Coalition releases Smart Cities plan

Graeme Philipson

Less than two weeks from the election, Turnbull Government has released its Smart Cities policy. But it contains very little new funding – the few real initiatives announced will be funded through the existing Clean Energy Finance Corporation, established by the previous Labor government and slated for abolition by Tony Abbott before it was saved by the Senate.

Under the new policy, announced today, the government will invest ‘up to’ $100 million a year in a new Sustainable Cities Investment Fund, to be managed by the CEFC, and another $50 million over an unspecified period for a ‘Smart Cities and Suburbs Program’.

“These investments will drive new jobs and enterprise, reduce greenhouse emissions and make our cities more resilient. They will lower the cost of living and put downward pressure on energy bills,” said the Coalition’s statement announcing the policy, released by the Prime Minister, Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt, and Assistant Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation, Angus Taylor.

Western Sydney was singled out for special mention, with a ‘City Deal’ announced as a partnership with the NSW government and unspecified local councils. The government has announced it will form a Ministerial Council supported by the three levels of government.

It is the second such ‘City Deal’ announced, on top of the selection of the Townsville last week. The sunny north Queensland city will get $100 million, mostly to match Labor’s commitment to a new football stadium for the North Queensland Cowboys.

The Western Sydney City Deal will be centred on the new Badgerys Creek airport, which will be made ‘rail ready’ – although still no commitment from anybody for an actual line to the thing.

“The airport presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for new jobs and long-term growth in Western Sydney. This potential will not be realised without better coordination across governments, integrated planning and targeted investment,” the policy says. Jobs and Growth.

The rest of the policy mostly reiterates existing infrastructure commitments and the ‘cheaper and sooner’ NBN. Even the reduction in regulatory costs from the now discontinued ‘Repeal Days’ gets a mention. Anything, it seems, that is vaguely relevant to city life can be part of the Smart Cities strategy.

The policy is essentially nothing more than a repurposing of a proportion of the $1 billion already allocated to the CEFC. The funding for smart cities will come from money already marked for clean energy initiatives, because cities account for “more than 80 per cent of national economic output. Liveable, accessible cities with clean environments are now essential economic assets.”

The policy also says that the Coalition’s Smart Cities policy is in contrast to what it calls previous governments’ ad hoc approach to urban development – which is a bit rich considering it is now just over 40 years since a Coalition government abolished Department of Urban and Regional Development, which was Australia’s first attempt at a coherent cities policy.

Back in 1972, Gough Whitlam made cities (they weren’t ‘smart’ back then) the centerpiece of his election campaign, which was launched in – wait for it – western Sydney. Sewerage was the big issue, and proper urban planning was the solution.

Now, in 2016, Australia once again has something that claims to be a comprehensive urban strategy. In Angus Taylor it certainly has an articulate champion, and we know that the Prime Minister himself is a cities and infrastructure kind of guy.

But it is instructive to look at where the money is coming from, and how much of it there actually is.

The CEFC is about clean energy, cities use energy, therefore the allocation of CEFC money to cities is about clean energy. If that’s an argument, then it can equally well be argued that the use of CEFC money to fund an urban development strategy is essentially a sleight of hand, shuffling money that should be used for other purposes into an area only tangentially relevant.

But to make such an argument would seem cynical, and that is not the role of The real question, as we see it, is whether the use of the CEFC funding for smart cities is a good use of the money, or whether this investment would be better made elsewhere – directly into clean energy projects, for example.

That is a question that can never be definitively answered, and it is certainly the case that budgetary constraints mean that money can’t just be thrown at things. The bigger issue, that of whether it is cost-effective to go into debt to fund infrastructure, seems to have been avoided.

Whatever the case, we now have the situation where this government’s urban development policy has become part of its renewable energy strategy, which has itself been widely criticised as being half-baked.

‘Smart Cities’ sounds good, but it is hard to see this new policy making a skerrick of difference to what we already have. contacted the ALP for a response to the Coalition’s Smart Cities policy. Before deadline we were only able to receive the following, to be attributed to a ‘Labor campaign spokesperson’:

“Malcolm Turnbull has no serious policies to address the productivity, sustainability and liveability of Australian cities. To be taken seriously on urban policy, Mr Turnbull must reverse Tony Abbott’s savage cuts to public transport investment, to start to address traffic congestion.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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