City Futures Blog

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Metro governance and planning

Posted by on October 28th, 2015 · Cities, Government, Planning reform


By Bill Randolph, Director, City Futures Research Centre. This a revised version of an address given at the Cities Roundtable with the Minister for Cities and the Built Environment, Melbourne School of Design.

The way in which our cities are governed is probably the most critical issue in determining how well we collectively respond to the growing challenges our cities face.  It’s the one lens through which all our responses to these challenges focus.  Improving the governance of our cities should enable better policy and planning outcomes.

What do we mean by city governance in this context?  It’s not about formal structures of government.  Rather it refers to the totality of the structures and processes by which decisions are made and implemented in a city.  It’s about focusing on the processes, practice and outcomes of multi-scalar design making.  That makes it hard, especially when you are starting with an existing sub-optimal situation.

City planning is central to that city governance task.  But it’s also about all the other decision making that contributes to city outcomes – from government, businesses and the population. That makes it doubly hard to both comprehend and then manage.  But it’s not impossible.

The key word here is integration.  You really can’t manage a city without an effective integration of the key policy levers – transport, land use, infrastructure (hard and soft), services, housing supply, employment, etc.

The need for integration refers to the way the various levels of government interact.  In our increasingly high density cities this means not just federal, state and local, but, arguably a fourth tier of strata governance – over a quarter of Sydney-siders live in strata schemes, each one effectively a mini-local government. It also means integration within each tier – working across bureaucracies and agencies within each level.

The deficiencies in metro governance are well known, but deeply embedded in our existing government structures.  Derived from 19th Century administrative and political needs, the form of city governance is simply not fit for purpose in the rapidly changing 21st Century.  It is badly in need of major reform. Briefly, the deficiencies of present metro governance are:

  • siloed and competing policy making,
  • inadequate urban financial frameworks,
  • fragmented layers of government – four, if you throw in the rapidly growing block level strata title layer,
  • poorly integrated at both metro and local level,
  • almost non-existent community participation in decision making,
  • the almost total loss of trust in the planning process – how do we turn NIMBYs into YIMBYs?

Solutions to these issues are all the more important as our cities struggle to cope with the major task of renewal and redevelopment in the search for greater density.  The new Sydney Metropolitan Commission has just been announced.  It’s a bold move.  Will it fix the problem?  Time will tell, but it’s an overt recognition of the vacuum of governance at the city level in Sydney.  Comparable problems face all our major cities.

So what’s Federal government’s role?  Federal policy impacts our cities in a multitude of ways. Here a just a few things that might help the process of city governance reform that the Federal government could to do more broadly.

  1. It can set drive the reform of city governance through its investment activity. Federal government has control of major infrastructure funding.  Clearly, Federal involvement in these kinds of major city shaping projects could reasonably expect a return on investment in the form of a metro governance dividend – are such investments part of an integrated and coordinated metro scale planning framework?  Will they lead to clear urban productivity gains?  Will they achieve greater spatial equity?
  2. Ensure all the key Federal policy domains develop a strong spatial awareness – ‘spatially blind’ policy is poor policy. Economies do not operate in a spatial vacuum.  Federal government policy impacts on city outcomes across all major portfolios. Cities are where policy turns spatial.   This needs to be explicitly recognised from Treasury downwards.
  3. Finally, you can’t govern a city well without a good information base. Data and the research to translate that data into informed policy making is critical.  As researchers, we would strongly argue that any move to better urban governance must be founded on a strong evidence base supported by fundamental research.  The Federal initiative to create a nationally integrated urban data database with associated analytical tools – AURIN – needs to be supported to deliver on the promise for both policy makers and researchers.

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