For those of us passionately working for a better deal for our cities and regions, the election of the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull as our new Prime Minister is a big deal.
In the days after the change in federal leadership, it became clear the dark past of hushed tones and wish lists for city shaping infrastructure, tucked away in a bottom drawer for a rainy day, for a day when the inevitable happened and cities mattered again, were gone.
That day has come, and after only 30 days in power, the new PM proudly announced a $95 million Australian Government investment in stage two of the successful Gold Coast Light Rail project, something many of us thought impossible under Tony Abbott’s previous mantra of “cities [being] a matter for the states.”
In a broad ranging series of recent interviews, it was made clear the new emphasis is also backed up with sound reasoning, that the Australian Government has a role to play in shaping sustainable economic, social and environment outcomes in city shaping projects. Turnbull was reassuringly blunt.
“We shouldn’t discriminate urban mass transit, urban rail,” he said. “It’s sort of a penetrating glimpse of the obvious. I know it’s change but, why would you discriminate between one mode of transport and another?”
The first major change in policy is to support infrastructure priorities, but not to prioritise them based on what type of vehicles are of primary benefit, or which industry directly benefits (roads, trucks and freight, as it was with Infrastructure Australia’s previous priorities). That’s not to say that roads are off the agenda, but it is clear that the imbalance with urban rail projects, in particular, is gone.
The other big announcement is Australia’s very first Minister for Cities and the Built Environment, the Hon. Jamie Briggs, who days before was the Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development. It is the first time in Australia there has been such a Minister, and the step partially recognises the roles planners, architects, landscape architects and engineers play in developing and sustaining our cities. The cabinet position reinforces positive messages in regard to investment confidence, which translates to improved prospects for cities and stable employment, better options for mobility and cleaner, greener outcomes, among other outcomes.
The sharp realignment of a new national cities and built environment policy provides a major opportunity to reinforce some very good work by the states, local and capital city councils. It resets the conversation about the value of innovative responses to problems such as congestion, liveability and economic development, brings the smart city movement to the front, and opens the door for new ways for the governments to take part in taking our cities to the next century.
A more rational approach also means scalability is possible, suggesting smaller projects such as Gold Coast’s Light Rail stage 2 can receive federal government funding assistance. The aim of all governments will now be to prove a project’s goals and value to the economy, as well as its citizens and the environment. Malcolm Turnbull’s approach also ensures that decision making and policy is not fixed, and as he said in his interview with The Guardian recently.
“…the aim is to make sure everything you are doing is calculated to get to that goal and if something isn’t working as well as you want, chuck it out. I’m not afraid of people saying, it’s a backdown, or a backflip, an agile government is prepared to abandon policies that don’t work,” he said.
Much has been made of an agile economy, and indeed Australia has weathered global challenges better than most. However, as the Prime Minister points out, taxpayer funded investment is far better being a partner to projects with returns back to government, as opposed to the current model of simply doling out cash.
Partnering eschews a different approach, which can realise greater benefits as well as value far beyond the capital investment, an area that requires far more scrutiny and clarity in my view.
Experience suggests that light rail projects in particular can alter a city’s future to sustainability, as well as changing paradigms across the board. Sydney’s Light Rail project, the next big city changer now commencing construction, will provide greater travel choices once a more integrated inner Sydney transport net is completed. This includes the second harbour crossing for rail, a new bus plan, and new interchanges as well as reducing reliance on private vehicles.
The model for the project, a Public Private Partnership, could be reimagined to realise greater benefits to the economy. This could include more rigour, measurement and debate during the business case preparation, to consider improved livability: better quality and performing streets, increased green infrastructure, more commercial, business and retail opportunities and the like.
Turnbull has espoused the virtues of innovation, competition and productivity, citing them as key objectives during his time in office, citing them as being crucial to Australia’s prosperity.
One thing is for sure: cities are back, baby!