Dr Marcus Spiller, Principal and Partner, SGS Economics & Planning Pty Ltd, addressed a plenary session on Metropolitan Governance held as part of the State of Australian Cities Conference 2011 at the University of Melbourne.
The interests that bind us as citizens of the metropolis are substantial and quite different to those which bind us as members of our local community, and those that we share as citizens of the State and Nation. Because of these different and sometimes conflicting interests, governance institutions which are aligned to the local and State communities, that is, local Councils and State Governments, inherently lack the competence to make decisions on behalf of the metropolitan community.
Local Councils have been known to aggressively protect the lifestyles and other interests of local neighbourhoods and suburbs, even where damage to the wellbeing of the metro community is demonstrable. This is to be expected in a healthy democracy. The role of local government is unambiguous; it is to promote local interests. Councillors are rarely thanked by their constituents for prioritising regional or State level imperatives over local concerns.
Acting within this necessarily narrow mandate, local Councils individually and collectively cannot be expected to make decisions in favour of sustainable metropolitan development. As Gary White, former President of the Queensland Division of the Planning Institute of Australia, once put it "a patchwork quilt of local aspirations and plans doesn't amount to an effective regional plan".
For their part, State Governments are also profoundly compromised in their efforts to act in the best interests of the metropolitan community. Their obligation is to represent the interests of the whole State, including reasonable expectations on the part of the non-metro community that the city will cross-subsidise the country to some extent. The Planning Minister of the day might be an enthusiast for the metropolis, but the Cabinet inevitably has an eye on the country vote. Put simply, the State Government can't speak for the metropolis without inhibition.
In addition, the community of interest served by State Governments differs from that at the metropolitan level in terms of spatiality. The metropolitan community is characterised by physical links, heavy flows of people and goods in relatively confined geographies and the continuous struggle to resolve the tensions between competing land uses in these confined spaces. In some contrast, State jurisdictions can be thought of as ‘aspatial' entities, notwithstanding that they have clear territorial boundaries. These jurisdictions represent collections of spatially defined communities, where the primary affiliation is to the State rather than the space.
The ‘natural' way of thinking about, and organising for, policy development and service delivery in this environment involves compartmentalisation into sectors - health, transport, education, arts and culture, policing etc. This is one of the reasons why ‘higher order' governments around the world have struggled to achieve a joined up approach to the provision of public services. It's true that by dint of the efforts of enlightened leaders in individual departments, the silo approach can be broken down from time to time. But this way of operating is not in the DNA of State of Governments, and they are at a considerable disadvantage when tackling the joined up mess, or opportunity, represented by our metropolises.
No amount of jaw boning can change these fundamentals. There is a yawning gap in our governance system, if a community of interest as clear and crucial as the metropolis remains without a voice for its collective will.
The gap can only be filled by; a transfer of genuine decision making power to the metropolitan constituency; a transfer of political accountability to this constituency; and a transfer of revenue raising capacity for the functions and infrastructures which are appropriately determined at the metropolitan level.
This doesn't mean a one size fits all solution. The gap can be filled by a full blown metro government with a directly elected Mayor and set of councillors, as is the case with the Greater London Authority. Or it can be established by an electoral college of constituent Councils, such as in Vancouver or its antecedent on this side of the Pacific, the MMBW.
Moreover, the gap does not necessarily need to be filled in one hit. A useful start would be to establish a regional planning authority, operating at arm's length from the Minister of the day, to prepare metro strategy and take care of development assessment for issues and areas of metropolitan significance, such as the CBD, the airport, key activity centres, major transport and employment corridors etc. The regional authority's brief can be extended progressively to take on responsibility for water, roads, public transport and metropolitan parks and the funding streams associated with these.
Whilst there are many ways of approaching governance reform, there must ultimately be a transfer of power and authority. This is true for both local government and State Government which currently share this power to less than satisfactory effect for reasons I noted earlier.
The proposal for a separate sphere of governance aligned to the metropolitan community of interests does not necessarily involve abolition of local government as in the Brisbane and Auckland solutions. There's no point in plugging a democracy gap at the metropolitan level, only to create one at the local level. All three spheres must be in play if we are to harness the power of democracy to solve some of the seemingly intractable conflicts facing our big cities.
In terms of the commonly expressed apprehensions about the establishment of separate, democratically mandated, institutions to look after the metropolis, I make the following observations:
"We can't afford the extra layer of bureaucracy". If the extra sphere of governance means we are able to implement the planning vision for sustainable and productive cities much faster than current arrangements, the economic dividend from this reform would swamp the costs of running a metro government. Moreover, there need not be an addition to bureaucracy; the staffing of metro government should, at least in part, come from corresponding cuts in functions at the State and local government levels.
"The States are effectively ‘city states' and can manage the metropolis and its hinterland in an integrated way". As discussed earlier, the States tend to operate in an ‘aspatial' way, that is, in silos. It's easy to say that they could and should act in a joined up way, but experience shows that this is an extraordinarily difficult goal to achieve. In any case, State boundaries don't neatly align with metro hinterlands in many cases - with Brisbane versus Queensland and Perth versus WA being the starkest examples. Contrary to the thesis of a deepening symbiotic relationship between city and country, the metropolis doesn't have the same interdependency with its hinterland that it once did. The city was once the dispenser of specialised services to support agricultural production, manufacturing and resource exploitation in its immediate hinterland. Now the metropolis exports services Australia wide and to world generally, and these exports are becoming the primary drivers of income and employment generation, including in hinterland areas. The metropolis has, in one sense, uncoupled from its immediate hinterland, and deserves to be understood and managed as vital economic entity in its own right.
"State Governments won't devolve their powers." Any worthwhile reform is difficult to achieve. During the 90s and noughties, National Competition Policy demonstrated that radical change is possible in Australia, including State Governments giving up powers and forsaking previously powerful interest groups, provided the fiscal incentives are there.
"We can achieve citizen buy in to metro plans with better engagement techniques without the expense and distraction of institutional reform." It may well be possible to get sign off on metro strategy content through new models of community engagement which involve NGOs, industry and citizens groups in a much more sophisticated way. But, how can we be confident that these agreed plans will be delivered ‘on the ground' if the implementation agents (State Governments and local governments) are compromised as discussed? How can we be sure that the city shaping transport infrastructure will be provided on time? How can we be sure that the hard decisions on pricing policies are made, including, for example, those relating to road congestion charging? How can we be sure that controversial policies such as land value capture and development facilitation via urban regeneration authorities are followed through? These matters demand both better conceptualisations of community engagement and governance institutions which are competent to act in the interests of the metropolitan community.
"State Governments don't want to create a competitor". This is undoubtedly true, but it is not insurmountable. For example, it could be argued that the New Zealand Government has recently created a challenger to its national leadership role in the formation of the Auckland Council, and that the Blair Government in the UK did the same in 1999 with the reconstitution of a metropolitan government for London (even though this reform was likely to deliver a Lord Mayor highly critical of Westminister). Even with the transfers of powers mentioned earlier, State Governments in Australia would still be responsible for health, education, law and order, inter-urban roads and a range of state wide functions which together comprise 2/3rds of current State budgets. Furthermore, in line with the subsidiarity principle, State Governments would continue to have a ratification role in respect of several functions of a metropolitan governance institution where there is a significant potential impact on the State interest. This is likely to include proposed metropolitan strategies.
Beyond our local neighbourhoods, the metropolis is probably the most meaningful spatial community for urbanised Australia. Yet this community has no voice and no capacity for self determination. This is doubly bad, given the far reaching implications of metropolitan management for virtually all indicators of social, environmental and economic progress across the nation. Robbed of its own institution to mediate the inevitable tensions in metropolitan growth and infrastructure provision, this community of interest is likely to continue to tear down State Governments, which, I suspect, will retreat into ever more bland policies which are socially, environmentally and economically destructive, in an effort to avoid local political clashes. A smart State Government which is genuinely interested in building more sustainable cities would be looking to put some distance between itself and the day to day untidiness of metropolitan governance. It would establish or reinstate an institution with the democratic mandate, taxing powers and functions required to take care of the city.