Federal, State and Local governments work with business and communities to agree upon a long-term vision about how given cities will develop and what projects will be prioritised.

Seven deals have been concluded in respect of Townsville, Launceston, Western Sydney, Darwin, Hobart, Geelong and Adelaide.

Further deals have been announced for Perth and South East Queensland.

During the discussion, Turnbull talked about the importance of cities being integrated and delivering options for transport including rail, light-rail, walking, cycling, buses and private vehicles.

To deliver maximum value, he says cities must enable residents to access education, employment and social/recreational opportunities within a reasonable travel time of their home.

Speaking particularly of Melbourne, he says the city has advantages due to its flat terrain and the relatively central location of its CBD.

In Sydney, by contrast, the CBD is on the eastern perimeter – a phenomenon Turnbull says creates problems as vast areas of the city have become ‘dormitory suburbs’.

Asked about city deals, Turnbull says these were an achievement of his government which has helped to entrench the mindset of the Commonwealth being active in urban development as opposed to merely handing out grants based on political priorities.

Prior to this, he says Coalition governments had opposed to Commonwealth investment in passenger rail.

This, he says, was lunacy as no one form of transport should receive favourable treatment over others when it comes to subsidies.

During the discussion, Turnbull also said that:

  • Value capture was important to fund rail projects as rail provision typically loses money for governments yet delivers capital uplift for landowners whose property lies nearby rail stops.
  • Affordable housing must be provided throughout cities; not simply in one corner.
  • Governments should avoid presuming that public debt is necessarily bad. Where debt is used to create productive assets, this is welcome provided that the asset delivers greater or equivalent value compared with the cost of building it.
  • Governments should set expectations that some programs or initiatives will fail. This enables them to monitor outcomes and to discontinue or make adjustments to programs without fear of loss of public face..
  • The best way to help young Australians to achieve home ownership is to build more homes and to ensure that planning/other issues do not hinder provision of new housing supply.
  • On this last point, transport is critical. By reducing time taken to access employment opportunities from various locations around the metropolitan area, you enlarge the number of places in which housing can be provided whilst still enabling residents to access employment and amenity.

Turnbull’s comments also follow the release of his autobiography, ‘A Bigger Picture’ in April.

Asked about his book and the reception it has received, Turnbull said he was careful to ensure its accuracy and readability.

Nonetheless, he says it has been criticised by many who criticised him as prime minister.

“The people that I would have expected to criticise it criticised it,” Turnbull said.

“I got plenty of criticism from the various right-wing nut-jobs – most of whom work for Murdoch; their columnists and Sky staff and that sort of ecosystem – those great critics of mine.

“One of them said I should be expelled from the Liberal Party. Someone said, ‘how do you feel about that?’

“I said ‘well, they used to say that when I was the Liberal Prime Minister, so it’s no surprise that they say it now.’”