Cover of the National Urban Policy prepared for the former Government by the Major Cities Unit

News Corp media reported yesterday that the Major Cities Unit is one of a raft of small Commonwealth agencies that “are to be slashed as Tony Abbott takes the axe to Labor’s reform agenda” (Commonwealth agencies to be cut by Abbot Government).

I don’t know if the report is accurate, but I do know Mr Abbott wouldn’t save much if he were to “slash” this tiny organisation. He could however deprive his Government of expert advice in a critically important policy area.

The Major Cities Unit is a small part of the Policy and Research Division within the Department of Infrastructure and Transport. It has around 10 staff split between Sydney and Canberra and an annual operating budget of $1.5 million.

The Unit was established to provide the Commonwealth with advice on urban issues in the 18 cities in Australia with a population larger than 100,000.

It’s best known for its annual State of Australian Cities reports. It also published the national urban policy report, Our cities, our future; released an influential report on active travel; and had a key role in preparing an urban design protocol, Creating places for people.

That’s the tip of the iceberg though. As is often the case with bodies like this, much of the value comes from policy advice and coordination activities that are mostly invisible to outsiders e.g. via the Commonwealth Group on Cities and the Urban Policy Forum.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Mr Abbott and many of his colleagues have an aversion to the Major Cities Unit. Its reports are liberally sprinkled with ideas like density, walkability and public transport that the Prime Minister seems to think are matters that should be left entirely for the States and Territories.

But policy advice and coordination is critical for Mr Abbott’s Government because national policy has an enormous effect on the way cities function and grow. They, in turn, have an important influence on the national agenda.

An obvious example is immigration, which drives the larger part of the population increase in Australia’s largest cities. Another important example is taxation policy.

The way cars and petrol are taxed (or not!) has a major influence on the travel choices of urban residents. Taxation policy is also a factor underlying the poor affordability of housing in Australia.

The curious thing is Mr Abbott committed a future LNP Government to a direct involvement in urban policy and management well before this month’s election. He promised earlier this year to provide funding for large urban motorway projects like Sydney’s WestConnex, Melbourne’s East-West Link, Brisbane’s Gateway Motorway, and Perth’s airport Gateway road project.

Like rural and mining regions, large cities are vital for the nation’s economic performance – indeed, they contribute much more than primary industries. Like country areas, large cities also have special characteristics that warrant close attention by governments at all levels.

For example, they require very large numbers of people to live at relatively close quarters. One of the biggest challenges is how to move very large numbers of people to and from very small areas at the same time.

What’s particularly interesting is that Mr Abbott’s Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, has already proposed a role for the Commonwealth in cities.

Speaking in November 2012 at a conference on long-term planning in cities, Mr Hunt said “it’s time to establish Integrated Planning Commissions for each of our capital cities” involving all levels of government. He stresses the need for bipartisanship:

I would regard this as a standing body which would ideally include both the state planning ministers and shadow ministers, and representatives of the Federal Government and each of the relevant local councils.

Mr Hunt also argued for setting targets for cities to improve accountability in implementing the proposals of Planning Commissions. His proposals don’t sound all that different to the brief of the Major Cities Unit:

My view is that the Commonwealth has an important role in helping to establish a national system of uniform reporting standards for our capital cities… I propose that the Commonwealth should establish a National Liveability Index under which each city would get its own specific set of targets. We should set a goal of beginning annual publication in 2015.

The fact is Commonwealth policy has a direct and significant impact on cities. Mr Abbott should think long and hard about ensuring his Government has a strong capability in urban policy. It’s no less important than the service provided by Infrastructure Australia.

That capability doesn’t necessarily have to come in the form of the Major Cities Unit. It’s not beyond criticism; while some of its reports have been outstanding, in my view it has left many of the urban policy tropes pushed by the States largely unquestioned.

If he chooses to, however, Mr Abbott could retain the function of the Major Cities Unit (as is, or in some other institutional form) and give it a lot more bite than the former Government, despite the rhetoric, allowed it. He should recognise cities present their own special problems and he shouldn’t deprive his Government of the most cost-effective thing he can buy – good policy advice.

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