Getting implementation going

Once the Area Strategies were signed off and Intergovernmental Agreements signed, longer-term arrangements needed to be set in place for management of the Program. The initial role of the NCPA in acting as the agent to get the initiative established was no longer appropriate and program administration needed to pass to the Department of Health, Housing and Community Services.

This was done, with the NCPA being retained as consultant to the Department for technical services, and indeed, the Authority did commission and produce a large number of BBC Technical Papers over the ensuing years, and these provide an ongoing and valuable reference source for urban initiatives today.

The Australian National Audit Office described the changing administrative arrangements for implementation thus:

BCP [Better Cities Program] was initially administered by the Department of Health, Housing and Community Services. With changes in Commonwealth administrative arrangements, it was managed by successor Departments in the Health Portfolio and transferred to the Department of Housing and Regional Development (DH&RD) in 1994. At the time of the audit, BCP was managed by DH&RD's Urban Programs Branch. The National Capital Planning Authority (NCPA) provided the managing Department with consulting services in connection with BCP. In March 1996 following the change of government, the program was transferred to the Department of Transport and Regional Development.

The Department notes that the original formulation of BCP was under the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet with the assistance of the National Capital Planning Authority. This included the Better Cities Task Force, an interdepartmental committee which endorsed the Area Strategies and advised the Government on the content of State/Territory agreements. Source ANAO 1996

Working with the States was a constant struggle to keep activities aligned with objectives, agreements and milestones, and did lead to both later modifications of agreements and area strategies to reflect the realities of implementation and also to the Commonwealth ceasing funding on at least two occasions until, States/Territories achieved pre-agreed milestones.

Geoff Campbell moved from the NCPA’s team of consultants to the office of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Housing and Regional Development, Brian Howe, as a ministerial consultant with a special remit to oversee the implementation of the program.

Howe had his own challenges with the program as it started implementation. First, the selective nature of the initiative, with only 26 areas covered, disturbed some among the back bench. They did not accept that a national initiative needed to be selective to have any effect, and argued for extension of the program on a more generous geographic (electoral?) basis. To their credit Howe and his fellow leaders resisted these calls, with their focus firmly on the national benefits of the program’s demonstration potential.

The challenge with Better Cities strategies was, nonetheless, the time taken simply to organise to spend capital. In the inner areas of Australia’s cities the major barriers to change were, as discussed, lack of capacity in key infrastructure services and contamination of large areas of former industrial land in good locations for urban development.

Overcoming these barriers meant a lot of preliminary work and spending needed to be done. Before new urban development and uses could rise on old railway yards or old industrial sites, land had to be cleaned up, sewers and pumping stations had to be built and acceptable economic development projects planned and designed.

A very large proportion of the Commonwealth’s investment through BBC went ‘underground’ in this way, and Ministers became impatient to see the above-ground results.

When new developments did start to appear, (early examples being the redevelopment of Dandenong Railway Station in Melbourne and Blacktown Railway Station in Sydney as part of Area Strategies designed to revitalisate areas in decline) there was much celebration, especially among those who benefited from these new facilities. When Paul Keating, by then Prime Minister, arrived by train to open the new Blacktown Station, he was greeted with rapturous and sustained applause.

At the other end of the scale simple steps also produced great results. Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett and Brian Howe agreed that as part of Melbourne’s inner urban Area Strategy a small tramline extension along Spring Street would be made to enable a complete City Circle tram route to be set up, taking visitors and others on a loop around Melbourne’s CBD tourist attractions. Howe provided the capital, Kennett the running costs, and a lasting and highly valued contribution to inner Melbourne’s liveability and economic performance was delivered in short order.

Nothing was more dramatic and long-lasting in effects, both direct, and indirect through demonstration, than the revitalisation of the inner city areas of Sydney, Perth and Brisbane. The work of the Inner Brisbane Urban Renewal Authority, led by the late Trevor Reddacliffe, and the East Perth Redevelopment Authority, was transformative. Both Authorities pulled both government and private sector funding into complex and lasting renewal projects.

In contaminated, industrial East Perth the task was more complex. But before too long new inner-urban town houses in well designed environments were rising, selling and becoming occupied. The success over the subsequent years led to the Authority being mandated to continue its work in other areas of Perth.

In Sydney, the transformation of old industrial sites in Ultimo-Pyrmont and the introduction of the light rail link to central Sydney were catalytic events, along with the reuse of the Eveleigh rail yards.

Appendix C, prepared by Pem Gerner from his Doctoral Thesis on the Better Cities program, narrates and evaluates a selection of area strategies from today’s perspective.

Creating momentum, giving the freedom to State and Territory agencies to experiment and innovate, while ensuring the fundamental parameters of the program were being addressed and milestones met, was a juggling act of significant complexity, well beyond the demands of usual government programs which handed out money for one-off projects with usually single-purpose objectives. BBC broke new ground even at this most basic of levels.

What was fundamental to success, however, was the fact that the private sector backed the program in all States. Better Cities both created and freed up investment opportunities, and developers, guided by the agencies managing the program and each Area Strategy, found these opportunities increasingly attractive.

As confidence built in the reality of government’s commitment to these areas, with funding being spent on real infrastructure and other assets, private companies took the projects seriously.

Trevor Reddacliffe in Inner Brisbane, with his private development background, was especially adept in convincing private investors of the merits of investing in ‘his’ area, and they did. Millions of dollars poured into his projects, and inner Brisbane rapidly became a national exemplar in urban renewal.

But East Perth, Ultimo-Pyrmont and Eveleigh in Sydney and Lynch’s Bridge and Kensington Banks in inner Melbourne also rapidly drew in private investment and the Area Strategies began to take real shape. Today, investment still is flowing, an important understanding in terms of how best to assess the overall impact of the Better Cities initiative.