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Lessons from Australia

By Ian Tant, President of the RTPI 2019

I pay respect to the Yacumbeh people on whose un-ceded land we meet and acknowledge their elders, past present and emerging.”

It was with these important words that many speakers began their presentations at the recent Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) Congress in the City of Gold Coast.  I follow suit and their significance will become clear below.

With Reginald Proffit, NZPI Maori Board member; Karyn Sinclair, NZPI President;
Steve O’Connor, PIA President; Dyan Currie, CAP President.

This year’s Congress had three principal themes - the need for a National Settlement Strategy, digital disruption, and indigenous planning.  

Need for a national strategy

PIA is calling for the development of a National Settlement Strategy to better coordinate growth and infrastructure investment across this vast nation.  The current population of 25 million people is expected to grow to 50 million before the end of this century.  The population of the major cities - Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane/Gold Coast - is expected to double or triple in this time, while “the bush” or more remote rural areas are facing a decline in numbers.  

The federal Government in Canberra is a major source of public investment but planning laws are made by the States and Territories.  Development plans are currently prepared on a regional basis, each covering several council areas.  It is the councils that administer planning controls. 

The lack of coordination between states gives rise to a number of problems including those concerning river system management (the major Murray Darling River Basin crosses three states), delivery of major road and rail infrastructure across boundaries, and responses to climate change (a major concern in a nation subjected to coastal inundation, bush fires and prolonged droughts). 

To help advance the national strategy, Paul Hogan of the Irish Government’s Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government gave a keynote presentation sharing Ireland’s experience in completing the National Planning Framework.  Others debated whether states and cities, who compete for investment and skills, would willingly accept the involvement of the central Government in such strategic planning. 

City deals

City deals, an import from the UK, are being adopted in Australia too. Professor Paul Burton of Griffith University pointed out that the first such deal for Townsville was awarded to the only part of the country without an adopted regional plan, highlighting that City Deals could form part of a National Strategy but only if administered on a clear, rational and lasting basis.

Meanwhile, the Greater Sydney Commission is powering ahead with a City Deal for Western Sydney and a major strategy for growth across the “three cities” of Sydney (covering 33 council areas) with major road and rail infrastructure and a planned new airport. Inward investment is being sought across the globe, and it shows again that strong leadership and high level political commitment is key to this exciting strategic proposition.

The theme of digital disruption encompassed issues familiar to RTPI planners from our own debates on the topic. Trooper Sanders of the Rockefeller Foundation (and a former adviser to Michelle Obama) warned of the risks of AI reinforcing bias through the importation of current practices and historic (bias-based) data into algorithms and the implications for poorer and ethnic communities. 

Planning for indigenous peoples

Finally, the theme of planning for indigenous peoples presented the most challenging part of the Congress agenda. 

The lands of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples were appropriated by European settlers without compensation, without treaty and without being lawfully ceded.  The oldest continuing civilisation on the planet - stretching back over 60,000 years - has been almost erased from history in just 200 years. Official records in 1788 showed the indigenous population as zero when in fact there were around two million indigenous people living in Australia at the time.

The Congress met in a building standing on the country of the Yacumbeh people (as does the whole of Gold Coast).  Shockingly, the Australian Constitution still provides the power for states to exclude the indigenous peoples from rights to vote and, effectively, of citizenship.  The State of Queensland is so far the only one to require recognition of the First Nation peoples in its activities, including in planning. 

Ed Wensing of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies and other speakers highlighted the Uluru “Statement from the Heart” which calls for a referendum to amend the constitution to give strong recognition to the original peoples.  Consultation is nowhere near enough - dialogue, engagement and exchange is vital - and PIA is now making understanding of indigenous culture, history and land management as part of the core competencies of Australian planners.  

Reginald Proffit, the Maori Board Member of the New Zealand Planning Institute, presented on a different experience following a treaty with the Crown, given effect by the New Zealand Government. Maori culture is being embraced as the distinctive culture of New Zealand, with huge benefits in national identity, the economy, tourism and cultural activities.

Much to learn

In this the 50th anniversary of the Skeffington Report, there are clear parallels - and lessons - for the UK in the extensive dialogue and engagement processes now evolving in Australia and in New Zealand to bring the indigenous peoples into planning processes. 

There is much to learn from - and much to share in - the experiences of our fellow planning institutes across the world.  RTPI attendance at conferences such as the PIA Congress spreads our influence and mutual understanding to the benefit of all planners across the globe. 

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