The issues at stake

During the 1980s, with the election of the Hawke Government there developed an atmosphere of exciting reform created by the decisions of Hawke and Treasurer Paul Keating to pursue the opening up of Australia to global economic competition.

Macroeconomic reform involved addressing efficiency within the economy as well as removing barriers to trade and international investment and currency exchange. The debates about efficiency turned, inevitably in an economy and society as urban as Australia’s, to the place of cities in economic growth.

Traffic congestion, needed infrastructure investment, inner urban decline in population and employment, rising car dependency, restructuring of labour markets leading to rising structural unemployment in the old industrial suburbs, concerns with consequent rising inequality across society, all became issues of debate.

The economics profession, unashamedly non-spatial in its outlook, remained recalcitrant in acknowledging any role for spatial policies — interventions directed at particular places rather that the economy as a whole — arguing that markets should sort out spatial issues through structural adjustment over time and that government intervention would only impede market progress.

The Commonwealth Treasury, having a sufficiently long memory to recall the bitter battles of the 1970s with Tom Uren’s Department of Urban and Regional Development (DURD) over economic policies, remained totally opposed to any revival of interest at Commonwealth level in dealing with cities. Policies and programs with spatial effect were to be avoided because these matters were State responsibilities and the Commonwealth should stay out of them.

The counter view was that there were common trends across the nation that resulted from Commonwealth economic and social policies (such as the effect of structural unemployment, the lack of investment in infrastructure due to strictures on borrowing) and that the economy as a whole would substantially benefit from interventions that addressed impediments to change in urban Australia and so speed adjustment to new realities.

In other words, there were market failures in the urban system, often spatially based (such as lack of players and confidence in the inner city property market) that needed focused spatial policies to correct them.

Further, trends such as declining population and employment in inner cities threatened the increasing underutilisation of capital already invested in infrastructure and services — an inefficient outcome — and placed more pressure on the need for new investment in outer suburbs to accommodate new growth.

Urban consolidation was seen as an economically efficient way of catering for population growth, offsetting the car-based sprawl that characterised Australian urban expansion.

At the same time, urban expansion was seen as necessary to accommodate most growth, given the high propensity among Australians to seek to own their own home on a spacious suburban lot and issues of affordability for first home buyers in particular — the ability to buy a block of land and build later when savings allowed, was still a significant factor.

But outer urban development could be more efficient and more equitable if it was planned and delivered better — more focus on public transport infrastructure and networks, more attention to employment opportunities in outer suburbs, more timely provision of services for arriving residents — all matters addressed in the past and reflected in the work of Australia’s government Development Corporations in several States and in the work of some of the larger estate developers.

Organisations like the Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation, the Macarthur Development Board in Sydney, and the most significant, the National Capital Development Commission in Canberra had extensive experience in organising and managing ‘whole community’ developments on an integrated basis, on government owned land.

Private companies like Lend Lease and Delfin were experimenting with similar approaches on their own estates, with some success. But more needed to be done to demonstrate how to make suburban development better — more efficient, more equitable, more liveable.

A further imperative was the development of non-metropolitan Australia. Regional development (decentralisation) was a long-running mantra of all governments across Australia, and the pressures were being raised by structural adjustment in the economy that removed protection progressively from many region-based industries.

The resulting unemployment, coupled with the impacts of technological change, led to rural and small town population decline that was a major political issue for rural-based political parties, including the Labor Party, which was trying to shore up a rural and regional city base.

Brian Howe MP was the leader of the Left of the Labor Party in Canberra and a reformer by instinct. As Minister for Health, Housing and Community Services he was a senior player in the Hawke Government and a senior Cabinet Minister. Howe worked hard to get the Prime Minister and his Department interested in 'spatial disadvantage' arising from economic changes, and the social problems associated with existing settlement patterns emerging in Australian cities.

In response, to address the issue, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet funded a series of economic and social studies on spatial disadvantage, and later a major piece of work by The Institute of Family Studies on living standards and communities.

The Australian Living Standards Study looked at living conditions and experiences in around a dozen differing communities around Australia, including several in remote areas.

This work was never released, but was followed by discussion within the Council of Australian Governments in 1990 on urban settlement patterns and the implications of the dispersed city model for broader economic and social policy. This latter work was coordinated by Meredith Edwards in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

At the same time the Prime Minister was advancing his ‘New Federalism’ agenda, forming more cooperative relationships with the State and Territory governments to advance projects and initiatives he saw as being firmly in the national interest.

All these factors, and more, combined to create a moment that was ’ripe’ for an initiative in urban and regional development.