For a couple of years now, the Australian Government has had a Smart Cities plan. It has website devoted to the subject, and has appointed up-and-comer Angus Taylor as Assistant Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation.
As part of the strategy the government has announced three ‘City Deals’ – Townsville, Western Sydney and Launceston.
A City Deal, quoting from the Government’s own website, is where “the Australian Government, a state or territory government, and local governments will make our cities better places to live in and do business.
“Through City Deals, governments, industry and communities will develop collective plans for growth and commit to the actions, investments, reforms and governance needed to implement them.”
Sounds like a great idea. Who wouldn’t want to “make the most of new and existing investments of governments” or “unlock business and industry development and ensure community well-being.” There is talk of “driving reform through incentivising actions” and a “coordinated investment plan for our cities.”
But there is some concern that the cities thus far chosen have been picked for political reasons. Townsville is in the electorate of Herbert, which is the most marginal seat in Parliament. Western Sydney saw a swag of seats swing from the Liberals to Labor at the last election, and Launceston is the centre of the electorate of Bass, known for its extreme voting volatility.
There is of course no proof of this, but that is part of the problem. The City Deals website says that “the process for selecting future deals is yet to be announced,” and says that this year the government will “publish details of the regional City Deal competitive bid process to be used in the selection of City Deals outside Australian cities.” (We assume this means outside capital cities).
The establishment of a ‘Cities Reference Group’ and the creation of a ‘National Cities Performance Framework’ are also all promised for this year.
The idea of City Deals has largely been taken from the UK, where it has been in place since 2012. Even the name of the program is the same. That means we can look at the performance of the British model to get an idea of what to do – and what not to do.
One person in a very good position to do that is Paul Burton, Professor of Urban Management and Planning at Queensland’s Griffith University, where he is also director of the Cities Research Institute.
A transplanted Englishman, Prof Burton has followed the UK experience closely and believes it has many lessons for Australia.
“The real question is whether the City Deals represent any significant difference in policy approach,” Professor Burton told InnovationAus.com. “We just don’t know enough detail to tell.”
He points to a study by the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO) on that country’s City Deals program, which criticises the lack of planning and metrics for evaluating many programs.
“We really need transparency before we can trust the process,” he says. “By what criteria is Townsville top of the list? Why where they chosen? We simply don’t know.”
Professor Burton is also critical of what he calls the “disparate collection of platitudes” that has been used to describe the City Deals to date.
“If it really is a major new policy development, it needs to be properly described. It needs to be clear how it will work and what its aims are. We need to know what criteria will be used to judge the success of each program.
“The City Deals may end up being a great idea. But we need to know a lot more about them before we can make a judgement.”
In a recent article in The Conversation, he looked at nine reasons why KPMG and the Property Council, who published a joint paper last year on the subject, say the City Deals were a good idea.
“How do these stand up to scrutiny?” he asks, then goes through each factor and examines the answers. His conclusions are not promising. The supposed benefits are very difficult to achieve.
But that is not say the concept is not a good one. The government says it is pursuing the City Deals program energetically. “The early feedback from stakeholders has been very clear: deliver early City Deals quickly, as proofs of concept, and then build on the lessons learnt,” a spokesperson for Angus Taylor told InnovationAus.com.
“The Prime Minister has written to all states and territories to offer to work collaboratively towards a City Deals for capitals. But the focus of city deals is not just on capital cities – Australia’s other urban and regional centres are vital to the performance of the wider Australian economy.
“Decisions on the locations of future deals will take into account the views of state, territory and local governments and the needs of local communities. Each City Deal will be bespoke, tailored to local needs and will set out a mix of investment, planning, policy and regulatory actions to unlock business, development and ensure community wellbeing.
“As governments and communities consider opportunities for a city deal in their region, we would encourage them to identify:
- outcomes being targeted, connected to performance measurement frameworks
- opportunities for investment, including innovative financing, connected to reform across all levels of government
- governance arrangements, underpinned by clear delivery timeframes and accountabilities.
Again, fine words, and InnovationAus.com does not wish to be cynical. But Professor Burton says that City Deals are really nothing new.
“They look remarkably similar to other measures that have been promoted over the last 40 years,” he says.
“Every UK urban policy initiative introduced since the mid-1970s has spoken of the importance of partnerships, cross-departmental co-ordination, multi-sectoral intervention and local leadership. While the titles of these initiatives may have changed, the song has remained the same.
“Until we see more evidence of how they will work in Australia, we simply cannot say whether they will be effective policy. We have heard a lot of this before.”
I fear he may be right. It is interesting to read the material on today’s City Deals website and compare the program’s lofty aims with those of the Department of Urban and Regional Development, which was an initiative of the Whitlam Government before most of today’s Australian city dwellers were born.
This, from the Commonwealth Gazette, 19 December 1972: “The Department of Urban and Regional Development (DURD) will have a chance to pursue energetically, in co-operation with the States and Local Government bodies, all matters related to city and regional planning and development.”
The DURD program did a lot. It gave direct grants to local government bodies around Australia for such things as flood mitigation, urban renewal, leisure and tourist facilities, and building sewerage systems in unserviced urban areas.
The Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation was established 1974 as a model for similar schemes elsewhere in Australia.
The Fraser Government abolished DURD. Now, two generations later, we have City Deals.