8. The ‘Building Better Cities’ program 1991-96: a nation-building initiative of the Commonwealth Government

Lyndsay Neilson

Table of Contents

The issues at stake
The Commonwealth’s interest stirred
Consulting the States
The ‘Yellow Book’
The funding decision
Getting the program started
Seeking State and Territory bids
Selection of Area Strategies
Getting implementation going
The Phase 2 initiative
Continuing activity and impacts
Appendix 1
Funding Allocation, Victorian Area Strategies
Appendix 2: A Better Cities Area Strategy
Area Strategy — Plenty Road — Victoria
Appendix 3: An example of a Better Cities Area Strategy from each State. Prepared by Pem Gerner
Appendix 4: Reviews of the Better Cities Program (list provided by Pem Gerner)


The Building Better Cities Program (BBC), initiated during the term of the Hawke Labor Government and administered by the then Department of Housing and Regional Development (DHRD), can be credited with leading the revival of Australian inner cities, the most significant change in urban Australia since the introduction of consumer credit post World War II.

The genesis of the Building Better Cities Program was a Special Premier's Conference held in July 1991 at which the Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments agreed to co-operate in a program focused on improving urban development processes and the quality of urban life. Its aims were to demonstrate better urban planning and service delivery as well as co-ordination within and between the various levels of government.

The Program was first funded in the 1991-92 Commonwealth Budget. The overall purpose of the Program was ‘to promote improvements in the efficiency, equity and sustainability of Australian cities and to increase their capacity to meet the following objectives: economic growth and micro-economic reform; improved social justice; institutional reform; ecologically sustainable development; and improved urban environments and more liveable cities’.

The Commonwealth Government agreed provide up to $816.4 million over the period December 1991 to June 1996 in order to meet these objectives. The Program operated through formal agreements with individual State and Territory governments and targeted 26 distinct areas throughout Australia.

Initially as Chief Executive of the National Capital Planning Authority and then as Deputy Secretary of the Department of Housing and Regional Development (responsible to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Housing and Regional Development — the Hon. Brian Howe) Lyndsay Neilson oversaw the creation, development and implementation of the program, and observed the aftermath following the 1996 Federal election.

The chapter reflects on the successes and shortcomings of the Building Better Cities program and addresses those aspects of the program that offer lessons for Commonwealth-State engagement in the contemporary environment.

I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Pem Gerner, Geoff Campbell, Brian Howe and Bruce Wright in preparing this chapter. The views expressed are mine and I am also responsible for any historical inaccuracies or misstatement of facts.