A big deal

Australia seems to be once again squaring off for a great population debate.

In one corner you have the likes of Tony Abbott, Bob Carr and Dick Smith waving the white flag on population growth, arguing that our cities are ‘full’ and seemingly happy to make Australians poorer through their policy prescriptions.

In the other we’ve had practical advice from respected institutions such as Infrastructure Australia and the Productivity Commission who argue it’s time to get on and plan for a growing population. To invest, plan and coordinate to create great cities and great suburbs.

This corner argues that Australia has always grown, and always will. The ostrich approach would inevitably lead to a future marred by increased congestion, even worse housing affordability and an economic base poorly suited for the metropolitan century.

It seems the choice is to stick our heads in the sand or prepare for the future.

Last Sunday we saw governments coming together in an all too rare manifestation of the latter. The Prime Minister, NSW Premier and eight western Sydney councils collectively announced a Western Sydney City Deal – a blueprint to bind all three levels of government to an agreed economic plan for the region.

The Property Council has championed the idea of city deals because evidence from the UK and other countries show they work. They are a way of bringing disparate governments – and their often more disparate departments – together to align on a growth plan for a city.

Why is this so important? Firstly, Greater Western Sydney is home to one of the largest and fastest growing populations in the country. In less than two decades its population is set to expand from 1.9 million to 3 million. The Western Sydney City Deal incorporates all the key elements to manage that growth: transport, housing, jobs, investment and education.

Secondly, it’s a potential template for managing the growth forecast for our other cities, big and small. We live in one of the most urbanised countries in the world. With three quarters of our population growth expected to occur in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, it makes sense to focus on cities. Each of them will undergo a transformation over the next two decades and beyond, and this transformation needs to be managed to avoid the pitfalls that population scaremongers are so fond of pitching.

In a federal political system which has highly fragmented local government (with the honourable exception of southeast Queensland councils), there is no natural vehicle to think about a city region. That’s where the city deal comes in.

It’s both big and complex, but is this Western Sydney City Deal the real deal? All the early indicators suggest that it is. It is a major achievement and the most substantial of the three city deals released to date. It is backed by the Government’s investment in the Western Sydney Airport and a new metro rail line which will shape the future of the region.

There was a genuine, palpable sense of excitement at the launch. But now it’s down to implementation.

An implementation plan will be released within months that will contain much of the delivery detail. Ways need to be found to keep that momentum going and keep governments aligned (no easy task, but the Greater Sydney Commission – the Jedi knights of Sydney’s planning future – will be key to success on this score). And we need confirmation that a new western Sydney rail line won’t result in planning for the critical West Metro line being shelved.

And where to next for the city deal caravan? The Federal Government has announced city deals will be negotiated in the smaller cities of Darwin, Geelong and Hobart. With Western Sydney now launched, the way is open for another big-city city deal. One for Perth, Southeast Queensland or Melbourne must surely be on the cards.