As discussed in Part 1 of the report, Australia must take a number of steps in order to facilitate a more socially and environmentally sustainable urban form. These include:
reorienting development from low density greenfield expansion towards urban infill and regeneration to achieve more compact, precinct or transit oriented urban form;
fostering employment and services closer to where people live; and
accommodating demographic change.
The Committee has already noted that holistic urban development planning involves all three levels of government, involves all key policy areas, integrates infrastructure decisions with land-use considerations and fosters optimal population densities. Stakeholders have suggested that Australian Government leadership is needed to facilitate best practice approaches to holistic planning.
Part 2 of the report (Chapters 5-10) looks at issues of urban sustainability and urban form in more detail. These chapters will examine urban connectivity, sustainable buildings, housing affordability, smart cities and global best practice.
This chapter considers the contribution of community infrastructure to the economic and social development of communities, including incorporating demographic change—the ageing of the population—in the development of cities. It will also examine the importance of urban services—energy, water and waste—to socially and environmentally sustainable communities. Lastly, it will touch on the impacts of climate change and the need to manage them in the urban environment.
Importance of community infrastructure and utilities
Affordable housing and adequate transport links alone cannot ensure the long-term liveability of Australian communities. Community infrastructure and utilities such as health, education, water, waste and energy are also critical. This infrastructure informs the social and environmental sustainability of communities. As the Southern Downs Regional Council noted, ‘aside from the principle service delivery function, community facilities and open space provide a formative role in social cohesion for new communities’. Penrith City Council argued that ‘community infrastructure is also critical for liveability, health outcomes and job creation’.
Liveable communities are those with good access to a range of community infrastructure, including education, health, community justice and cultural facilities, as well as green spaces.
Educational facilities, such as universities, make an important social and economic contribution to communities. Regional Capitals Australia said universities provide the education young people need to access employment, and help attract and retain the skilled workers necessary to a successful and diversified economy:
Regional universities… help to train, attract and retain skilled workers required for a successful and diversified economy. Historically, students who study in regional areas are likely to remain in the regions, thus contributing socially and economically to their communities.
Health services are also critical to the liveability and social cohesion of communities, particularly new communities. Regional Development Australia Tasmania said that ‘aged care is becoming increasingly important as the population ages and people have more age related health and service needs’.
Community justice facilities, such as magistrates’ courts, contribute to the social sustainability of regions by enabling faster resolution to serious issues, such as domestic violence.
Mr Anthony Marklund, Principal ESD Engineer at Floth Sustainable Building Consultants, emphasised that ‘a successful place is one that embraces heritage and culture, provides a comfortable and safe place for interacting and welcomes all and excludes none’. The City of Parramatta Council also highlighted the importance of cultural infrastructure.
The Committee heard that, ‘the benefits of good urban green spaces are diverse and wide ranging’. The Committee for Sydney suggested that the ‘evidence base for infrastructure is well established’:
… we know that a well-designed, high-quality, connected public realm system can raise property values, enhance economic vitality and increase the tax base… Of course, economic uplift is not the only benefit of green infrastructure, but it is often overlooked.
We need to… recognise the value of the green infrastructure of our city which supports the city both in terms of environmental outcomes and liveability.
Affordable, reliable and low impact energy, water and waste services are also critical to the environmental and social sustainability of communities.
Evidence to the inquiry revealed that Australian cities consume more than 60 per cent of the nation’s energy demand (through buildings, manufacturing and transport-related activities). AGL Energy said it believes that ‘the sustainable development of Australia’s cities into the future is inextricably linked to the effective design of Australia’s energy and climate policies’.
According to Infrastructure Australia the ‘urban water sector provides an essential service to more than 20 million people and 9 million connected properties in our cities and towns’. It suggested that the ‘sector has a strong track record of providing a range of high quality services to support our great way of life and to underpin economic activity’.
Though it is largely hidden from view, waste management is also an important factor in determining the sustainable performance of communities. Members of the Planning Institute of Australian identified clean and reliable waste infrastructure as critical to the success of a new or expanded regional communities.
Need for reform
Rapid population growth, technological advancement and an increasing recognition of the negative impacts of carbon emissions is changing our understanding of how best to provide community infrastructure and utilities. Evidence to the inquiry suggested that community infrastructure is not keeping up with population growth, and that energy, water and waste management is in urgent need of reform.
The next four sections of the report consider shortfalls in the provision of community infrastructure and utilities. The report describes stakeholders’ recommendations for improving investment and management of community infrastructure and utilities. These recommendations highlight the important role the Australian Government can play in leading better planning and provision of key components of liveable communities.
Improving planning and investment in community infrastructure
Untimely and inadequate provision of health, education and green facilities
Evidence to the inquiry indicated that new urban development is not always accompanied by the expansion of community infrastructure to meet increased demand. The Committee heard that community infrastructure is becoming inadequate in the fringes of capital cities and in regional centres where population growth has been rapid. The Centre for Urban Research, RMIT said, ‘a consequence of this growth is that both capital cities and regional capital cities are experiencing significant shortages of economic and social infrastructure’.
For example, the Grattan Institute claimed that the shortage of community infrastructure in Victorian population growth areas is now such that $36 billion will need to be invested over the next 30 years to meet shortfalls:
…‘meeting the demand for childcare, school places, recreation and social services remains a major challenge in growth areas’. Indeed, in 2013, the Victorian Auditor General found that in Victoria alone, excluding maintenance and renewal $36 billion was required in next 30 years to meet shortfalls in infrastructure requirements in growth areas.
The City of Whittlesea, a local government area on Melbourne’s fringe and a member of the National Growth Areas Alliance (NGAA), highlighted the ‘detrimental’ impact that underinvestment in essential services has had on the well-being of its residents. It claimed that rapid population growth has resulted in residents having ‘poor access to social, health and human services’:
Our research demonstrates that the majority of human services agencies in our area are struggling to keep up with demand in large part due to our high population growth. We are currently completing updated research and have already identified obvious service gaps for our area including a lack of mental health services for young people.
A lack of community justice services is also affecting residents. The City of Whittlesea does not have ‘ local magistrates courts and associated justice services meaning that local justice matters are dealt with by courts in other locations that are already at full capacity’. The City of Whittlesea warned that eventually courts in other locations will not be able to keep up with growing demand. This has significant implications for residents:
As the population of Melbourne’s north increases, those court locations will not be able to meet the increasing demand. This has a number of significant impacts, particularly for women and children trying to access a justice response to assist them in escaping family violence, who currently have to travel long distances to over-subscribed court locations to deal with urgent issues.
Characteristics of successful community infrastructure
Stakeholders emphasised that community infrastructure must be delivered in a timely manner, commensurate with population growth, if it is going to have the desired positive impact on social sustainability and liveability.
The Southern Downs Regional Council suggested that community infrastructure can only play a formative role in social cohesion if it is developed in conjunction with population growth. It warned that this opportunity is lost if this infrastructure is not in place before new residents form rigid social and travel behaviour:
…community facilities and open space provide a formative role in social cohesion for new communities…
This opportunity is lost where early delivery cannot be provided in the first 2-5 years of a new development as people form travel and social behaviours that become difficult to change after this time.
Other witnesses made similar points. The City of Greater Geelong argued that the ‘timely provision of services to support growth is fundamental’ to enhancing urban liveability whilst providing for rapid population growth. Similarly, the Australian Local Government Association said that the timely provision of social infrastructure is important. However, it also stressed the importance of ensuring it is adequate to meet the needs of growing and changing communities.
Professor Sue Holliday also warned that essential services and infrastructure must be commensurate to expected long-term population growth in order to deliver social sustainability and liveability. She illustrated this point by describing the consequences of inadequate community infrastructure developed between the 60s and early 2000s:
In the health sector, Westmead is receiving 178 per cent more admissions than the capacity for which is was planned; St Vincent’s Public Hospital has 155 per cent more emergencies than the capacity for which is was planned. And the new Northern Beaches Hospital, before it’s even constructed, is already behind the population growth in their region with 165 per cent more admissions likely than originally planned.
Professor Holliday said ‘these infrastructures are failing us not because they are not good enough, but because they have not been created to accommodate the next growth phase of the city’. She argued that important community infrastructure is planned and developed for the short term, not ‘the 30-50 year time frame’ needed to avoid missed opportunity costs.
Australian Government’s role in delivery of community infrastructure
The timely provision of community infrastructure which is commensurate to population growth requires adequate funding and a strategic approach. Inquiry stakeholders argued that, although the Australian Government doesn't directly manage urban development, it has an important role to play in ensuring that:
urban development planning is holistic; and
federal funding for community infrastructure targets those communities absorbing the majority of population growth.
It was suggested to the Committee that the Australian Government needs to better direct federal funding for community infrastructure towards those communities absorbing the majority of Australia’s population growth.
NGAA said the ‘fast growing outer suburbs are in transition’ and require ‘a coordinated policy focus and investment’ to flourish. It suggested that more systematic, long term provision of federal funding for infrastructure in growth areas is required:
Our current mode of allocation of infrastructure goods bears little relationship to the geographic location of population growth…
Imagine what the fast growing outer suburbs could become and what they could contribute if they got their fair share of assets. Imagine what our cities will be like without it.
The Queensland Government agreed and advocated for long-term federal funding for community infrastructure:
The quality and adequacy of [essential human] services is determined partly by the adequacy and reliability of Australian Government funding, and the degree of freedom States have to allocate the funding where it will be most useful. Provision of certainty around funding arrangements will improve Queensland’s capacity to plan for and deliver critical regional services.
NGAA advocated for the reinstatement of the Australian Government’s 2015-16 National Stronger Regions Fund (NSRF). The NSRF was a competitive grants program which provided $1 billion in financial support for projects facilitating economic growth and improving sustainability in their localities, particularly in disadvantaged regions. NGAA said the NSRF was better targeted to growth areas than the Australian Government’s current Building Better Regions Fund (BBRF):
There have been a number of programs over the last decade at the Federal level that have supported community infrastructure. Aside from the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program (RLCIP) which had a stream weighted to larger growth Councils, each of the successive programs has focussed more on regional Australia. The current Building Better Regions Fund (BBRF) provides for some parts of outer growth municipalities. But it has seriously eroded what grants are available to the fast growing outer suburbs without anything to replace that. Its predecessor, the National Stronger Regions Fund (NSRF) had somewhat more responsive guidelines for these areas. A return to those guidelines would assist the fast growing outer suburbs.
Penrith City Council echoed this sentiment. It suggested that incorporating the NSRF guidelines into the BBRF would better focus this investment on community infrastructure in growth areas and go some way towards addressing the funding imbalance experienced by those communities:
Community infrastructure is also critical for liveability, health outcomes and job creation. Included are facilities such as regional sporting, recreation and cultural centres. Reinstatement of the Building Better Regions Fund to the criteria applied in the National Stronger Regions Fund (to include all outer metropolitan Local Government areas) would certainly assist. A program which focussed on the fast growing outer suburbs, however, would mean more certainty for these communities and would go some way to redressing the current funding imbalance.
Changing demographics—the ageing population
According to the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) ‘population ageing and demographic change present major challenges for Australian cities, towns and regions in the future’:
The result of falling fertility, increasing life expectancy, changing compositions of households and the effect of the ‘baby boomer’ generation moving rapidly through older age groups, has contributed to an increase in the number and proportion of people aged over 75 years.
The Committee heard that ‘approximately 3.6 million Australians are aged 65 years and older, with 2.1 per cent of Australia’s population aged 85 years and older’. Ms Christie Gardiner, a lecturer at the Australian National University said research shows that ‘of the total population of older persons, approximately 2.2 million reside in Australian capital cities’.
As the population ages, more Australians are choosing to live alone. Dr Jazz Hee-jeong Choi, Director of the Urban Informatics Research Lab at the Queensland University of Technology said single person households ‘are predicted to consist of 30-40 per cent or more of all households in the majority of developed countries, including Australia, by 2025-30’. She attributed this phenomenon ‘primarily to the growth in ageing population’.
Research also indicates that the aging population is likely to be accompanied by increases in the prevalence of age-related health issues, such as dementia.
Evidence suggested that the consequences of not adapting urban form to support active aging within communities are broad. Poor social, economic and environmental outcomes are likely. Ms Gardiner said that ‘when the needs of older persons can no longer be met by their urban environment, an economic and social burden is produced as a consequence of increased ill-health, dependency on services and decreased productivity’. She noted that urban form can influence older Australians experiences of social isolation, psychological distress and health by impacting their accessibility to services, mobility, independence, and autonomy.
Dr Lyn Phillipson and Dr Chris Brennan-Horley of the University of Wollongong made a similar point in a joint submission to the inquiry. They reported that the ‘Productivity Commission projects that without strategies to encourage ageing well in the community, health expenditure will rise from 8 to 12 per cent of GDP by 2045, with half of that increase attributable to costs of ageing’. They warned that ‘the economic and moral burden will be too great for our cities and regions to continue under a business as usual scenario’.
Ms Gardiner agreed, arguing that ‘it is crucial that urban development addresses the rights, needs and varying capacities of older persons in order to truly be sustainable’. Dr Hee-jeong Choi made a similar point. She claimed that ‘overlooking the challenges and opportunities stemming from this historic demographic shift is likely to result in major social, cultural, and environmental repercussions in the future’.
Age-friendly urban form
Ms Gardiner pointed out that ‘ensuring all Australian cities are age-friendly is a national interest’. She argued that national ‘active ageing policies and age-friendly city strategies’ would provide ‘consistency across all levels of government’ and would ‘provide more measurable basis from which to evaluate development progress nationally’. She suggested that ‘most initiatives of this nature to date have occurred at the local level, resulting in the duplication of research and depletion resources between cities, the fragmentation of policy objectives and the generation of potentially disparate social, economic and health related outcomes for persons as they age, wherever situated in Australia’.
Ms Gardiner advocated for a national policy framework ‘to establish clear minimum standards for age-friendly urban development, without restricting the dynamism of communities’.
Dr Phillipson and Dr Brennan-Horley made a similar point, noting that urban development and renewal offers important opportunities to respond to the challenges of an aging population, for example living with dementia:
We argue that Australian national policies around sustainability and urban liveability should commit to planning which is inclusive of aged and dementia friendly design. Ensuring that walkability, community transport, sympathetic density, accessible services and greenspace remain primary considerations will enhance the health and wellbeing for our aging population and people living with dementia within our transitioning cities and regions.
Ms Gardiner emphasised that such a national policy framework must be informed by community consultation and reflect international best practice:
Ensuring the participation and inclusion of older persons in the design and use of their communities is required by items 148 and 155 of the New Urban Agenda. This bottom-up participatory approach reflects global standards in policy formation, and is further recommended by the WHO Global Age-Friendly Cities project. Accordingly, in researching the suitability, use and adaptability of urban environments for persons across their entire life course, community consultation and the integration of data which has been disaggregated by age-related factors should be sought.
Dr Phillipson noted that the United Kingdom has some national policies to support age inclusive urban form, but warned that research is needed to adapt it for the Australian context:
There is a national strategy for housing in an ageing society where they are trying to introduce these principles of lifetime neighbourhoods in particular districts… The investment in the understanding of this in the UK context seems to have started to be picked up, but in terms of very widespread application there is a great need for us to invest in trying to understand how these principles apply in our places, in our context and in our environments, which may be a little different from the UK context.
Ms Gardiner noted that ‘a comprehensive multi-disciplinary national research project regarding age-friendly urban development in Australia is yet to be funded’. She highlighted the need to research ‘the economic, social and health benefits and best-practice indicators of age-friendly urban development’.
Ms Gardiner noted that ‘with Australia on the doorstep of a rapidly ageing Asia, becoming a leader in age-friendly urban development enhances export opportunities, including within the aged-care and technology sectors’.
Reorienting the energy sector
Refocussing on renewable and distributed energy generation
The Committee heard that energy sector reform has a big role to play in improving the environmental and social sustainability of Australian cities. Stakeholders suggested that transitioning to renewable energy sources, distributed generation and improving energy productivity will reduce carbon emissions and minimise communities’ impact on the environment. Furthermore, energy sector reform will contribute to the social sustainability of communities by maintaining the reliability and affordability of electricity supply.
The University of Technology Sydney argued that a move to renewable energy is ‘essential if Australia is to meet its obligations to the international community under the United Nation’s Paris agreement on climate change’. It also noted that, ‘Australia ranks poorly in international terms in energy productivity, and is likely to slip further without attention being paid to this issue’.
The Green Building Council of Australia made a similar point, adding that ‘district-based and distributed energy resources’ are also critical to meeting Australia’s international obligations. Moreover, the City of Sydney argued that the proliferation of renewable and distributed energy generation and storage technologies will support ‘significant jobs and economic growth opportunities’.
AGL Energy suggested that distributed renewable energy generation will be an integral part of the future energy sector in the future:
In addition to one in four households across Australia with installed solar PV, a proliferation of more advanced distributed energy resources [distributed energy resources] (DER) (digital metering, smart inverters, energy storage, energy management systems, household appliance with smart controls etc.) are now entering the consumer market. These distributed technologies offer new opportunities for customers to actively manage their energy use and to share in value beyond the home – whether by ‘sharing’ energy with peers or participating in programs which support the operation of the network or the wholesale market.
The University of Technology Sydney argued that Australia should be seeking to improve energy productivity. It suggested that better energy productivity could enhance Australia’s economic performance by ‘reducing energy costs for business, improving reliability of energy supply and reducing emissions’. The City of Sydney highlighted the importance of affordable electricity to communities’ social sustainability. It suggested that ‘increasing prices are placing pressure on all energy users - businesses, industry and households and consumers’.
Many witnesses felt that the current policy and regulatory framework governing Australia’s energy sector is insufficient to drive these outcomes and that reform is urgently needed. For example, the City of Sydney claimed that the rules governing the sector were ‘designed for a different era of one-way supply of low-cost centralised energy generation’:
The energy rules are well past their use-by and the processes for change are inadequate - an overhaul is required.
The City of Sydney suggested that the energy market does not currently reward distributed energy generators for the reduced load on electricity supply networks. It recommended changing the rules ‘to permit local electricity customers to purchase electricity direct from local generators instead of the national market’, removing ‘public fossil fuel subsidies’ and developing ‘a plan for the exit of high-emissions generation’.
The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council suggested that energy market reform could support the implementation of cost-effective energy efficiency and distributed energy technologies by removing market barriers and distortions.
The Green Building Council of Australia recommended the removal of market barriers to district-based utilities and called for a ‘fair tariff structure’ which values distributed utility solutions.
AGL Energy suggested that energy policy and regulatory reform can create a supportive environment for distributed, renewable energy generation by ensuring that consumer investment in distributed energy resources is efficient and through regulatory and market frameworks which facilitate (rather than inhibit) the emergence of new products and service markets.
Concerns were raised that the current energy policy and regulation parameters may also be contributing to electricity affordability issues. The City of Sydney claimed that ‘electricity bills are increasing disproportionately above inflation due largely to incentives for networks to build costly infrastructure and wholesale electricity price increases resulting from poorly planned energy policy’. Townsville Enterprise submitted that electricity price increases in Australian have been well above those of other OECD nations:
Wholesale electricity prices have increased significantly across the National Electricity Market (NEM) since 2012, with Queensland (168 per cent increase to 2017) and South Australia (178 per cent increase) experiencing particularly rapid price rises. Queensland prices have thus far risen by 30 per cent in 2017.
The Queensland Government’s Powering Queensland Plan noted that ‘Australia’s energy markets are facing significant challenges relating to electricity and gas prices, system security, gas availability, and energy and climate policy’. It suggested that if left unaddressed, these challenges ‘may threaten energy security and Australia’s ability to meet its emissions reduction targets’.
Moreover, the Committee heard that the poor integration of energy policy with policies designed to address climate change is driving adverse outcomes in the energy sector. AGL Energy suggested wholesale energy markets have been impacted by ‘the piecemeal introduction of carbon reduction and renewables policies’ and policy reform is necessary to ‘better integrate wholesale market design with climate change policy’. It argued that the lack of a long term emissions reduction policy for the energy sector is creating market uncertainty and may be inhibiting investment in modern energy generation technology:
More than 80 per cent of electricity generated in Australia is sourced from the combustion of fossil fuels, the majority of which is provided by coal-fired generation. The transition to a decarbonised and modernised generation sector requires large scale investment, much of which will be less than half way through its asset life at the end of the current [Renewable Energy Target] RET scheme and Government current 26-28 per cent target under the Paris Agreement.
Investment will be best supported by emissions reduction policy that provides macro level certainty as to the timeframe and operating life of incumbent plant and reduced levels of uncertainty as to the market environment within which current investments will operate in post 2030.
Australian Government leadership key to energy reform
Stakeholders expressed broad support for Australian Government leadership to drive energy sector reform. The University of Technology Sydney described the Australian Government’s role as ‘key’ to achieving reforms:
The Commonwealth has a key role in supporting rule changes in the national electricity market to remove barriers and support investment in demand management, energy efficiency and distributed energy.
The Green Building Council of Australia suggested that the Australian Government’s leadership would help ‘deliver greater value from investments in distributed utilities across our cities, and realise the potential of smart investments in our cities to build resilience across our utility infrastructure’.
The City of Sydney said collaboration between all levels of government is critical to achieving national targets and objectives, ‘however without leadership and commitment from the Australian Government, cities can only do so much’.
AGL Energy emphasised that national energy policy and regulatory reforms should be based on the following principles to ensure security, affordability and sustainability of energy into the future:
where feasible, using competitive markets to deliver and value energy services;
establishing policy, regulatory and market frameworks that are technology neutral;
establishing appropriate technology standards that do not contradict broader policy objectives and are based, where possible, on international standards…;
utilising price signals to encourage efficient investment and operational decisions;
allocating risks to parties that are best able to manage them;
introducing regulation only where necessary to address a market failure, including to ensure system safety, security and reliability;
ensuring an equal playing field where different providers of products and services, in markets, must compete openly on their merits;
A customer protections framework that ensures all customers have the basic right to access energy; and
ensure a framework that is inclusive of all customers including vulnerable customers the opportunity to participate and benefit from the energy market transformation.
The need to implement energy sector policy and regulatory reform is well acknowledged by the Australian Government. In recent years it has supported a series of inquiries and reports on the future of the sector, including:
the Electricity Network Transformation Roadmap: Final Report, produced by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in partnership with Energy Networks Australia, and published in April 2017;
the Independent Review into the Future Security of the National Electricity Market, conducted by an expert panel led by Dr Alan Finkel AO, Chief Scientist, and concluded in June 2017;
the inquiry into modernising Australia’s electricity grid, conducted by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Energy, and concluded December 2017.
In July 2017 the Australian Government, through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), agreed to implement 49 out of 50 the recommendations made by Dr Finkel and his panel of experts as part of the Independent Review into the Future Security of the National Electricity Market. It also agreed to implementation timelines and noted the significance of the final recommendation–to adopt a clean energy target– which it did not support.
However, evidence to the inquiry suggested that the lack of a clean energy target or another form of long-term carbon emission reduction policy is contributing to ongoing uncertainty in the energy sector. It is also inhibiting greater investment in renewables and distributed generation technologies.
Mr Jonathon Cartledge, Head of Public Affairs at the Green Building Council said ‘certainty for businesses is critical’:
When the COAG Energy Council Stakeholder Roundtable considered this issue, the clear message from across the business community was the need for certainty for planning. At this stage that's fundamental.
The City of Sydney said ‘all sectors of the Australian economy– businesses, energy companies, households– are calling for energy and emissions policy certainty’. It advocated for the establishment of a clear trajectory to a low carbon future:
As a priority there needs to be a formal alignment of energy and climate policy, whether via change to the National Electricity Objective or some other mechanism to ensure that climate impacts are duly considered on par with other elements.
AGL Energy said, ‘a nationally coordinated and consistent approach to climate and energy policy is needed to ensure the smooth decarbonisation and modernisation of the electricity sector’:
The energy sector’s transition will span several decades and a long-term vision is required to support that transition.
It also urged the Australian Government to implement the ‘important policy reforms’ recommended by Dr Finkel’s inquiry ‘in a timely and coordinated manner’.
The Queensland Government noted in its Powering Queensland Plan that it will continue to ‘advocate for stable and more integrated national climate and energy policies, to ensure the electricity sector can deliver a meaningful contribution to Australia’s emission reduction commitments and to support new clean energy investment’.
Improving urban water management
Urban water sector reform remains incomplete
Evidence to the inquiry demonstrated that the urban water sector has undergone ongoing reform in recent decades, but remains complex. Infrastructure Australia explained that the urban water sector’s institutional and regulatory structures are the result of successive reform agendas implemented since the 1990s, aimed at improving ‘efficiency, transparency and stakeholder engagement’:
Two rounds of major national reforms – the 1994 COAG Reform Framework and the National Water Initiative (NWI) in 2004 – established a foundation for reform across states and territories. These changes were driven within each jurisdiction, with the guidance and leadership of the Australian Government and independent agencies such as the National Water Commission (NWC).
However, ‘reform efforts in urban water have largely stalled over recent years’. Ms Kaia Hodge, Project Lead of Long Term Strategy at Sydney Water claimed that the governance and regulatory structure of the urban water sector remains siloed:
Historically, water was set up in a very siloed way. At the start, this came from public health, with one of the greatest achievements in early settlements being the separation of wastewater from drinking-water supplies. This helped to stop the spread of many diseases. The funding and governance structures have similarly been siloed. Each part of the water supply chain—water, wastewater, stormwater, recycled water and waterways management—has a range of players who are responsible, and it tends to have separate regulations governing it, which also leads to a separation of funding structures.
Mr Davies provided an example of the siloed nature of the sector’s regulatory bodies inhibiting more holistic water management:
The style of regulatory frameworks also play out in environmental regulation of waterways. We have one regulator, the New South Wales EPA, who is responsible for regulating what wastewater plants discharge to waterways. That regulator is not responsible for regulating all the other discharges to waterways, like stormwater pollution and agricultural or industrial run-off. As a result, despite good intentions, each regulator focuses on reducing the discharges that they regulate. This is particularly problematic for nutrient and sediment pollution of waterways, where point source discharges are stringently regulated and land based contributions maybe unregulated and yet constitute the major contribution of pollutants to waterways. There isn't really a body or a coordinated process that assesses what's best overall for the waterway. If we had that we'd be able to make more cost-effective choices about what mix of measures would deliver the best overall river health outcome, rather than focusing on each individual polluter. We think some national leadership on this would be helpful.
Infrastructure Australia claimed that ‘reform efforts to create an efficient, user-focused urban water sector remain incomplete’:
More work is required to develop stronger market characteristics in each state and territory. There are clear benefits to creating an urban water sector that is well-regulated, open to private sector participation and that provides incentives for innovation, meeting customers’ needs and planning efficiently to meet future challenges.
Ms Hodge echoed this sentiment. She argued that the urban water sector is not set up to achieve more holistic urban water management, which is now well recognised as best practice:
These days, the focus has turned to the whole of the water cycle. We can clean dirty water and reuse it. This reduces how much water we need to take from the environment in the first place, and we return water to waterways in a way that protects waterway health in terms of both the quality and the flows. This new focus is known as integrated water cycle management, and it's generally considered best practice today, but our siloed industry structure is not set up to deliver water services in an integrated way.
The Water Service Association of Australia (WSAA) said, ‘Australia’s urban water sector faces significant unresolved challenges to its operation and long-term financial viability’. It highlighted the ‘scale of the future challenges facing the urban water sector, such as climate change and extreme events, urban growth, aging assets and liveability of our cities and regions’. Likewise, Infrastructure Australian claimed that ‘there remains great enthusiasm and latent capacity within the urban water sector to drive improvements’. It suggested that some ‘jurisdictions and service providers are undertaking unilateral efforts to progress reforms’ and argued that:
The benefits of these improvements should be available across the country. Only a new national commitment to reform will be capable of delivering reforms of the breadth and scale required.
Ms Hodge noted that ‘the aspirations we have for our cities are challenging and complex’. A business as usual approach will not be sufficient to achieve these aspirations:
They involve interdependencies and trade-offs between social, environmental and economic considerations. We need to add to this the uncertainties that climate change brings. The approaches that we have applied to secure our water supplies, protect our environment and provide for our communities' wellbeing will not be sufficient to create the cities that we aspire to in the future.
Possible reforms suggested by witnesses included:
the introduction of more flexible, outcome-focussed regulation to support cooperation between different water sector entities and to drive innovation;
market restructuring to increase competition and the introduction of a more sophisticated pricing model which better reflects the cost of water supply;
mandating the early involvement of water utilities in urban planning and the consideration of integrated water cycle management to support ‘waterway health, urban cooling, flood prevention, creating green space and system resilience’;
issuing national guidance on evaluating the costs and benefits of integrated water cycle management, to support decision making in urban planning processes;
ongoing Australian Government support for academic research on the interdependencies between urban water and other sectors and strategies to improve integrated water cycle management and water security.
The importance of embedding consideration of water management into urban planning and development processes was emphasised. The Committee heard that more holistic urban planning, which incorporates integrated water cycle management principles, can create cost efficiencies and deliver more environmentally and socially sustainable outcomes. WSAA said ‘collaboration is critical for the resilience of our cities, building on the interdependencies between industries to strengthen our networks through integrated planning’. It recommended:
systemic change in policy and regulation to encourage collaboration with other agencies and communities to respond to a broader spectrum of customer needs and expectations
integration of the urban water cycle, including stormwater and flood management planning into the urban water governance, institutional and physical structures together with a sustainable funding and pricing framework
integration of water cycle planning with land use planning
recognition of the role of water in strategic or early planning of cities and regions and inclusion of water businesses in integrated planning.
Ms Hodge said that, ‘…when growth doesn't proceed in a planned rollout way and when our urban planning and water planning are done separately—and even within water planning, with stormwater and wastewater planning—a lot of opportunities for pulling everything together in an efficient way are lost’.
Australian Government to drive nationally consistent reform
Infrastructure Australia, WSAA and Sydney Water all advocated for some form of Australian Government leadership to promote consistent water sector reform across state and territory jurisdictions. WSAA considered ‘national government leadership… key to unlocking water utility reform’:
Urban water is a state responsibility; but it is also a national economic and social challenge. Australia’s economic history suggests that national policy leadership, backed by financial incentives for reforming states, is a proven way to drive national good practice and better regulation, across utility markets which are owned, operated and regulated by states.
It recommended a COAG process to progress urban water sector reform.
Sydney Water also accentuated the importance of Australian Government leadership, suggesting that only the federal government can apply the pressure needed to motivate all states and territories to pursue best practice. Mr Davies said:
…that's where the federal role can be important, because you can provide that overview, some sense of best practice and a sense of what is going on in certain states or abroad where there is a focus on these issues. Then you can stimulate the case for reform within individual states by a bit of peer pressure and a bit of pointing towards what has been done well elsewhere. Then there can be more motivation to help utilities, regulators and government to think about doing things differently.
Infrastructure Australia said that ‘given the scale of change required to advance urban water reforms, there is a clear need for a dedicated independent national urban water reform body to provide strong national leadership’. It also advocated for a national urban water reform objectives to align the reform agendas of disparate jurisdictions:
Reform should be guided by a set of clear national objectives agreed by all governments. Clear national objectives can help to frame discussions about urban water reform and provide a basis for all stakeholders in the urban water sector – across governments, regulators, utilities and communities – to engage with a national reform effort.
It suggested that the Australian Government incentivise state and territory governments to undertake urban water reform by providing additional funding in return for reform:
Any national reform agenda must recognise that the bulk of reform will need to be carried out by each state and territory government. Many of these reforms will be complex and require each jurisdiction’s government to build support for change by effectively communicating to users and taxpayers the need for urban water reform, and the benefits it could bring. The Australian Government can and should use its funding position to drive the implementation of wider reforms by providing incentive payments – additional funding above existing projected allocations –in return for delivery of agreed reforms.
Productivity Commission inquiry into National Water Reform
Infrastructure Australia pointed out that the Productivity Commission has just concluded an inquiry into national water reform which examined ‘progress towards achieving the objectives and outcomes of the NWI’. A final report was handed to the Australian Government on 19 December 2017 and is expected to be tabled in parliament and responded to later this year.
The Committee was urged to support the Productivity Commission’s findings and champion an urban water reform agenda. Mr Davies recommended that the Committee ‘take heed’ of the current Productivity Commission inquiry and support a reinvigoration of the NWI. Similarly, recent work by Infrastructure Australia has sought to support the Productivity Commission in ‘building the case for reform, and establishing a viable pathway for reform’. WSAA also highlighted the potential benefits of ‘good national reform’.
Minimising waste production and improving management
Stakeholders to the inquiry felt that reducing waste generation and improving waste management is fundamental to the long-term environmental sustainability and resilience of Australian communities. For example, the City of Sydney suggested that improving waste management can help mitigate climate change risk:
There are some fundamental things that cities need to do - waste should be diverted from landfill, recycled and recovered as a valuable resource.
Waste generation is increasing
The Committee heard that rapid population growth coupled with the rise in smart technologies has driven a commensurate increase in waste production. The City of Sydney said, ‘rising population growth and new development is increasing energy and water demand, and waste generation is at unprecedented levels’.
Similarly, the Victorian Government said the expansion of Melbourne has contributed to ‘increased consumption of resources and more waste and pollution’.
The University of Technology Sydney reported that, ‘in relation to resource consumption and waste generation, Australia has the dubious distinction of being one of the highest per capita waste generators in the world’.
Australian Government’s role in waste management reform
Witnesses highlighted opportunities for the Australian Government to reduce waste production and strengthen waste management. Professor Marcus Foth, Professor of Urban Informatics at the Queensland University of Technology Design Lab recommended that Australia ‘take responsibility for, and leadership in cradle-to-cradle city design’ and establish reduction targets to minimise e-waste generated from a transition to smart city technology:
Australian cities driven by a technocentric approach may invest in smart technology such as Internet of Things (IoT) devices and sensors as well as the required ICT backend infrastructure, data centres and cloud computing capabilities… However, sustainability requires a holistic ecology perspective… many IoT devices are characterised by ‘planned obsolescence,’ for example, they have been purposefully designed to run out of battery after a certain time with no easy ability to recharge or replace batteries, or they have been designed to fail after a period of use with repairs more expensive than the replacement value of the device. In addition to the negative impact that energy use and material replacement cost have on sustainability objectives, there are also specific concerns about the depletion of rare-earth metals as well as theunregulated mining of cobalt, which is used in lithium-ion batteries common in many personal, mobile and IoT devices. After their end-of-life, these devices are difficult to recycle and adequate recycling facilities are often missing, so they further contribute to the growth of e-waste dump sites in places such as China and Ghana.
Professor Stuart White, Director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney also emphasised the importance of setting targets to guide efforts towards more sustainable cities. He argued that targets must be supported by well-designed implementation plans:
We can't manage what we don't measure… Targets are important, but they need to be clever. They need to be well designed and have a good strategy put in place to work out how to meet them. I would emphasise the importance of them as having something to shoot for, and then some design of a plan to be able to meet them and what that will cost.
Urbis Pty Ltd also emphasised the Australian Government’s role in directing Australian cities onto a more sustainable path. It suggested that ‘achieving prosperous, sustainable and resilient cities depends on finding new and better ways to… efficiently manage competing demands on depleted energy and water resources, together with the rising direct and indirect costs associated with waste management’. It argued that the Australian Government’s role is about ‘vision, leadership and influence’:
The Federal Government is ideally placed to promote overarching national perspectives focussed on addressing the bigger, longer term issues affecting all cities. It is about fostering collaborative actions across States and Territories, creating more unified commitment to addressing the biggest challenges. It’s time for them to step into the breach to foster cross-portfolio policy coordination, focussed on better place based outcomes.
However it also suggested that ‘implementation is left to state and local government, avoiding adding additional layers to already over regulated processes’. The Australian Local Government Association also noted that waste collection and management is traditionally a local government responsibility. It suggested that any waste reduction initiatives will need to ‘leverage local government leadership’:
Through policies and partnerships with the community and other levels of government, local government has great influence in securing the quality of our urban and regional environments. If we are to realise a sustainable vision for Australia’s cities and towns, it will be necessary to leverage local government leadership and capabilities to achieve this goal.
National policy and regulatory settings, that encourage a holistic and collaborative approach to urban planning and development, could also support new economic opportunities in waste management. WSAA noted that ‘Yarra Valley Water recently launched a waste to energy facility’ next to a sewage and recycled water treatment plant in Melbourne’s north:
The plant, which will be operational in 2017, will provide an environmentally friendly disposal solution to divert 33,000 tonnes of organic waste per year from landfill. Businesses will also have access to an easier and more affordable way of recycling commercial organic waste. Commercial organic waste from local food markets and manufacturers will be processed into biogas via anaerobic digestion.
It is expected that enough energy will be generated to run the facility and the neighbouring treatment plants. Any surplus energy will be exported to the electricity grid, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and Yarra Valley Water’s reliance on traditional sources of electricity.
The Department of Environment and Energy pointed out that the Australian Government has pursued greater collaboration with the states and territories to reduce waste production and improve waste management:
The Department is responsible for a range of policy and regulatory functions that ensure the safe and effective management of chemicals and waste in a way that protects the environment and human health…
collaboration with states and territories and industry to develop and implement strategies, guidance and programs to support increased sustainability in national waste management, including through product stewardship approaches;
development of a national food waste strategy, to deliver on the Government’s 2016 election commitment to halve food waste by 2030 (which mirrors the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal on food waste); and
delivery of a National Food Waste Summit on 20 November 2017.
Climate change is degrading the social and environmental sustainability of Australian communities and heightening the need to take a new approach to urban development. According to Professor Barbara Norman, ‘cities consume 75 per cent of the world’s energy use and produce more than 76 per cent of all carbon’, ‘thus cities are major contributors to climate change but they are also highly vulnerable to the risks, especially in coastal locations’.
Professor Norman suggested that the impact of climate change on cities is likely to include ‘more heatwaves, extreme rainfall and intense cyclones, harsher fire weather and more severe storm surge associated with sea level rise’. She warned that this will have consequences for the ‘built environment and major infrastructure (transport, energy), [and] will have immediate and damaging effects on urban communities, the urban environment and a city’s productivity’.
According to the State of Australian Cities report (2013), the built-up nature of cities makes them particularly vulnerable to extreme weather:
…“People living in cities, particularly those in Australia’s inland cities, can be more susceptible than non-urban dwellers to the effects of heatwaves as a result of the urban heat island (UHI) effect. This is caused by the prevalence in cities of heat-absorbing materials such as dark coloured pavements and roofs, concrete, urban canyons trapping hot air, and a lack of shade and green space in dense urban environments.”
The Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) noted that ‘over half of the surfaces within our cities are heat absorbing materials, such as darker coloured roofs, car parks, roadways and footpaths’.
Indeed the extreme weather associated with climate change is already exposing the vulnerabilities of Australia’s urban form; Melbourne and Sydney both report significant issues with urban heat. The Victorian Government said that ‘within the City of Melbourne alone, the urban heat-island effect is projected to result in health costs of $280 million by 2051’:
Rising temperatures are exacerbated in urban environments through the heat-island effect. The urban heat-island effect is created by the built environment absorbing, trapping and, in some cases, directly emitting heat. This effect can cause urban areas to be up to four degrees Celsius hotter than surrounding non-urban areas.
Mr Jeffrey Angel, Director of the Total Environment Centre said ‘one of the main environmental causes of death in Sydney is heat, as well as air pollution’. This is borne out by evidence from the City of Parramatta which reported that Western Sydney experiences approximately five times the number of days per annum over 35 degrees Celsius than Eastern Sydney.
Water security and flooding are also issues, particularly for coastal communities. Professor Barbara Norman said ‘warmer and drier climates in southern Australia, particularly the southwest, are impacting water security for some major urban centres leading to investment in desalination plants’.
The University of Technology Sydney warned that the threat of drought, driven by the El Nino cycle and climate change, is real.
Planning consultants, The Middle Way submitted that there is ‘an enormous stock of residential and commercial buildings across the country that are poorly adapted to extreme heat or storms, or are located in areas highly prone to flooding’. The Middle Way suggested this is illustrated by the insurance industry’s ‘historically high costs from cyclones, rain squalls, flash flooding and bushfires’.
Low density urban development on the fringes of Australia communities is also a major source of carbon emissions. Indeed, the Committee for Sydney suggested that ‘the single most effective policy objective that the federal government can adopt to transition to a sustainable future for our cities is to arrest urban sprawl’.
The impact of climate change on Australian communities is likely to worsen without a shift to more sustainable modes of urban development. The CSIRO submitted that ‘without large and immediate reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation), it is unlikely that the world will avoid ‘dangerous climate change’ defined as an increase in global average temperatures of more than 2⁰ C above pre‐industrial levels’.
Moreover, the Northern Alliance for Greenhouse Action pointed out that developing a more sustainable urban form is critical to meeting Australia’s international obligations:
Cities have a critical role to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions across a range of sectors and sources. The International Energy Agency states that transforming the way cities use and generate energy alone has the potential to deliver 70 per cent of the total emissions reductions needed to stay on track for the 2°C limit set under the Paris Agreement.
Climate sensitive communities
National policies aimed at improving Australian communities’ resilience to climate change should:
prevent urban expansion in areas vulnerable to the effects of climate change;
support local governments to adapt existing urban form; and
establish a clear trajectory to zero emissions.
Stakeholders argued that national settlement planning is needed to ensure that new urban development occurs in a manner which is sensitive to climate change. Professor Barbara Norman warned that Australia needs to be ‘very mindful’ of where it accommodates its growing population. She noted that internationally, countries have settlement plans which map ‘where the [climate change] hotspots are, where the current urban growth is, where the future urban growth will be, where the current risks are and where the projected risks are’. She asserted that not having a national settlement plan at this point in time ‘is really a very significant gap, almost irresponsible’:
We should not place future urban growth in areas exposed to high levels of extreme risk in terms of weather events that we have now and, of course, from the impacts of climate change now and in the future. I yet to see a map in Australia… I think that is a national responsibility.
Evidence to the inquiry also illustrated that local governments require financial assistance to adapt to climate change and improve the resilience of their communities. As the Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering noted, ‘adaptation actions must be local as the impacts of climate change vary from region to region due to the local climate topography, coastal proximity to rising sea level and the built environment’. However, evidence suggests that local governments may not have the budget to fund adaptation activates. The Planning Institute of Australia noted that ‘climate risks and vulnerability are unevenly distributed and are generally greater for disadvantaged people and communities’. Moreover, ALGA pointed out, ‘over many years there have been substantial increases in unfunded tasks allocated to councils’ impeding local governments’ ability to deliver core services, let alone strengthen existing infrastructure.
The Queensland University of Technology noted that ‘overwhelming natural disasters such as large floods, cyclones/storms and bushfires do occur’ and ‘following such events the Australian Government can become the insurer of last resort’. It therefore recommended that the Australian Government ‘invest more in the ‘P’ parts of the PPRR model of natural disaster management (Prevention, Preparedness, Response, Recovery)’. It asserted that it is much more economically efficient for the Australian Government to invest in prevention and preparedness than it is to fund response and recovery programs in the aftermath of extreme weather.
Mr Strachan and Ms Hall also recommended that the Australian Government ‘develop a Climate Change Adaptation Fund to assist city administrators in adapting to the effects of historical and future climate change impacts’. The Property Council of Australia suggested that the Australian Government could lead improved resilience through the provision of incentives, ‘to encourage early action on adaption within the built environment such as incentives to retrofit existing buildings’.
National trajectory to zero carbon emissions
The Committee heard that national policy leadership is fundamental to reducing carbon emissions associated with Australia’s urban form, and is an important component of mitigating climate change.
According to the Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering there are three main levers to decarbonising Australian communities:
a shift from fossil fuel to renewables in the electricity sector;
increased electrification in sectors including building and transport; and
enhanced energy efficiency.
Chapter 6–Urban Connectivity, and Chapter 7–Sustainable Buildings, discuss specific strategies for improving the environmental sustainability of transport and buildings respectively. Transitioning the energy sector to renewables was dealt with earlier in this chapter. This section considers the need for overarching national policy that establishes a clear trajectory to a zero carbon future.
CSIRO noted that reducing carbon emissions will require ‘the building of new cities and retrofitting of existing cities… to consider near‐zero lifetime greenhouse gas emissions as an operational parameter’. However, a number of stakeholders argued that the Australian Government’s current carbon reduction target of a 26-28 per cent reduction on the 2005 emissions levels by 2030 is insufficient to achieve this.
According to the City for Sydney, ‘the current suite of Australian Government policy mechanisms to deliver low-cost emissions reductions are not fit-for-purpose’, ‘do not create incentives for efficient reductions in emissions and cannot be effectively scaled up to meet future commitments’. Likewise the Northern Alliance for Greenhouse Action (NAGA) argued that ‘the current target is woefully inadequate and should be immediately strengthened to reflect our responsibilities and obligations as part of the Paris Agreement’:
For Australia, to fairly contribute to the target of restricting warming to below 2°C and strive for 1.5°C total emissions need to be limited to around 8-11 billion tonnes between 2013-20503 . On current emissions levels this entire budget would be exhausted by 2030-2035.
NAGA advocated for the adoption of more ambitious short term carbon reduction targets and a long term deadline for zero net emissions. It suggested that reductions of approximately ‘40 per cent below a 2000 baseline by 2025, and a target of 65-75 per cent below the 2000 baseline by 2035’ are realistic and equitable short term targets. It noted that this should be supplemented by total decarbonisation by 2050:
As well as adopting a shorter-term target, an explicit date for decarbonisation will allow for long term direction in climate policy and guide investment decisions. Decarbonisation would see Australia reach zero net emissions, and would require ambitious energy efficiency, low carbon technology, electrification and fuel switching, as well as reduced non energy emissions in agriculture and industry.
The City for Sydney also argued that ‘it is essential that the Australian Government also shows leadership and commitment so that all Australian Cities become net-zero carbon emissions cities by 2050’. It recognised that ‘different policy mechanisms will work for different sectors’ but urged the Australian Government to adopt a suite of policy mechanisms which ‘include a price on carbon for electricity generation, tighter baselines for the safeguard mechanism consistent with Australia's targets, and use of minimum standards for appliances, vehicles, fuels and buildings’. The City for Sydney suggested that ‘investment certainty and efficient reductions in Australia’s emissions can only be delivered through a long-term target’.
The Department of Environment and Energy pointed out that the Australian Government does have ‘policies and programs that contribute to a reduction of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions and strengthen our resilience to a changing climate’, for example: the Renewable Energy Target, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation
Greenspaces and environmental protection
The right mix of green spaces and natural assets is critical to managing urban heat and creating liveable cities. Stakeholders suggested national policy is needed to monitor and preserve this mix.
The City of Fremantle noted that ‘while density is an essential ingredient in creating sustainable and liveable cities… density needs to be accompanied by a major provision of high quality green spaces’. It claimed that ‘global best practice is that 20–30 per cent of the total land size should be devoted to public open space, not the 10 per cent that is standard in most new developments’. It also highlighted the importance of providing a diverse range of greenspaces including sporting fields, bushland and parks to accommodate different lifestyles.
The NSW Government argued that ‘best practice strategic planning and urban development can ensure sufficient open space and natural environments are incorporated into our cities’. It noted that green spaces ‘produce many benefits such a cleaner air and water, reduced ‘heat island’ effects and protection from the elements’.
AILA asserted that ‘the planning, design and construction of our urban environs, including the application of green roofs and walls, street trees and tree planting, greener open-space design, rain gardens and reflective roofs and pavements, can all contribute to improving the comfort, quality and health of the city and its residents’:
Every 1°C temperature reduction that can be achieved through the better design of cities can equate to five per cent energy saving through reduced cooling loads. Reduced cooling loads will have significant social, economic and environmental impact on the long term sustainability of Australian cities. Alternatively, without changing the way we manage the growth of our cities, a Flinders University-led study has found that a 1°C temperature increase boosts cooling loads by 1.5million kWh per year, generating 1000 tonnes in carbon dioxide emissions.
AILA advocated for a national green infrastructure strategy and a national living cities fund ‘to support the implementation of green infrastructure projects across Australia’:
This would require a percentage of all Australian Government expenditure on ‘grey infrastructure’ projects (e.g. roads) to be placed in an investment fund for allocation to state and local government green infrastructure projects.
It also recommended ‘the creation of an Australian Government policy on the value of open spaces that quantifies and qualifies the development of better, higher quality and greener open spaces in cities that focuses on the health and wellbeing of our communities’.
The Committee appreciates the important role community infrastructure and utilities play in fostering the long term social and environmental sustainability of communities. Green spaces, cultural spaces, health and community justice facilities support the well-being of residents and promote community cohesion and liveability. Educational institutions expand the employment opportunities available to Australians and support a more diverse and prosperous economy. Affordable, reliable and environmentally friendly utilities are fundamental to all aspects of community life and underpin community resilience.
It is also clear to the Committee that Australia’s urban development has reached a critical juncture. Business as usual approaches to community infrastructure provision no longer represent best practice and are ill-equipped to deliver prosperous and liveable communities.
Evidence to the inquiry indicates that population growth is outstripping investment in community infrastructure such as health, education and community justice facilities. Technological advancement is revolutionising energy generation, and increasing waste production. The benefits of more holistic, integrated water cycle management are better understood and recognition of the need to reduce carbon emissions has gained momentum.
Most concerning of all, it appears that urban development planning is not comprehensive and does not leverage the benefits of strategic investment in community infrastructure and utilities.
Stakeholders have argued that Australian Government leadership is needed to drive reform across these areas. The Committee agrees. As a highly urbanised population and economy, the liveability of Australia’s communities is too important to leave to chance.
The next four sections outline the Committee’s recommendations to set urban development on a more sustainable trajectory.
The two major issues with the delivery of green spaces, health, education and community justice facilities are the provision for community infrastructure and appropriate densities in urban planning, and the adequacy and timeliness of infrastructure investment in population growth areas.
The Committee recognises the importance of holistic planning with three key characteristics; it involves all three levels of government and key policy areas, it integrates infrastructure investment with land-use planning, and it supports optimal densities. These issues are discussed at length in Chapters 2 and 3 of the report, where the Committee recommends the development of long-term, comprehensive settlement planning. The Committee considers that, through this process, the Australian Government can establish clear expectations for state and local governments’ settlement planning, including requiring urban planning to:
be a collaborative process involving state and local government, key policy areas and utilities such as energy, water and waste;
provide for community and transport infrastructure and consider adjacent land uses; and
drive optimal population densities in a manner which supports liveability.
Although planning is important, it is meaningless without the investment needed to deliver community infrastructure. Moreover, it is evident to the Committee that the communities shouldering the lion’s share of Australia’s rapid population growth believe that federal funding for infrastructure has not kept pace and their liveability is suffering as a result. The Committee agrees, and would like to see Australian Government funding reoriented to support these growth areas, largely located on the suburban fringe of capital cities.
However, investment in suburban fringe areas needs to be balanced with investment in regional centres, which are strategically placed to absorb some of Australia’s rapidly expanding population. The Committee concludes that regional centres offer many advantages to citizens and businesses and that intelligent investment in community infrastructure can increase the attractiveness of these locations for settlement, relieving some of the population pressures on communities along cities’ urban fringes. This may involve reorienting the NSRF as stakeholders suggest, or the establishment of a new community infrastructure fund.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government, as part of the system of master planning under the national plan of settlement, aligns existing regional infrastructure programs to the objectives of these plans to support investment in:
communities experiencing rapid and sustained population growth; and
regional centres which are strategically placed to expand with catalytic investment in community infrastructure.
National policy guidance is also needed to ensure urban regeneration, infill and expansion reflects best practice in age inclusive design. Urban redevelopment offers a significant opportunity to improve the social sustainability of Australia’s urban form. The Committee concludes that nationally consistent policies which establish minimum standards for age-friendly urban development are required.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government work with the States and Territories to ensure that nationally consistent age-inclusive standards for urban development are put in place, informed by:
community consultation; and
reviews of international and Australian best practice.
Urban water management
Evidence submitted to the inquiry clearly demonstrated that the complexity of urban water regulatory and policy frameworks and the siloed nature of institutions is preventing best practice integrated water cycle management.
The Committee considers that there is a clear case for reform and that it heard many sensible recommendations in relation to water management. However, given the Committee’s relatively narrow engagement with the water sector throughout the inquiry, and the Productivity Commissions’ recent in-depth review of National Water Reform, the Committee will not make a specific recommendation on urban water management.
However, the Committee notes that smarter urban water management has the potential to drive significant sustainability gains and improved liveability in Australian communities. The Committee urges the Australian Government to seriously consider the findings of the Productivity Commission. Engaging with water utilities early on in urban development planning processes will be critical to achieving optimal outcomes and should be supported by policy and regulatory reform.
The Committee is concerned to hear that waste production is increasing and that Australia now ranks highly in terms of waste generation per capita. Reducing waste production and improving waste management is critical to the long-term sustainability of Australian communities and an important aspect of being a responsible global citizen. The Committee considers that the Australian Government has particular responsibility to improve outcomes in waste management. This will balance the Government’s commitment to a transition to smart cities with the broader deployment of IoT technologies; many of which have short lifespans and use rare resources.
The Committee recommends the establishment of nationally consistent measurable targets to reduce waste to landfill, and the incorporation of a waste indicator into the National Cities Performance Framework. The Committee also recommends that the Australian Government provide grant funding to catalyse new innovative businesses focussed on waste recycling or utilisation, such as the Yarra Valley Water waste to energy facility.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government, in partnership with the States and Territories, establish nationally consistent measureable targets to reduce waste to landfill, incorporates waste indicators into the National Cities Performance Framework, and establishes a grant program to offer once-off financial support to catalyse new businesses focussed on waste recycling or utilisation.
National policy guidance is needed to ensure urban development incorporates environmentally friendly design. Urban redevelopment offers a significant opportunity to improve the environmental sustainability of Australia’s urban form. The Committee believes that nationally consistent policies which establish minimum standards for a clear trajectory to continued carbon emission reductions, and which provide for adequate green spaces, will help ensure this opportunity is utilised.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government work with the States and Territories to establish nationally consistent guidelines for urban green space and establish a clear trajectory to continued carbon emissions reductions.