Sydney could be in danger of overcrowding unless something is done soon (Image via GoodFreePhotos)

A more efficient plan is needed to prevent Sydney and Melbourne from becoming too congested, writes David Williams.

GLADYS BEREJIKLIAN did something unusual for a NSW Premier last month — she called for a Commonwealth heads of government (COAG) meeting to address public concern about planning and immigration.

It was exceptional because state premiers – Liberal or Labor – rarely question the immigration targets set by federal governments, much less propose that Australia plans ahead for population growth as a federation rather than on an individual state-by-state basis.

While they might grumble privately about having to pick up the tab for decisions made in faraway Canberra, state leaders generally view infrastructure shortfalls caused by high population growth as an acceptable price to pay for keeping their economies humming.

Out in the suburbs, however, the talk is not about how well the economy is travelling but about how congestion, over-stretched local services and unaffordable housing are becoming the norm.

There’s growing dissatisfaction, too, about the extent and the quality of high-rise developments being built to cater to Sydney’s growing population. The community is not seeing an improvement in living conditions and amenity accompanying this growth.

Ms Berejklian’s uncharacteristic frankness – and her government’s recent decision to allow certain councils to exempt themselves from new building codes designed to facilitate more medium-density housing – suggest over-development is shaping as a significant political issue ahead of next year’s state election.

Politics aside, her observation that “we cannot ignore the reality that communities are feeling growing pressures on local services and infrastructure” and that “we need to be focused and disciplined when planning for the future” is spot on.

Without careful strategic and long-term urban planning informed by an overarching national settlement framework, Sydney and Melbourne risk becoming cites where clogged roads, crowded public transport and poor amenity are a daily fact of life.

It’s important to note that Sydney is not full; the city’s overall population density is lower than that of typical European cities and this could be lifted without substantially eroding the amenity for which it’s world famous. However, we would need a new deal for our big cities and indeed for small cities and regions.

Where Sydney is overcrowded is with special interest groups selling quick-fix nostrums for land and housing supply, often backed by self-serving or flat-out spurious claims.

Sections of the media and government have proved surprisingly supportive of property and developer interest propaganda. In March, for example, the Reserve Bank of Australia published a discussion paper asserting that zoning restrictions cost the average Sydney home-buyer $490,000.

The RBA research failed to consider the full range of alternative explanations for high housing prices in Sydney and elsewhere — and the error was called out by numerous eminent housing economists.

Nevertheless, the Housing Industry Association and the Property Council of Australia seized on the RBA’s findings to bolster their long-standing claims that planning restrictions and slow land releases are to blame for high prices.

What this powerful industry lobby does not highlight is that housing land release and infill capacity has been stepped up substantially in recent years – and planning frameworks amended – to boost housing supply.

However, the result has not been greater affordability – housing in Australia is much more than a supply/demand issue – but rather a hotchpotch of residential developments putting further pressure on existing infrastructure.

If Sydney is to avoid becoming a city like Sao Paulo in Brazil – where traffic congestion is endemic and where outlying peripheries lack adequate housing, infrastructure, services and jobs – its future expansion needs to be better planned.

That means governments – federal, state and local – cooperating more fully in delivering infrastructure, improving housing affordability, and preserving amenity, as well as working harder to provide opportunities for population growth away from Sydney and Melbourne, and towards the regions.

All this would be much easier to initiate if there was a national urban and settlement policy. But the Commonwealth lacks specific planning powers under the Constitution, and the appetite for developing a coherent vision of national urban and regional planning waxes and wanes according to the political cycle.  

Even allowing for constitutional proprieties, it’s a careless attitude.

The Commonwealth’s fiscal, investment and immigration policies have an outsize impact on the development of our cities and regions and the states and territories are struggling to deal with those challenges — the point Ms Berejiklian was trying to make.

Her suggestion of a COAG meeting dedicated solely to the issue of planning and immigration would be an ideal launch pad for a national discourse on developing a strategic settlement strategy.

Such a strategy would go beyond city deals. It would ensure all our cities, towns and regions were better equipped to deal with the major environmental, economic and social shifts now fundamentally altering the way people live.

We owe it to future generations to manage the excesses of growth so our cities continue to be among the world’s most liveable and integrated national planning is crucial to that process.

David Williams is the chief executive officer of the Planning Institute of Australia.

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