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A Government Minister for Cities

Australian politics are not something I tend to follow however the ousting of Tony Abbott by Malcolm Turnbull last week piqued my interest for a couple of reasons.

  1. Tony Abbott had taken an extremely ideological position on transport and pushed a transport policy very similar to our governments Roads of National Significance – perhaps even more ideological as our government at least funded or continued some transit projects such as electrification. The Abbott government cancelled or refused funding for a wide range of rail projects and redirected the cash towards more roads even though some of the rail projects were rated highly even by the governments own independent infrastructure body. Prior to being elected he said his government will “stick to its knitting” adding “And the Commonwealth’s knitting when it comes to funding infrastructure is roads”. In his own book Abbott said of public transport:

    In Australia’s big cities, public transport is generally slow, expensive, not especially reliable and still a hideous drain on the ­public purse. Mostly, there just aren’t enough people wanting to go from a particular place to a particular destination at a particular time to justify any vehicle larger than a car, and cars need roads.

  2. The contrast with Malcolm Turnbull couldn’t be greater. Even before he became Prime Minister last week he was a well-known supporter and user of public transport in Australia saying recently on twitter “Trains and trams are fun. Meet new people. See new sights. Avoid road rage”. But it’s more than just words, he used public transport regularly to get to meetings and events in his role as a government minister, often tweeting that he was doing so such as the comment below and looking though his twitter feed there are many many more just like this.

Yesterday Turnbull announced his new ministerial line up and he paid special attention to the role cities play. His comments almost brought a tear to my eye as they would easily be some of best and most accurate on the value of cities from any politician in this corner of the world. He’s even gone so far as to create a Minister for Cities and the Built Environment to ensure there is focus on developing cities better.

A transcript is below:

Just turning to changes elsewhere in the Ministry. Liveable, vibrant cities are absolutely critical to our prosperity. Historically the Federal Government has had a limited engagement with cities and yet that is where most Australians live, it is where the bulk of our economic growth can be found.

We often overlook the fact that liveable cities, efficient, productive cities, the environment of cities, are economic assets. You know, making sure that Australia is a wonderful place to live in, that our cities and indeed our regional centres are wonderful places to live, is an absolutely key priority of every level of Government. Because the most valuable capital in the world today is not financial capital, there’s plenty of that and it’s very mobile.

The most valuable capital today is human capital. Men and women like ourselves who can choose to live anywhere. We have to ensure for our prosperity, for our future, for our competitiveness, that every level of Government works together, constructively and creatively to ensure that our cities progress. That Federal funding of infrastructure in cities for example is tied to outcomes that will promote housing affordability.

Integration is critical. We shouldn’t be discriminating between one form of transit and another. There is no — roads are not better than mass transit or vice versa, each of them has their place. Infrastructure should be assessed objectively and rationally on its merits. There is no place for ideology here at all. The critical thing is to ensure that we get the best outcome in our cities.

Now of course, we have a Minister for Regional Development and the Deputy Prime Minister, Warren Truss, but cities have been overlooked, I believe, historically from the Federal perspective. So within the Ministry of Environment, I’m appointing the Honourable Jamie Briggs MP to be the Minister for Cities and the Built Environment, to work with Greg Hunt, the Environment Minister, to develop a new Australian Government agenda for our cities in cooperation with States, Local Governments and urban communities.

Of course these are just words and it will be interesting to see if and how the government work to make cities better however it’s definitely a promising start.

Last week in his first speech after being elected he pointed out John Key as someone he wants to lead like, perhaps on this issue the reverse needs to happen. New Zealand like Australia seems to have much of its national identity tied in with sparsely populated places such as farms or rugged and remote locations. Also like Australia most people in NZ live in cities yet despite this cities and Auckland in particular are looked at with scorn. This often results in a lot of provincial parochialism despite the fact that over half of NZs GDP is generated within its three largest cities. In Auckland the government has been actively hostile towards the council, especially in the areas of housing and transport and it’s often not even that they’ve had an alternative vision or ideas.

A minister for cities in NZ that was someone with an open mind and an understanding of the value of cities would be a welcome addition to the Government

55 comments to A Government Minister for Cities

  • It has been easy for our PM to look sophisticated next to the strange backwardness of Tony Abbott, it’s great that the bar is being raised across the Tasman. Hopefully other areas including energy and environmental policy will enter the 21st Century there too, so we will no longer be able to have weak positions defended by pointing to much worse ones over there.

  • luke

    problem would be if the minister for cities ended up being gerry brownlee/steven joyce/maurice when ideally Id envisage Nikki Kaye being the one for such a role.

  • spartan

    Malcolm Turnbull for NZ PM

  • Louis M

    Yes, a Minister of Cities might be a worthy idea, as would a Minister of Regional Development. The previous government had both of these portfolios (the former as Minister of Auckland Issues), but they were disestablished by National.Especially with the mess that National have created with the Housing portfolio by separating it into three.

    Turnbull may be a moderate and centrist but he’s going to struggle to hold on to his party if he pushes an ‘overly-progressive’ agenda.

  • Bruce

    Just saw in the Herald today a plan to pedestrianise and green upper Symonds Street and to bury cars underneath.
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11516155

  • What’s interesting is that, since 2007, Australia hasn’t had a “Minister for Transport”; it’s been something like “Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development”. And since 2013, the word “Transport” isn’t even mentioned; it’s part of the portfolio of the Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development (Deputy PM Warren Truss). I’ve always thought that is a smart way to recognise that land use is intricately entwined with transport, and that the latter is just a means to an end. Creating a Minister for Cities and Built Environment is another neat way of doing it too.

    • It also reflects that responsibility for transport infrastructure belongs more to the state and territory governments rather than the federal government, whose involvement is primarily strategic and funding-related. State government agencies like Roads & Maritime Services (in NSW) or VicRoads (in Victoria) manage operational functions like driver licensing, vehicle registration and maintenance of major highways.

      • GlenK

        But many of the state governments also have a similar ministry of infrastructure, regional development, etc; transport might get a mention in there but again it’s all integrated.

  • Warren S

    Interestingly, Australia’s newly appointed Minister for Cities is within the Ministry of the Environment.
    If, here in New Zealand, National followed that course the appointed person would be ranked below Maggie Barry our current Minister of the Environment and frankly, I don’t think that would work. She is a strong supporter of AWHC and in discussion I have had with her is committed to mono mode car infrastructure and really doesn’t seem to understand how successful cities work.
    So how it is done would be critical.

  • JimboJones

    If national lose the next election they will lose it in the cities particularly Auckland and chch. Why they don’t try and do something about that is beyond me.

  • Aucklanderinaus

    Good intentions from the new PM but this post will be more symbolic and gimmicky than anything. In Australia, the reality is that the federal government has very little power in this area of policy. The states have almost exclusive jurisdiction when it comes to urban planning, environment and transport. Unlike NZ, the federal government can’t dictate to the states (regional councils in NZ terms) on how what they should do in their cities.

    • ….but not the allocation of funding. States are required to do planning and infrastructure but feds hold the purse on major projects, just like here.

      • Lord Maths

        States could raise their taxes and pay their own way
        Same as Councils
        Auckland Council can up rates and pay for CRL by itself

        • Incorrect. Australian states cannot raise income tax or any customs or excise duties. Their ability to tax is very limited and they basically operate from taxes collected and allocated at a federal level.

          Auckland Council could raise land rates, but it has no ability to collect any real taxes nor influence how the national government collects taxes or allocates tax revenue. Rates are a very blunt tool.

          This could change under the New Zealand empire.

          • John

            Minor quibble: constitutionally, the states can levy income tax if they wish, but now that the commonwealth covers that field it’s politically impossible for them to do so.
            States’ revenue is about half own-source and half transfers from the commonwealth. The own-source revenue relies heavily on a variety of small inefficient taxes (patrol tax, stamp duty, alcohol, gambling….)

    • spartan

      Malcolm Turnbull is a supporter of the Gold Coast Light Rail extension so expect funding to be announced from the Federal Government for this.

  • Peter Haynes

    http://www.theage.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/malcolm-turnbull-unveils-cabinet-changes-rewarding-women-young-mps-and-plotters-20150920-gjqzf2.html
    “Integration is critical, we shouldn’t be discriminating between one form of transit and another … roads are not better than mass transit or vice versa, each has their place. Infrastructure should be assessed objectively and rationally on its merits. There is no place for ideology here at all.”

    • Luke

      Time to join the federation

    • John

      Which of course is the exact opposite of a Abbott’s neantherdal views. Malcolm must be enjoying being able to say what he thinks after two years of biting his tongue in the interests of cabinet solidarity.
      But even if you like this change of direction, in the longer term it’s still a tragedy that urban policy is so inconstant and dependent on the whims of a few government ministers. There is no bi-partisan culture of agreeing a general direction and letting the professionals get on with it. All the political focus is on controversial megaprojects which are unrelated to any overall plan. What gets up is pretty much a matter of chance. Perth’s Mandurah train only got built because the government that supported it happened to get re-elected at a critical time. Melbourne’s East West road link is not being built only because the government that supported it did not get re-elected at a critical time. And so on.

    • Stu Donovan

      that sentence made me cry little economic tears of joy.

  • Dave B (Wellington)

    That quote form Tony Abbott derogating public transport is terrible. I knew he was PT-hostile but that’s rabid. Up there with the Wendell Coxes, Steven Joyces and Gerry Brownlees.
    Hard to understand how such ignorance manages to persist among supposedly intelligent people!

  • The Real Matthew

    Your all missing what should be an obvious point

    We only have 1 city in New Zealand. Any Minister would be severely under-employed.

    Oh and please don’t insult my intelligence by coming on here and suggestion 300,000 people makes a city.

    • Sailor boy

      Less than 1/3 of our economy is primary industry yet we have a minister for that

    • Brendon Harre

      Greater Christchurch is close to 500,000 people. The rail commuter catchment zone of Wellington is almost as big. In any other country they would be classified as small to mid size cities. Without Wellington and Christchurch and an Auckland Minister is only representing 1/3 of kiwis. But with those cities added to Auckland a Cities Minister is representing well over 2 million residents and a clear majority of kiwis.

    • zer0

      “Oh and please don’t insult my intelligence by coming on here and suggestion (sic) 300,000 people makes a city.”

      Statistics New Zealand would disagree with you.

    • Nick R

      We have three cities of true metropolitan scale, home to half our population. We also have several fast growing “large town” cities that are rapidly approaching the scale where they need to start thinking like metropolitan agglomerations.

    • Guy

      Matthew, I know you’re just trying hard to be a troll, but such a statement is silly. Wellington is clearly a city, very urban. Christchurch is currently without a CBD at all, so arguably is just suburbs without an actual centre. And Auckland lies somewhere in between: lots of people, living in lots of suburbs, but also a CBD as well, about the same size as Wellington. You just have more industry, and more boats in the harbour, and more cars on the road. Not necessarily things to make Auckland more city-like, just more successful as an attraction. Except for the cars bit…

    • Well I largely agree with Matthew here; Auckland is NZ’s only city of scale, and in international terms it is a small one at that. However Wellington because of geographical constraint exhibits similar urban forces leading to typically urban outcomes; denser living, viability of high frequency PT etc, Christchurch less so, because of it’s location on the edge of a flat plain, but also because of dispersive policies and the earthquakes taking out the old heart. Christchurch is much more like those cities of the American plains. Hamilton and Tauranga are developing in similar ways, and will become just as inefficiently clogged as a result. That leaves Dunedin, my favourite for its truly urban heart, but stuck at a tiny scale….

  • Brendon Harre

    Malcolm Turnbull being pragmatic about transport mode is good but Australia fixing its urban land supply constraints is where the main problem lies. Sydney’s property market is even crazier than Auckland. This is a recent report from Sydney.

    “Developers have to juggle not only rising apartment prices but rising land prices and rising construction prices. Mr Hyder said both are on the rise.

    “Since mid-2012, development site prices have have doubled,” he said. “Three years ago you could buy in North Sydney at a site price equivalent to $148,000 a unit. Now its not less than $300,000.”

    “The big issue now is construction costs. That is a major factor starting to rear its head.

    “You used to be able to build, six stories or under for $250,000 a unit. Now it is $300,000. And high rise has gone from $325,000 a unit to $400,000.”
    http://www.afr.com/real-estate/one-developer-is-selling-sites-not-apartments-into-the-sydney-boom-20150603-ghfgw2#ixzz3mKZywSVt

  • unaha-closp

    In Auckland the government has been actively hostile towards the council, especially in the areas of housing and transport and it’s often not even that they’ve had an alternative vision or ideas.

    John Key is left faction of the National Party and Len Brown is right faction of the Labour Party. The difference between the centre-right and the centre-left is so small, it typically does devolve into a slagging match.

  • “Liveable, vibrant cities are absolutely critical to our prosperity”

    Couldn’t agree more. 60 years ago, our cities from Whangarei in the north, to Invercargill in the south, were more vibrant and livable than they are today. Many had tram networks. But as more prople have left them, and concentrated into Auckland, their vibrancy has dwindled. That needs to be reversed. Regional development is the best way to do that, instead of pouring all the effort into only the largest two or three cities.

    How well the economy (the bottom line of big business) is doing is not the relevant factor. Fairness of wealth distribution, a living wage, and the ability to easily afford your own home are. And 60 years ago NZ was far far better off than it is today. The process of centralisation (killing off the regions in favour of agglomeration benefits for big business in fewer but larger cities to make the rich richer and the poor poorer) is shaping up to be one of the worst things that has ever happened to this country.

    • Stu Donovan

      Geoff, what is this “process of centralisation” that you speak of? Is it not simply people and firms making rational locational choices that leave them better off, i.e. they choose to locate in areas (usually cities and towns) that provide them with the goods, services, customers, and amenities that they desire?

      You may be correct that the people and firms who are left behind in areas that are not growing, or going backwards, are worse off. But that seems to be an outcome to be managed, not a process that we can or necessarily should reverse. It’s also something that has occurred continuously over time: Places are settled, some are sustained, some are not.

      Indeed, reversing this situation would seem to require intervening in the decisions people are making and thereby leave them worse off. And it would likely make us all worse off.

      Worth keeping in mind that most tax is generated in cities and towns (e.g. income taxes, GST, and corporate taxes are proportionally higher) and then re-distributed more or less on a per capita basis. This will tend to favour rural areas. So you could make a case that rural areas are already getting quite a bit of fiscal life support from urbanised areas.

      • “Is it not simply people and firms making rational locational choices that leave them better off”

        But they are not better off. By almost every measure they are worse off, considerably, and increasingly so. As New Zealanders have adjusted to the economic demands of big business centralisation, they have become considerably worse off, as evidenced by home ownership becoming unaffordable, land demands around Auckland coming under pressure as abundant lands in the regions become abandoned, wages falling well off par with other developed nations and earning a respectable living on an average 40 hour job vanishes in most sectors.

        New Zealanders were far better off in 1950 than they are today, the big difference being economic equity across New Zealand, where it is generated, where it is spent, and how it is shared. The wealth was spread around. Today it is amassed by the rich while the majority lose out.

        “Agglomeration benefits” are nothing short of a tragedy for New Zealanders. It is the process by which the increasing gap between rich and poor is delivered. A transfer of wealth from the average man, to big business, as the kiwi lifestyle is rearranged into something that costs us all, to make big business more “efficient”.

        • Stu Donovan

          but if people were worse off then wouldn’t they stop moving to cities? And what are you proposing exactly? That we should stop businesses locating in cities so that people stop moving there?

          The problems you’ve identified seem to be associated only very peripherally with urbanisation, specifically:
          – Home ownership: It seems to me that the primary driver of lower home ownership is high prices, which are in turn a function of demand and supply. Demand has generally been increased by population growth and lax taxation settings, while supply has been constrained by planning policies. It seems to have very little to do with urbanisation/centralisation. There’s some interesting data in this talk: http://www.rbnz.govt.nz/research_and_publications/speeches/2013/5491417.pdf
          – Land demands: Land is under pressure primarily because we use it inefficiently. And land is used inefficiently in NZ cities primarily because of poor planning policies. Again, urbanisation/centralisation has little to do with it. And if “abundant” land is available in rural regions then why don’t people and firms move there? It’s notable that there are many cities larger than Auckland where land demands are not so intense.
          – Trends in wages and hours worked etc: These factors seem to have very little to do with urbanisation/centralisation, and more to do with productivity growth and technology. Also worth noting that NZ’s wage growth has, in recent times, outstripped many other countries and inflation. http://www.stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/income-and-work/employment_and_unemployment/LabourMarketStatistics_HOTPMar15qtr/Commentary.aspx

          One final question: If urbanisation is the cause of all these issues, then why has it not afflicted other countries who are either more urbanised than us or are urbanising at a faster rate? Many countries are more urbanised than NZ and have higher rates of home ownership and/or less heated housing markets and/or higher wages.

          I’d be the first to admit that not all is well in lil ol’ NZild. But I don’t know of any evidence to suggest that too much urbanisation and/or centralisation is the primary cause of NZ’s ills. I’d encourage you to put some evidence forward to support you claims.

          • “but if people were worse off then wouldn’t they stop moving to cities?”

            Putting aside that Auckland’s growth is largely driven by external immigration of people coming from larger cities elsewhere who want to escape them, I think you’ll find that people are just following the jobs from the regions to Auckland. But as to where they would want to be, if the job location was up to them, I doubt that many would say Auckland. Your money goes a heck of a lot further outside Auckland, where pretty much everything is cheaper.

            “But I don’t know of any evidence to suggest that too much urbanisation and/or centralisation is the primary cause of NZ’s ills”

            You mustn’t be paying attention then. Where is the housing market out of control, and where does everything cost more? Auckland. Where is the centralisation happening? Auckland.

            Better quality urbanisation should occur across all our towns and cities. Not just in one landlocked area.

          • Nick R

            Actually Aucklands growth is largely driven by Aucklanders having babies, and wanting to stay in Auckland to raise them. 2/3 of Auckland’s growth comes from natural replacement.

            So you are effectively asking “how can we make people leave Auckland and raise their families in places they don’t currently want to live in”.

          • Guy

            No, Nick, that doesn’t follow. Not sure of the validity of your figures, but natural replacement of Aucklanders is not the cause of massive growth in housing prices. Clearly, immigration is.
            Putting it bluntly, and NZ Stats bear this out, the Pakeha population is not breeding that fast. Pacific Islander and Maori populations in Auckland have a large growth spurt in young people, and statistically speaking, young brown-skinned people are not in the big wage-earner bracket. Plus, having family already in the area offers them the flexibility to “stay at home with mum” etc, and while they may well want a new house, they are not going to be able to afford it.
            So the demand for houses is being driven by the influx of massive amounts of new money looking for a home. That 1/3 you identify as not Auckland’s? Money from outside the system, that can afford to buy new, or buy expensive. Not Aucklanders per se.

    • Geoff aren’t you just generalising your particular tastes? You clearly see cities as terrible fallen places and struggle with the idea that anyone would want to live in them. And in order to reconcile this position with the plain observation that the vast majority of people continue to choose to live in cities you construct a conspiracy theory: It seems you want to believe that people in NZ are ‘forced’ to do this horrible thing, live near other people, and really each of us want no such thing.

      I’m not sure this is credible. The first part is fine; it is perfectly reasonable to prefer the quiet of the countryside to the ‘madding crowd’ of the city; however to insist that everyone is the same as you but is being duped by evil corporations is considerably less so.

      • “The first part is fine; it is perfectly reasonable to prefer the quiet of the countryside to the ‘madding crowd’ of the city”

        I don’t think it’s as black and white as “big city” or “countryside”.

        Dozens of towns and cities up and down NZ were once vibrant, people-orientated, walkable, urbanised communities. In 1920 there was really no difference between Queen Street Auckland, and Gladstone Road Gisborne. Both were urbanised communities, of similar immediate-vicinity population, and had trams running along the street.

        The urban renewal of Auckland should be delivering benefits derived from economies of scale to its residents, but it isn’t. The general trend is greater intensification = greater cost.

        I would rather see urban renewal take place in all our towns and cities. It makes no sense to anyone but the corporate world to have induced demand for living in one small area, in a nation that has ample towns and cities and developable land that is being under-utilised.

  • Charles

    People like to live in cities for other reasons than just because they must. I could work remotely from a lifestyle block in Waikikamukau, but it wouldn’t appeal to me. Access to cultural events of one’s choice is one obvious reason.

    However, taking up part of Geoff’s idea, it does seem crazy that all of NZ is tilting towards Auckland. It would be good to see a little bit of incentivized development in more than one city. Christchurch was looking like the alternative growth city, before the earthquake set it back. Wellington and Dunedin are, arguably, basically one-company towns. If a volcano surfaces in the central Auckland zone of highest probability, then what?

  • Dave B (Wellington)

    I would love to live in the counrtyside or a small country town, if:
    – It had a reliable and usable connection to the national passenger rail network
    – local public transport was available and usable
    – car-dependency was not an automatic consequence
    – I had a job there, or was able to commute by public transport to a job somewhere nearby.

    Such well-served country towns abound in the far-flung corners of rural switzerland. Why the English-speaking world finds the concept so foreign I’m dashed if I know. The closest we come is probably the Wairarapa towns which have rail and bus connections but they are still pretty poorly-served compared to Switz.

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