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City Governance – A new
opportunity for Australian
Capital Cities?

During the recent Federal Election, the major party campaigns have failed to convince that the Federal Government is best placed to tackle the changing economic, social or environmental issues that our major cities face. 

Likewise, at state level, the lack of integration between land use planning and infrastructure delivery has plagued metropolitan strategies. State Government seems increasingly mired by apparent short-term thinking when making decisions over how our cities develop. Local authorities continue to struggle keeping up with the infrastructure demands of an increasing population and changing demographic. 

The Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) election platform calls on the Federal Government to “acknowledge the critical importance of cities and commit to a New Deal for Urban Australia to align productivity, liveability and sustainability.” Capital cities are important to Australia. As the urban population continues to grow, the role of our capital cities will become even more important. It is often stated that cities are the drivers of the modern economy. They are the focus for change and can be the concentration of innovation and experimentation. Getting the planning for our cities right can increase resilience to climate change, promote economic growth and broaden the choice of where and how people live and work.

With 70% of Victoria’s population currently living in Melbourne, a city-based governance system may help the city remain liveable and competitive whilst accommodating a population that could topple 6 million by 2050. The Discussion Paper on the Metropolitan Planning Strategy for Melbourne, “Melbourne, Let’s Talk About the Future” advances the idea of a Metropolitan Planning Authority. Such an authority, amongst other responsibilities, would “coordinate relevant government agencies in delivering city-shaping infrastructure and other projects of metropolitan significance.” 

A Metropolitan Planning Authority could work along the same lines as the Greater London Authority (GLA), the administrative authority for Greater London. This model retains the 32 London boroughs as local authorities, but establishes a metropolitan body to address cross boundary issues and those that affect the Greater London region. A directly elected Mayor of London leads the planning for the city. 

The London Plan is the strategic spatial planning document for London. It provides not only the planning and development for London but also covers the economic, environmental, transport and social issues affecting the city. The local development frameworks, prepared by the boroughs, are legally bound to comply with the London Plan. 

Whilst there is still some work to be done in addressing social and economic inequality London is benefitting from a more consistent direction for the city.  The London Plan provides clear guidance on how opportunities for higher density housing and more intense commercial development should have accessibility to public transport.

A sound framework can be maintained across different political ideologies. Previous Mayor of London Ken Livingstone and the current incumbent Boris Johnson hail from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Yet, it can be argued, both have committed to a clearly defined vision for London.

A Metropolitan Planning Authority would not have to require a political figure head. A City Planning Commissioner could act as the pioneer for change. They would need to be at home within the political domain yet grasp the complexities of a city. As the Head of City Planning in New York City, Amanda Burden has been instrumental in reshaping the urban environment across all five boroughs of the city including improved public spaces and parks. Imagine the great work Rob Adams has done at the City of Melbourne replicated across the broader metropolitan area.

The ability of a Metropolitan Authority, with or without a Mayor, to deliver change can be limited by the lack of financial autonomy. That is the power to raise and use funds raised by taxes. The Mayor of New York benefits not only from its visionary city officials but from having greater control of its finances. Raising the capital a recent report of the London Finance Commission indicated that only 7% of all taxes paid by Londoners is kept by the Mayor and London boroughs. For New York, the figure is closer to 50%. 

Appropriate planning and development of our capital cities is essential to the economic future of Australia. The Metropolitan Planning Authority for Melbourne should be given strategic planning powers to deliver the city-shaping policy outlined in the impending Metropolitan Planning Strategy. A City Planning Commissioner would help take the politics out of decision making over where and how Melbourne is developed. Control over public expenditure may be a longer term aim but it will ensure a more effective approach to the delivery of infrastructure.

By Max Walton

Image source: Chris Phutully on flickr

planning, visioning, sustainable

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