Working paper

The Australian Urban and Regional Development Review: what can it achieve?

URP Working Paper No. 46
Urban planning Regional planning Population density Land use Australia

The Australian Urban and Regional Development Review (AURDR) is the climax of a series of Federal initiatives in urban affairs which started in 1991. These initiatives are sometimes likened to those of the Whitlam era, but their scope is different and much more limited as yet in terms of Financial and political commitment. However the last few years have seen a multitude of Federal reports on urban issues from the (now) Department for Housing and Regional Development and from other Federal bodies such as the Industry' Commission; and these have been backed up by experimental projects such as the Better Cities program and the issue of model guides for residential development (AMCORD and AMCORD Urban). The Federal interventions have also placed a strong emphasis upon close co-operation and ’partnership' with state and local governments.

To climax this process, the AURDR offers a three-year investigation of a variety of issues, including urban trends and prospects, land use and urban design, transport planning, environmental improvement, infrastructure provision and costs, regional planning and development, and local government finance (the review also incorporates a legislative requirement to review the working of the Federal financial assistance grant to local governments). The goals of the review incorporate the familiar three e's - efficiency, equity and environment. In practice the review is strongly driven by two considerations. One is the advancement of the Government’s policy of micro-economic reform, which in this context means the simplification of planning and building codes and the provision and financing of infrastructure. The other consideration is the perception that there are serious deficits and inefficiencies in the structure, functioning and growth of Australian cities, and that a new look is needed at patterns of urban and regional development.

This paper will not offer a political forecast of the probable outcome of the AURDR which others may be better qualified to tackle. Instead it will offer a personal view of what the review might achieve if it is to provide a worthwhile basis for future urban and regional policies, and more specifically for the role of the Federal government. It will not cover all aspects of the review but will concentrate on issues of urban structure and regional development. These issues are extremely important as well as (after a long interval) again become topical and controversial.

Insofar as the Federal government has already marked out a stance on urban issues, it is as advocate for 'urban consolidation' or the promotion of more compact cities which are claimed to be more economically efficient and environmentally sustainable (their relation to the equity goal is less clear). Prior to current Federal initiatives, State governments had already in the 1980s adopted the same goal in varying degrees through introducing high residential densities in both new and established urban areas. This policy was a feature of the state metropolitan strategies for Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth which appeared in the late 1980s, all since revised,2 and of the more recent and less prescriptive SEQ (South East Queensland) 2001, produced by the Queensland Government in conjunction with local and other interests.3 The Federal Government has picked up this ball and kicked it with greater vigour. The consolidation goal has been strictly pushed in Government reports (though not by the Industry Commission) and endorsed in ministerial speeches, including ones by the Prime Minister, and has been advanced through demonstration projects, model residential codes and in other ways.

This early commitment of the Federal government to a particular viewpoint is unfortunate, since a more objective look at the evidence increasingly suggests the limitations of a consolidation policy, especially one viewed as the main prop or theme of a new urban policy. The state metropolitan strategies put equal stress upon a parallel policy of developing major secondary centres in the big cities, as a means of concentrating employment, improving access by public transport to jobs and social facilities and facilitating the development of medium density housing in convenient locations. In practice a 'consolidation' policy without a 'centres' policy proves to make little sense, yet the 'centres’ policy - as will be demonstrated - is much the harder one for governments to realise under present conditions and has still to receive as much Federal support.

Because of its leading position in the current policy agenda, this paper will first review the limitations of urban consolidation policy. It will continue on a more positive note to discuss the advantages and possibilities of a 'centres’ policy, linked with improved transport policy and some aspects of urban consolidation. It will then argue the importance of more positive and selective Federal initiatives over regional development, before concluding with a review and check list of possible Federal measures

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