Urban policy and infrastructure planning

The election of a Labor Government at the 2022 federal election has brought new attention to policies for climate change mitigation and energy transition, with an accelerated minimum target of 43 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 now legislated.

Cities and suburbs will be central to achieving the climate target as concentrated sites of energy consumption in homes, workplaces and consumer activity. The energy transition demands new approaches to infrastructure and urban policy, among a much wider set of transformations necessary across economic, social and environmental spheres.

Infrastructure and urban issues weren’t focal points of the 2022 election campaign though there was some discussion of electric vehicles and home ownership support. Labor offered some costly infrastructure commitments were made such as $2 billion pledged to Melbourne’s increasingly debated suburban rail loop.

Most of Labor’s urban and infrastructure platform was focused on institutions and policy arrangements. As detailed in a policy statement published by Andrew Giles as Shadow Minister for Cities and Urban Infrastructure in the academic journal Urban Policy and Research. This statement set out six main measures:

1. Transforming existing City Deals into genuine City


2. Committing to a National Urban Policy framework.

3. Establishing the Australian Cities and Suburbs Unit within

Infrastructure Australia.

4. Bringing together an Urban Policy Forum.

5. Publishing an annual State of the Cities Report.

6. Restoring a meaningful role for local government in

National Cabinet.

Long term observers of urban policy may discern many continuities between these promises and the program of the Labor government of 2007-2013. The City Deals were a later Coalition initiative but were informed by the preceding COAG reform agenda on harmonizing national and state policy with funding programs as initiated, but not substantially enacted, under Gillard.

The 2022 National Urban Policy Framework proposal echoes the National Urban Policy released by Labor in May 2011 while the Cities and Suburbs Unit resonates with the Major Cities Unit which operated from 2008-2014 and which published an annual State of Australian Cities report from 2010-2015. The return of the latter reports will be welcome as valuable surveys of urban change. Clearly new elements in 2022 include an Urban Policy Forum and commitment to local government which was previously represented via the Council of Australian Governments, the precursor to the National Cabinet and successor National Federation Reform Council. The forum proposal is welcome, and reflects the proposals set out in the 2019 Australian Academy of Science Decadal Plan for Urban Systems Transformation. Local governments have already been invited back to the National Federation Reform Council by the incoming government, represented through the Australian Local Government Association.

The 2022 Labor program looks very much like a restoration of the previous Labor government’s agenda. But this latest iteration is also broadly continuous with the Coalition urban program of City Deals and Smart Cities and Suburbs that operated from mid-2015 onwards. Urbanists might take some heart that the need for urban policy enjoys a bi-partisan appreciation within federal parliament, even if the emphasis and extent of commitment and varies with governments and policy cycles. And we might also lament the limited scope of transformative urban thinking the policy implies.

The Labor urban platform was however quiet on the role of Infrastructure Australia, the national agency established in 2008 and continued with little alteration by the Coalition. Infrastructure Australia’s role is to advise the Australian Government on infrastructure matters around two broad purposes. First, as a statutory agency with an independent board Infrastructure Australia provides independent advice to the federal infrastructure minister, outside of the main public service. The showcase of such advice is the National Infrastructure Audit undertaken every four years assessing national infrastructure needs. Second, the agency is tasked with assessing requests for infrastructure project funding submitted by states and territories against a set of national objectives in infrastructure, including standardised benefitcost criteria. Typically, the agency does this via its national infrastructure priority list which identifies projects that have been assessed as worthy of funding.

As an advisory agency Infrastructure Australia has no direct role in decisions as to which project specifically receives funding. Rather the IA priority list serves as a validation of the worthiness of the project, with the final decision to allocate commonwealth funding to the project resting with the Minister for Infrastructure in conjunction with the Treasurer. Infrastructure Australia has made a worthwhile contribution to infrastructure assessment in Australia, applying standardised practices in infrastructure assessment that have been largely agreed upon by commonwealth state and territory infrastructure and transport agencies. This arrangement is intended to ensure technical and political rationality are separated in the decision-making process, especially for projects deemed of low technical or economic value in the IA assessment, but which for political reasons are deemed fundable by the Ministers.

The agency has occasionally targeted by politicians, such as in Senate Estimates hearings where inquisitive representatives sometimes probe officials on deviations from IA advice made by Ministers. And it was subjected to political critique by Labor while in opposition about the appointment of Board members viewed as partisan.

Infrastructure Australia’s assessment model also has a number of weaknesses. Principal among these is a bias towards infrastructure projects as a solution to urban problems. Good infrastructure planning should proceed on the basis of first identifying alternative non-infrastructure solutions to issues, such as regulatory, pricing or policy approaches. If an infrastructure intervention is identified as a preferable approach, a range of alternatives should be considered. Only after those first two steps have been undertaken should a specific project be developed to a proposal for funding. Infrastructure Australia has been quite poor at demanding project proponents go through the first two stages. Consequently, there is a bias towards infrastructure as a solution to urban problems where other responses might be more efficient. This is readily apparent in the case of road traffic congestion whereby the agency has repeatedly advocated the adoption of road pricing to encourage more efficient use of road capacity, yet continues to consider proposals for unpriced major road projects submitted by states that contradict this efficiency aim. The updating of the IA assessment process in 2021 goes some way to resolving this problem by requiring greater scoping of alternative options to the proposed project, but until project proponents face rejection on the basis of inadequate consideration of such alternatives IA will continue to receive proposals that assume an infrastructure solution a priori.

As second weakness is the relatively modest requirements IA imposes on states to develop project proposals on the basis of coherent metropolitan planning strategies that integrate land-use with transport networks and other infrastructure. Instead, projects are often proposed in isolation as responses to immediate problems, such as congestion on a road, or overcrowding on a train line. Where demand pressures already exist, benefit-cost analyses are likely to yield positive values, thus justifying the infrastructure project, yet the coherence of the project with metropolitan strategy is often doubtful.

Perhaps the most extreme case of this type is the Victorian Suburban Rail Loop (SRL) proposed in mid-2018 and submitted to Infrastructure Australia for assessment in mid- 2022. That project proposes to spend at least $50 billion on an orbital rail line through Melbourne’s middle suburbs. While the SRL proposal claims that it will achieve various transport and land-use objectives the planning basis for the scheme is almost non-existent. The 2017 Plan Melbourne refresh released just a year before the SRL proposal did not mention the suburban rail loop, nor articulate the middle-suburban land-use and transport planning deficits requiring such scale of infrastructure intervention. Nor has Plan Melbourne since been updated to incorporate the SRL. Similarly, there is no integrated metropolitan transport plan as required by the Victorian Transport Integration Act 2010, that might argue the need for the SRL, because the government has never prepared such a plan. Hence there is almost no formal planning justification for the $50 billion SRL expenditure. Yet the business case for the project claims a positive benefitcost ratio that potentially positions it for Infrastructure Australia endorsement. Moreover the $2 billion in federal funding already committed by the Labor government to the SRL places Infrastructure Australia in an awkward position. If IA assesses the SRL as unworthy of federal funding, it would directly contradict the Prime Minister, but if it does support the SRL then doubts might reasonably be raised about its own independence from government.

It is perhaps timely that shortly after taking office the new government announced a review of Infrastructure Australia. This review is ostensibly motivated by perceptions that the agency’s board has become overly politicised through claimed partisan appointments by the outgoing government. But the review also covers functional issues such as the suitability of the agency’s advice including in relation to government priorities as well as its relationship with state infrastructure bodies. At the time of writing it was not clear how the public may provide input into the inquiry, a necessary element if the review is to have breadth of scope. Certainly, there is a need for deliberation on the content of infrastructure policy and assessment beyond the process focus of the inquiry.

Australian cities continue to face serious challenges of sustainability, social distress and economic inefficiencies and inequalities. Climate change, widening social inequalities and inefficiencies in transport and infrastructure were chronic problems before COVID and the pandemic has exacerbated these in dynamic ways. Although the incoming government’s urban and infrastructure agenda is welcome, it is clearly not yet animated by the urgency of urban transformation. Adjusting the architecture of policy development and the operating practices of bodies like Infrastructure Australia is useful at a routine technocratic level, but the pressures across climate and environment, energy, social equity and prosperity, among many further forces and dynamics affecting cities, will mean that much more active and decisive policy development will be required. As with its 43 per cent by 2030 carbon abatement pledge the new government’s urban policy will need to advance a much more transformative agenda to address Australia’s urban problems, and soon.

This article is republished from Planning News with permission.