Built Form Back on the Agenda

By Brodie Blades

The recent appointment of Jamie Briggs MP as the Minister for Cities and the Built Environment by the Turnbull government formalises a resurgence of the importance of our cities within the Federal agenda – the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Whitlam/Fraser era of politics.

Image source: Parliament of Australia
At face value this represents a sorely needed prioritisation of planning and the built environment within Federal circles, and you would certainly be forgiven for being swept up with the potential positives this could bring. The Planning Institute of Australia have ‘warmly welcomed’ the intention of the appointment in heralding a new era of coordinated and well planned development.

It has been almost five decades since the Federal government’s previous significant intervention into the Australian city, this is not the first time that urbanism has been formally recognised through Federal portfolios and the question arises as to what can we learn from previous frontbench appointments.

A logical starting point would be Prime Minister McMahon’s early 1970’s appointment of Kevin Cairns as a traditional Minister for Housing who – in 1972 – recommended an Inquiry into the Australian City that would be a fact-finding exercise on all levels of government (and the industry) to determine future action. Whilst promising, the Inquiry was never initiated and the Whitlam Government’s coming-to-power shortly thereafter shifted priorities to the newly created ‘Department of Urban and Regional Development’ as a platform for ongoing advocacy and coordinated change. Unfortunately, with the demise of the Whitlam Government in 1975, the Fraser government installed John Carrick as the Minister for Cities, he lasted for a total of 41 days before the portfolio was terminated.

The dismantling of this position heralded a general shift away from urban prioritisation and intervention within subsequent governments, the Howard/Abbott government’s sought little policy intervention in Australian cities while the Rudd/Gillard government’s ‘Major Cities Unit’ was a largely academic role in producing reports (including the ‘State of Australian Cities Report’) and advocating for policy.

Based on this, the precedent set regarding urbanism and the Federal government appears to be one of constant evolution with limited outcomes, which is perhaps symptomatic of political intervention in urbanism in general. Above and beyond this, Professor Alan Davies writes an excellent article here on the specific barriers facing meaningful action with the recent appointment of Jamie Briggs, which includes limited regulatory capacity, the actual influence of the portfolio in comparison to others that exist, the discrepancy between Malcom Turnbull’s sophisticated understanding of the complexity of urban issues compared to that of the government as a whole, and expenditure powers.

However, the potential of the portfolio to act as a vehicle for meaningful action cannot be ignored. Greater advocacy, streamlined collaboration, formal prioritisation of urban issues, greater industry engagement and the potential for coordination of long term change programs are all direct possibilities of the creation of the new cities portfolio.

Planners and urban design professionals have long since understood the importance of cities and the built environment to the future of Australia, and at face value the recent creation of the Cities and Built Environment portfolio align elements of Federal decision-making with this understanding.

While the above would indicate that it is perhaps too early to celebrate, surely the appointment of Jamie Briggs can only elevate the importance of built form and Australian cities within both the minds of decision makers as well as the conversations of every day Australians – which in itself is perhaps all that is needed as a catalyst for meaningful action for the future of Australian cities.

What do you think? What do you see as being the biggest challenges and potential outcomes of this appointment?

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