Smart planning can shape a better SEQ

How to double an already significant urban population of 3.4 million and not turn a region renowned for its mix of amenity and lifestyle qualities into a massive commuter grid-lock is the challenge faced by the South-East Queensland Regional Plan.

Today 3 March 2017 is the deadline for public submissions on the Queensland Government’s draft South East Queensland Plan.  The following article outlines the Institute for Resilient Region’s view on how to strengthen and implement the regional plan.

How to double an already significant urban population of 3.4 million and not turn a region renowned for its mix of amenity and lifestyle qualities into a massive commuter grid-lock is the challenge faced by the South-East Queensland Regional Plan.

The draft response comes with a sweeping 50-year vision for the region, structured by a 25-year land use planning framework that emphasises densification in settlement patterns and a relatively marginal further decentralisation of the regional economy outside of Brisbane.

Substantial population growth to a total of 5.3 million people is the core assumption of the draft Regional Plan with expectations of up to an extra 2 million people living in south-east Queensland by 2041 with the possibility of a near doubling again by 2061.

Grounded in five organising themes and goals, the draft Plan presents a vision for South East Queensland (SEQ) as a globally competitive “smart region”, a model of “sub-tropical” lifestyle and “climate resilient living”, settled in a “network of well-defined cities” inter-connected as “complete communities.”

Constant change is identified as a critical feature of the future of SEQ reflecting in changing population, economic restructure and technological innovation.

Climate change, the resource footprint of the region, multiculturalism and globalisation are seen too as key shaping factors of our future.

In its vision, scoping embrace of the key factors shaping SEQ’s future, in its methodology and proposed land use directions, as well as recognition of the vital role of enabling infrastructure in creating the region of 2041, the SEQRP is endorsed by the Institute for Resilient Regions as providing an essential and constructive planning framework.

Beyond the acceptance of high population growth over the next half century, other assumptions underpinning the SEQRP include:

  • creation of an additional 1 million new jobs over the next quarter century;
  • enhanced connectivity through better transport, mobility and communications infrastructure;
  • clear delineation between built and natural environments with a focus on biodiversity protection, and green spaces; and
  • international profiling as a top end savvy and sophisticated “highly liveable region”.

It is an attractive world class vision – but can and how will it be realised?

Policy, technology, investment, infrastructure, and people will determine the outcome.

More importantly, the degree to which Queenslanders think outside the box, promote new ideas and higher levels of collaboration between governments of all levels as well as the private sector – these will shape the quality of the future region.

In this respect, the most important requirement for the success of the SEQRP will be the proactive engagement by the people living in south-east Queensland in the processes of planning and creating tomorrow’s SEQ.

The vision becomes possible when the regional community in all its diversity owns it and participates.

Sustainability and resilience should be core principles

To ensure future SEQ generations are not short-changed in lifestyle, amenity, and opportunity, the principles of sustainability and resilience must be uppermost in the planning process, framing a holistic view of the regional system and its future and underscoring essential processes and colouring every major development decision.

Mention is made in the draft of “managing growth sensibly and sustainably”, but the principles of sustainable development should be more embedded explicitly in the format of the Plan and its processes.  These include:

  • intragenerational equity – planning for socially equitable outcomes in development;
  • intergenerational equity – thinking long term about development which will impact future generations;
  • prudential use of non-renewable resources and protection of nature – understanding and acknowledging the systems basis of life in designing development;
  • precautionary principle – avoiding irreversible development impacts that would degrade the region;
  • heritage preservation – recognising the importance of cultural inheritance, valuing people, identity, local character, history and aspiration in planning and framing development;
  • full cost accounting – ensuring the full costs of development including externalities are factored into decisions and costed appropriately so as not to result in long term pain for short term gain.

These core organising principles are well reflected in the Planning Systems Principles of the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) and are commended for continued active utilisation in all aspects of the SEQ Regional Plan going forward.

The SEQ Plan will succeed if it shapes a future for the region in which affordable living and employment opportunity are integrated (not balanced) with a sustainable built and natural environment.

With 40% of new development projected to occur in greenfield sites, it is important that natural environmental values and functions are protected and preserved.

Green space is a vital factor in defining the amenity of SEQ and stronger emphasis needs to be given in the Plan to protecting, stewarding and enhancing the region’s natural capital, including particularly water supply catchments and areas providing vital ecosystem services in support of water and air quality and biodiversity.

The Property Council’s call for a regional biodiversity conservation strategy is a good idea and such a strategy grounded in scientific rigour should be closely embedded in the regional plan.

The best communities are local communities

The SEQ Regional Plan must also ensure that future regional settlement does not become so scattered as to explode the economic cost of transport infrastructure while diminishing the quality of life of tens of thousands of commuters chasing employment far from home.

Land use maps might anticipate an orderly and rationale development of settlement, but the real challenge will be to grow a SEQ with more jobs decentralised out into the larger regional hubs such as Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Toowoomba, and Ipswich.

Current projections are not ambitious enough to ensure broader regional equity in economic development.

If SEQ is to boast an inclusive, equitable and productive society into the future, infrastructure investment should be mapped and channelled to encourage the clustering of opportunity and capacity.

A strategic approach to the develop of high growth sectors like health, social wellbeing and education can ensure the development of a regional system of a professional services and other high value occupations outside of Brisbane.

Economic decentralisation within the SEQ region has to be a stronger tenet of government policy and planning than is reflected in the current draft.

A sprawling urban SEQ in which the Gold and Sunshine Coasts and the peri-urban hinterland serve essentially as dormitories for greater Brisbane would represent a gravely inefficient regional future.

The comparative advantage of all regions is the quality of life they afford.

In pitching the SEQ Regional Plan it is important that the Queensland Government recognise that sub-regions on the peri-urban fringe, manifesting disadvantaged socio-economic characteristics, struggle to attract investment and social diversity.

Rather than entrench existing geo-spatial patterns of community deficit, engagement, investment and diversification strategies should be implemented to revitalise peri-urban centres, ensuring SEQ does not find itself with a ring of marginalised and mendicant districts on its periphery.

Fast efficient public transport will be a crucial ingredient in remedying a current shortcoming that sees as many as one in three in the peri-urban precincts without employment and those with jobs working elsewhere.

The strongest and most resilient communities are inevitably grounded deeply in informed and enabled local social capital.

To secure equity as an ingredient of regional sustainability, there is a vital role to be played by good planning policy and practice, including the timely roll-out of so-called ‘soft (human services) infrastructure’ in new developments.

The Institute for Resilient Regions endorses the principles of sustainable regional planning promoted by the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) noting that planning integrity is essential for managing growth and settlement, staging infrastructure development and investment, and framing the sustainable integration of natural systems with human economy.

Walking the talk on infrastructure

The current draft SEQRP can be improved by clearer prioritisation and projected staging of the infrastructure that will be required to realise the vision.

A truly regional world class smart economy, for example, will falter without super-fast public transport between major centres.

It is vital that the State Government enable the SEQRP by ‘walking the talk’ on investment – whether that be by the provisioning of a seed project fund, private sector partnerships, or engagement with the Federal Government’s programs such as City Deals.

There is no point to a plan without appropriate resourcing and governance prerogatives underpinning it.

If, for example, dwelling targets are to be mandated for local authorities to achieve, then it behoves the State Government to ensure the necessary infrastructure (where provided by government or by public-private partnerships) is in place to facilitate development consistent with the vision and the core values of the SEQRP.

The SEQ Regional Plan is a state instrument with the power of mandate –  but a regional future cannot be achieved as a compliance outcome.

The State approach through SEQRP should be articulated through an array of complementary initiatives, including the State Infrastructure Plan (SIP) that encourage timely investigation of future urban tracts, public-private partnerships, master planned communities in preference to ad hoc sub-divisions, and reward and reinforcement for local authorities willing to experiment with new business models delivering least cost sustainable development.

A fast-growing mixed conurbation of diverse landscapes and populations will need fit-for-purpose core utilities – energy, water and sewerage, communications – as well as systematic staging in both the timing of the roll-out and upgrading of such infrastructure and in the proportional investment in infill and greenfield precincts within the SEQ.

Innovative new technologies in water and energy systems are likely to perform better and cost less in a distributed, decentralised, and closed local formats and networks.

Current thinking in government still inclines too much to the centralised-bigger-economies of scale models.

Both the SEQRP and State Infrastructure Plan require the flexibility in their essential commissioning to be as “future relevant” as possible in thinking about ownership and business models, procurement, design and delivery of new infrastructure.

Indeed, the simple dichotomy between infill and greenfield development is a secondary consideration to the “least cost best value” versus “what we know, what we’ve always done” approaches to infrastructure provision.

This applies equally to crucial utility management strategies like energy demand management and total water cycle management which is also missing from the SEQRP and should be included – as should strong links to the State’s forthcoming Climate Change Adaptation Strategy.

Least cost planning as a principle should be embedded in performance targets so that where and when efficiency in resource utilisation is possible it should be encouraged to avoid unnecessary investment, costs and impacts.

The same principle applies to housing. Low cost housing on the urban fringe is not so affordable socially or even personally if the housing is long distant from jobs, commuting is extensive, and social welfare impacts are considerable.

Least cost planning means factoring in full costs, including social and environmental externalities.  And timing the staging of new and upgraded infrastructure is crucial.

Built-in redundancy is a factor in planning regional resilience, but under-utilised and untimely infrastructure represents massive economic opportunity costs that can be avoided.

Adaptive governance needed to integrate vision, planning and action

For such a dynamic internationally important region, it is also imperative that the top end planning strategy, framed by the State Government in consultation with all key stakeholders, guide the delivery of outcomes.

Importantly, this approach will be most effective and productive if it is administered through a responsive, integrated and adaptable governance framework that takes close account of ongoing feedback, innovation, and a changing world.

In a long term 25-50-year context when governments (at different levels) are dealing with a region’s future at multiple scales – a regional future which will be characterised by transformation, innovation, occasional sudden disruptions, and from time to time, disputed and conflicted politics and stakeholder needs – the one thing government should never do is establish the settings and put the governance process on auto-pilot.

Regional systems are dynamic – as is the future – and planning policy and practice has to reflect that – informed by current data and robust stakeholder input and manifested in evidence-based transparent decision-making.

Effective application of the ‘subsidiarity principle’ also means the SEQ Regional Plan has to be framed to align with the respective capacities of the different levels of government to deliver on their core functional contributions.

This will require strong leadership and close coordination between levels of government and with the private sector to deliver agreed goals in timely and efficient fashion.  A mal-alignment of role and resourcing capacity can only result in poor development outcomes and a failure of the Plan.

A complaint of industry looking to invest in SEQ has been the common divergence in State regional planning and that of local authority town plans.

The challenge here is to simplify and make coherent a regional development process while respecting the integrity of local government and the legitimacy of community diversity with the region.

Monocultures, including planning monocultures, do little for resilient regions.

Equally, a planning process that is overly prescriptive and grounded in bureaucratic constraint is unlikely to be sufficiently forward-looking and responsive to the pace of technological change as to facilitate the most efficient least cost development.

To that end, the private sector should be incentivised for innovation and efficiency in providing new infrastructure, commercial precincts, housing and community developments.

The current model of local government building a business model around development charges penalises private sector initiative, drives up the cost of development unnecessarily, and essentially cross-subsidises other local government functions under-resourced because of State legislative and fiscal conditions.

Many trends, themes, and factors shaping the future of SEQ are identified in the draft SEQRP that suggest the importance of agility and adaptability in our processes, starting indeed with a need for stronger community understanding and engagement with current and likely future directions.

How smart SEQ turns out to be will be seen in how well it makes the most of digital infrastructure technology, electric cars, new forms of mobility and communication, cleaner energy and transportation, and of meeting the over-riding demands of climate change and a low carbon economy.

If all this is to be addressed and the SEQ Plan is to be realised, policy formulation in the State Government will have to be ahead of the game, adaptive and outward looking in encouraging initiative, partnership, investment, and innovation from other levels of government and the private sector.

And that begs a governance culture in our public processes that is willing to introduce and evaluate complex ideas, identify and manage risks, engage and communicate constructively, and build consensus for a shared vision of our grandchildren’s SEQ.

It also means that State and Local Government should be very clear about what they can and cannot do to promote affordable housing, ensuring, too, that the community is fully appraised of the role to be played by the Federal Government in framing tomorrow’s home ownership and rental prospects.

Finally, we in the community have a role, too, in reminding governments of all political persuasions and at all levels not to waste time unnecessarily ‘re-inventing wheels’ just to supersede work done during a different administration.

Too much corporate and community memory essential to effective planning and development is lost simply through political change.

Several years ago, in 2013-2014, more than 80,000 Queenslanders participated in a community engagement process that resulted in the 30-year vision of the Queensland Plan.

One of the crucial foundations of the Queensland Plan is the importance it attaches to regional development, especially outside of SEQ, to the extent that a target of doubling the population outside of SEQ by 2044 was a hallmark of that earlier process.

As a State planning instrument the SEQ Regional Plan has to be viewed in the broader context of Queensland’s future and competing development needs in other regions.

And to this end, and notwithstanding that the Queensland Plan is enshrined in legislation, it is disappointing to find no reference in the draft SEQRP to the Queensland Plan and its foundations.

Inter-governmental alignment and collaboration is essential to SEQRP going forward but so too is intra-governmental coherence, consistency, and continuity.

Author: Professor John Cole OAM

Professor Emeritus and founder of the Institute for Resilient Regions at the University of Southern Queensland and Honorary Professor, UQ Business School, The University of Queensland.

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