Reform how our cities are governed to manage urgent urban challenges: report

Local government collaboration with metropolitan governance in Australian cities must reform to better address urgent urban issues such as climate change action, population growth and urban sprawl, finds new AHURI research.

Local government co-ordination: metropolitan governance in twenty-first century Australia, by researchers from RMIT University and University of South Australia examines the role of local government in city-wide governance including cooperation with other governments and sectors, and whether an increased role could create more responsive, effective and better democratic outcomes.

“Australia’s metropolitan regions are a patchwork comprised of local government, national government and dominant state governments,” says report author Associate Professor Andrew Butt from RMIT University.

“Most decisions that affect the metropolitan scale—such as planning, transport, urban growth—are overseen by the state governments.

“Yet local government has an important role in representing community aspirations from the ground-up.

“The interconnected nature and increasing complexity of Australian metropolitan governance raises critical questions about the existing political fragmentation and multiplicity of boundaries, functions and government services that often replicate and compete with one another.

“This overlapping of responsibilities has reignited calls for metropolitan scale governance which involves government, the private sector and not-for profit/community-based organisations.

“Whether these take the form of a metropolitan government, a coalition or a network will need to be negotiated in every city region and metropolitan area, as will the way in which boundaries are drawn.

The report found that state governments are the dominant player in current city governance and there is a trend towards taking away planning powers from local government and making them the ‘line manager’ in a process driven elsewhere.

This also plays out in the different state planning reforms and changes to the Local Government Acts with their emphasis on fiscal responsibility and procedural, rather than genuinely political, action.

The research questions the common assumption that creating a large, overarching efficient government entity is the best way to govern a city’s development, finding that for any larger scale governance structures to be sustainably successful they have to be accepted as legitimate by citizens and all levels of government.

“What people consider important in terms of urban public goods and services can vary substantially as a result of differences in culture, geography, demographic and socio-economic status,” says Butt.

“If bureaucrats simply deliver services to passive citizens who are not actively engaged in co-production, the level and quality of these public goods and services will be seriously reduced.

“There is no one-size fits all model for the challenges of metropolitan governance.

“Within Australian, there are a range of formal and informal models with decision-making for metropolitan areas largely in the hands of the state government.

“To enhance the role of local government in Australia’s multi-level federalism we need to break institutional barriers and set a precedent for collaboration; build capacity and share knowledge; create potential for innovation and an opportunity to address extraneous issues.

“All of these benefits in turn, support better policy, planning and implementation at the metropolitan scale, and the potential for more sustainable outcomes for the communities they seek to serve.”

The report can be downloaded from the AHURI website at