Although the expression ‘joined up Government’ may have been coined by Tony Blair’s New Labour in the mid 90s, the quest for co-ordinated provision of government services and infrastructure in particular places is as old as politics itself.

And it isn’t getting any easier.  One of the challenges is that governments at State and national levels work in silos.  Citizens expect a degree of uniformity in the quantum and quality of State services like health, education and justice, regardless of location.  This makes for a unitary focus and operation at scale in these public sector agencies, thereby fostering a silo approach.  Nuanced service delivery based on the peculiarities of communities across the spectrum of geographic scales can be expensive and risky.  ‘Joined up’ service delivery may rate high in the rhetoric of these agencies, but it typically falls to a lower priority in operations (see for more on this).

Although mitigation of silo-ed operations in State agencies is intrinsically difficult, the stakes are high in the modern service economy.  In locations with good access to specialized skills and services, there is the prospect of generating value which is considerably greater than the sum of the parts from private, public and community sector activity.  But the planning and infrastructure must be in place to support synergies between these agents.

This boost to productivity, both financial and non-financial, lies behind policy moves across all Australian State and Territory Governments to bring ‘place-based’ co-ordination to service delivery.

This was a headline theme for the re-elected Andrews Labor Government in Victoria in 2018.  The incoming Government established a powerful new Department to stamp a ‘Precincts’ modus operando in public administration (the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions – DJPR).  Locations of strategic significance across the Melbourne metropolitan area were to become the springboard for new ways of collaborating and co-investing across all government agencies.

Plan Melbourne – the Government’s overarching spatial plan for the metropolis – identifies these locations.  There are twenty of them.

As shown in the table below, lead responsibility for connected-up visioning of these locations is spread across five State agencies.  In some cases, this lead function is left with local Councils.  The State agencies in question variously report to three senior ministers – Minister for Transport Precincts, Minister for Business Precincts and Minister for Planning.

Translation of these precinct visions into regulatory plans is the responsibility of one or more of the Victorian Planning Authority (VPA), the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), the Suburban Rail Loop Authority (SRLA) and local Councils, all of which operate under the oversight of, or in partnership with, the Minister for Planning.

Matrix management arrangements such as these always look complex.  This does not mean they do not work.  Nevertheless, the chart raises some red flags.  Presumably, all the agencies holding lead responsibility for particular precincts will have to skill up in urban planning, and so will the central policy agencies like the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC), to make sure that this work is harmonized across government.  The staffing and operational costs associated with this planning effort will not be insignificant.  But of greater importance are the implied multiple circuits of negotiation and co-ordination required when policy development is distributed across several ‘proposer’ and ‘gateway’ agencies.

In most cases, statutory implementation of precinct visions rests with authorities other than the strategic planning lead and, appropriately, the host Council has a significant role.  This implies two further processes of negotiation, some of which will necessarily go over ground previously traversed.  One of these will be within Government to confirm that the precinct vision and proposed development controls are in line with the overall metropolitan plan, and the second will be with the local community which, in Victoria, has a right to be heard on major changes to planning rules.

Another issue concerns the alignment of spatial and fiscal policies.  The Victorian Government is to be commended for recognizing and deploying the power of city shaping transport investments such as the Metro Tunnel (with respect to the Arden Renewal Precinct), the Suburban Rail Loop (corridor precincts) and Melbourne Airport Rail (Sunshine NEIC).  What is not clear is how the Government’s Value Creation and Capture Framework ( ) applies in the funding of these projects.  Nor is it clear how broad-based value capture initiatives, such as the Windfall Gains Tax, will be applied in concert with Precinct planning and wider objectives in Plan Melbourne.

DoT = Department of Transport, SRLA = Suburban Rail Loop Authority, DV = Development Victoria, NEIC = National Employment & Industry Cluster, MAC = Metropolitan Activity Centre

Streamlined delivery of precincts policy should address five themes;

  1. the overarching spatial strategy for the metropolis
  2. visioning and plan making for key precincts
  3. regulatory implementation of these plans
  4. infrastructure and service delivery to realise the potential of the precincts, and
  5. fiscal policy alignment.

The first two of these – the metropolitan strategy and the precinct plans – must be owned by both the Government, representing the State community, and the local or metropolitan community if otherwise intractable political disputation is to be managed when neighbourhood interests come up against those of the wider city.  This is likely to require some form of arm’s-length metropolitan planning authority that is ultimately controlled by, and accountable to, State Government but has more than token representation from local government.

The metropolitan planning authority could be the custodian of Plan Melbourne as well as holding responsibility for all precinct plans and their translation into development regulations.  This would provide one primary channel of advice into Government on the first three of the policy processes listed above.

With precinct planning sorted, agencies including DoT, SRLA, DJPR and DV can have a clear run at delivering assets and services for the community.

Meanwhile, those parts of the planning system to do with infrastructure charging and value capture should ideally be driven by a central economics agency, such as Department of Treasury and Finance (DTF).  Apart from the Windfall Gains Tax, policy in these areas has tended to be prosecuted under the auspices of the Planning and Environment Act.  This is problematic in two respects; firstly, a lack of economic skills in planning agencies and, secondly, a perceived conflict of interest when planning approvals of various sorts come with an obligation to pay a fee to government or local Councils.

Joined up and place-based government may be an arcane subject, but it is vital to sustainable development in Australia.  With its vigorous engagement in precinct planning, the Victorian Government has blazed a trail in this area of policy.  In so doing, it has uncovered many opportunities for fruitful reform.