Paris Metro/RER - Australian cities won't ever look much like Paris if the current political paradigm is maintained

There’s no shortage of suggested actions the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, could consider when (presumably) he gets around to operationalising his positive rhetoric around cities.

Last month The Conversation published an essay (with eight authors!) proposing Mr Turnbull should focus on cultural activities and the aesthetics of space “ahead of the pursuit of commerce and the idea of cities as ‘economic assets’ ”.

That’s a bit vague but fortunately Fairfax’s resident urbanist and wordsmith extraordinaire Elizabeth Farrelly was more specific. Early last month she suggested five concrete actions for the consideration of new Cities Minister, Jamie Briggs:

One. Affordable Housing Act: 15 per cent of all residential development to be affordable (targeting not the desperate poor but underpaid value-driven workers including artists, nurses, primary teachers and carers; to be provided on site, to the same design standard as the rest.

Two. Pale Roads Act: all road surfaces throughout all cities paved not in black (which re-radiates heat to cause the urban heat island effect) but pale grey, and porous, taking water to the earth, not the oceans.

Three. City Bounds: all city footprints to be frozen, with all new housing to be infill. Where population growth cannot be contained, use tax incentives to encourage the development of smaller, inland cities.

Four. Roof Act: all roofs to be covered in solar panels and/or green roofing, and designed to prevent the incidence of northern and western sun on glass during summer. This would generate energy, reduce energy use and doubly cut carbon.

Five. Free public transport. Either via a betterment tax on windfall gains from land rezoning around infrastructure or with part of the $30 billion expected from raising the GST – or both – provide each city with a comprehensive, intricate, state-of-the-art transit system that is clean, dignified and free…

If you are in fact listening, Jamie Briggs, please. Hear our pleas.

While I’m doubtful about some of them (especially free public transport), there’re some interesting proposals in there; in the context of the Australia’s nervous political culture they’d be challenging for any government, Federal or State.

I like Ms Farrelly’s idea, so here are five politically demanding actions I’d propose to the Prime Minister, the Minister for the Environment and the Minister for Cities and the Built Environment:

  • Increase the cost of driving: for example, reduce work-related tax benefits for driving and introduce road/congestion pricing.
  • Recover 100% of public transport operating costs from beneficiaries: for example, tax landowners and employers who benefit from the public transport system and increase fares.
  • Reduce the tax biases that promote home ownership as an investment vehicle; for example, eliminate capital gains tax concessions.
  • Prioritise capital works spending to “sweating” existing infrastructure over building completely new works; for example, dedicate more existing road space to public transport and cycling.
  • Increase spending on public housing; for example, beef up direct government expenditure (rather than inclusive zoning tokenism/symbolism).

There are other possible actions of course but like Ms Farrelly I’m limiting myself to five.

I haven’t proposed improved governance arrangements for infrastructure projects because while there’s some scope to improve current practice, I think the common ambition of “taking the politics out of infrastructure decision-making” is a chimera.

I haven’t proposed a super infrastructure fund either because we can’t prepare our cities for the future by relying solely or primarily on retro-fitting them with new infrastructure like a metro.

The required scale is huge, it’s very expensive to build stuff in Australia, and there are many other demands on public funds in important areas like health, education and public housing (e.g. see Are politicians doing what’s needed to grow our cities?).

Even Bill Shorten’s promised $10 billion “concrete bank” is the proverbial drop in the bucket; it’s important and necessary, but it’s about treading water rather than swimming to safety. It won’t come within cooee of equipping Australia’s capital cities to (say) lift their collective public transport mode share from the current circa 10% to something like 40-50%.

It suits politicians of all parties to focus on new infrastructure because it’s so much easier to sell (it takes years!) than something politically painful like introducing congestion pricing or taxing capital gains on owner-occupied housing.

These suggestions are politically challenging for a number of reasons, not least because they involve the States and Territories. Substantial change isn’t going to happen without the sort of leadership that can cleave through jurisdictional barriers (here’s Jamie Briggs on leadership).