The Prime Minister, Queensland Premier and Townsville Mayor recently signed Australia’s first ‘City Deal’. This integrated approach to economic planning and infrastructure funding, involving all three levels of government has the potential to transform our cities and regions around the country. The framework is in place and the Townsville City Deal shows that these deals can be signed in Australia. However, building consensus and setting out a long-term plan and gaining agreement is not simple. For this to be the first of many, political leaders must find ways to collaborate, build consensus and implement a shared vision for their communities.
City Deals are central to the Commonwealth Government’s Smart Cities Plan which sets the goal of delivering more innovative, productive, connected, economically thriving and healthy cities and regions. Adapted from the UK ‘City Deals’ is an integrated approach to economic planning and infrastructure funding. It calls on governments, industries and communities to avoid piecemeal infrastructure projects and instead develop a cohesive vision for economic and societal growth and commit to the actions, investments, programs and governance needed to implement them.
A City Deal should extend beyond a ‘one-dimensional solution’, such as providing more housing, to a more comprehensive view of how housing will link to other aspects, such as congestion, business growth and social mobility. With better transport, more effective logistics and freight supply chain, efficient employment locations and digital connectivity, cities should be easier to live in, do business with and be more competitive and liveable.
“In Australia, people get really excited about big projects … but there has to be a programmatic view on how individual projects relate to drive better outcomes across the spectrum of aspiration.”
– Paul Low
The Townsville experience demonstrates the value in strong political leadership at an individual and collective level to enable the critical conversations to agree on the trade-offs between different investment pathways. It also highlights the importance of appropriately resourced technical and agency teams to take political direction and translate the City Deal into tangible, pragmatic implementation pathways.
“Everything has to come from the local political leadership – the stakeholders have to sit in a room at some point and actually sign the deal.”
– Paul Low
A ‘smart city’ needs alignment and collaboration between all levels of government, community leaders, interest groups and the private sector, all working towards a shared vision of how services and infrastructure are planned and delivered to communities. They need to agree on a vision for how a region is going to develop across a whole range of areas – from economic to social, environmental, financial, skills and education, digital and transport connectivity, housing supply, enabling water and power and more.
What the Townsville City Deal demonstrates is the power of a clear narrative for a city that provides the parameters to shape a vision and drive alignment across government and private sector interests. The vision needs to be supported by clear investment pathways that act as an anchor to focus discussion and trade-offs.
As seen in the UK and now in Queensland, having a rigorous process in place is critical to bring together a diverse set of stakeholders, sit around a table and hammer out the agreement. While the framework is in place for a city like Townsville, it will be adapted and applied and improved as governments and their partners in industry, academia and peak bodies shape future city deals.
Measurement is also fundamental. It’s vital to help understand the impact of the City Deal and may also, as the Australian City Deal model evolves, be central to unlocking and sustaining funding streams across medium and longer term horizons. As we have seen from the benchmarks applied in the Townsville City Deal, measurement can help to contextualise a city’s challenges against the State’s wider back drop.
The City Deals approach has the potential to bring many lasting benefits to our communities. While the model will evolve to suit our wide variety of regions, leaders and supporting agencies must be careful that the model is not subverted and that the rigour and integrated approach at the heart of the City Deals approach is maintained.