Greater Perth

Recent arguments in the media over the Perth, Cottesloe and Scarborough water front proposals continue the same discussion of past years on projects like the Northbridge Link and Perth Convention Centre. These debates reflect a major underlying problem – the division of roles between State and Local Government. While the advent of the Metropolitan Regional Authority and Development Assessment Panels suggest that Local Government (including the City of Perth) lack the resources and authority to tackle major game-changing projects, many people view them as undemocratic – State Government not trusting Councils to make major planning decisions  -  and disenfranchising local electors.

One of the terms of reference for the Alan Robson chaired Local Government Reform Panel is ‘the reduction in the overall number of local governments to better meet the needs of the community’. Perhaps the terms of reference need to be widened to include the division of roles between State and Local Government, and whether Councils should become sufficiently large to undertake major projects without the need for the Premier to threaten intervention with State managed redevelopment schemes.  The reasoning behind redevelopment authorities is for the State to sequester LGA land, then plan and develop major projects before handing the land back to Councils. A good example of how the redevelopment authority process should be used is the one established in 1984 to develop South Bank as the site of the Brisbane Exposition held in 1988. The land was handed over to the City of Brisbane a year later. Another example is Melbourne’s Dockland Authority, a substantial enterprise set up in 1991 and handed over to City of Melbourne in 2007.

Compare this 5 year period of the South Bank and Exposition’s redevelopment authority’s existence to how the Perth metropolitan redevelopment authorities (now subsumed into the Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority) have held onto landholdings for decades; East Perth since 1991, Subiaco since 1996. Though 86% of the Subiaco Redevelopment Authority landholding is now back with the City of Subiaco, there is lingering disquiet over what has been handed over and what is to come (the China Green project for example) with the Council concerned as to the density and urban form it will inherit.  One wonders if the winding down of the SRA (reducing the role of State Government) contributed towards the decision to site the new Stadium in an area under greater State Government and private developer control.

A clear example of the confusion between State and Local Government roles is the inability of the City of Perth to develop any sizeable projects without State Government assistance. So perhaps the first piece for Robson, Tannock and Co. to resolve in the Perth Metropolitan jigsaw puzzle is the best footprint to showcase our capital city, the City of Perth. Certainly, the Reform Panel’s draft finding no. 14 makes it clear: In any future model, the size of the City of Perth should be increased and its role enhanced. Once the footprint for the City of Perth is resolved, the shape and size of (fewer) local authorities in the Perth Metro area will fall into place and the need for long term redevelopment authorities may be lessened.

Ask even locals, let alone visitors, to define the geographical extent of the City of Perth and the response is usually Barrack Street jetty to Northbridge, add in the Hay and Murray Street malls, plus King Street and that’s about it. West Perth and East Perth, though included in the City of Perth municipal area, barely crack a mention – too residential, too commercial, or just too far away to be considered as part of the City of Perth. East Perth is seen as EPRA land, not the City of Perth. And Crawley, even further away on the other side of Kings Park, hardly gets mentioned as part of the City of Perth.

It’s no wonder Perth finds it difficult to create a coherent urban identity when it is thought to be basically the Central Business District and not much more, including the less-than-inviting Northbridge. Perth’s ‘Get to know me’ campaign needs a little help with a better definition of the package it is trying to sell.

The Northbridge Link and the sinking of the railway, the recently opened State Theatre, the soon to open Arena and the planned Waterfront development, may go some way to improving the Capital City image. But these are largely State Government projects – sometimes against the wishes of the City of Perth e.g. the Convention Centre – or dependent on commercial interests to subsidise the development, like the Perth Waterfront, which is a dangerous factor likely to encourage over-development to the detriment of good urban planning and that is one of the principal concerns of Linley Lutton and the City Gatekeepers.

Would a larger City of Perth allow it to have a greater say on development, improve its river relationship, establish better public transport, and attract more facilities (and people) to create an identity truly showcasing a capital city? Has the relatively diminutive size and influence of the City of Perth encouraged the successful development of outer centres like Leederville, Mt. Hawthorn, Subiaco, Claremont and Victoria Park to the detriment of Perth itself?

Let’s compare Perth with two other Australian capital cities. Nobody is suggesting that Perth remodels itself on Melbourne and Brisbane, after all Perth is a unique city with its own special qualities, some of which (the climate and the river for instance) are far superior to cities regarded as more successful examples of livability. We need to recognise what we have and what we need to do to make Perth into a great city, and maybe the initial stumbling block lies in the matter of governance.

Melbourne is judged by many to be one of the most attractive and livable cities in the world. The City of Melbourne itself is 36 km2 with a residential population approaching 100,000 and a budget of around $350m. In comparison, the City of Perth is barely 13 km2 with a residential population of less than 20,000 and a budget of around $160m.

Greater Melbourne has a population of 5 million; the Perth Metropolitan area has a population of 1.5 million though this is projected to at least double by 2031, possibly reaching 4.5 million by 2046.

While the City of Melbourne has been extended in recent years to include areas like the Docklands and localities both sides of the Yarra River, the City of Perth has become smaller, after the loss of municipal area in 1993 to Vincent, Cambridge and Victoria Park as separate councils.  To some extent, the City of Perth lost identity as a capital city at that time and never recovered.

The City of Perth lacks a university and a major sports venue, largely turns its back on the river and is dislocated from one of the finest urban parks ever created. The major business streets all but close at five o’clock; public transport is woeful, and, after hours, perceived as unsafe. Northbridge apart, amenities (cultural, sports, civic, restaurants, bars, shopping, laneway developments etc.), are sporadically located with little concentration in one particular area, no real people magnet focus, and none of the buzz you feel in parts of Melbourne and Brisbane.

The City of Melbourne has two major universities (one of which – RMIT – makes a significant urban contribution to the public realm), sporting facilities to salivate over and a public transport system (City Loop rail, trams) second to none. Where is Perth’s central civic space, our Federation Square? Is it Forrest Place?

Brisbane is another city that bears comparison, as discussed in the draft findings of the Reform Panel.

The City of Brisbane is a huge municipality of some 1367 km² with a population over a million and administers a budget of $3b. The Brisbane municipal area is equivalent to the area between Cottesloe and Perth Airport, Wanneroo south to Jandakot. Less of a City, more of a mini-State and it’s no wonder the previous Mayor of Brisbane, Campbell Newman, was able to make the political leap from Mayor to Premier.

Perhaps a City of Perth of this magnitude would provide a better anchor role in Richard Weller’s proposition of ‘Seachange City’ (Boomtown 2050; UWA Publishing, 2009) –  the vision of a 600km long Metropolitan  Perth serviced by bullet train so that the extremities are no more than 90 minutes from the heart. Any of Weller’s several  ’scenarios for a rapidly growing city’ would at the least define a structure for growth instead of the seemingly unplanned sprawl, and place the Reform Panels’s vision of a 1, 5 or 10 Council Metropolitan set up in a better planning context.

Even the Central Brisbane City area as most tourists know it is more than twice the size of the City of Perth; 4km x 3km from Suncorp Stadium in the west to Fortitude Valley, and Kelvin Grove to Woolloongabba includes major stadia at the Gabba and Suncorp Stadium  and three major university campuses.

Like Melbourne, Brisbane treats the river as a central focus. Inner City Brisbane is also the hub of an excellent ferry system, both across and along the river. The cross-river ferries, linking the north and south banks at several points, reduce travel time and bring the two areas sufficiently close as to be regarded as the one place.

Would a City of Perth with more influence  (funds, population, facilities) result in a better planned place, reflecting a single coherent  vision with less State intervention? Would the creation of larger Councils across the Metro area reduce the need for redevelopment schemes  remaining in place for decades, and lead to a better division of roles and responsibilities (and relationships) between State and Local Government?

Minister Castrilli’s 2009 structural reform workshop discussed opportunities for growing the City of Perth, possibly incorporating the University of Western Australia, QEII and Burswood Casino. Others (Tony Morgan, CityVision, Committee for Perth) have made similar suggestions as have visiting planning gurus: John Mant, Charles Landry, Jan Gehl and others. Alan Robson and the Reform Panel have agreed but what is the ideal footprint of the City of Perth; what could be added to make Perth look and feel more like a capital city?

So what is the ideal footprint of the City of Perth, what could be added to make Perth look and feel more like a capital city?

  • Hopefully the Robson Review will reconsider the 1993 Court Government decision to hive off Vincent, Cambridge and Victoria Park as separate councils.  These inner city councils, plus South Perth, Subiaco and Nedlands (or parts of) could contribute land to the creation of a ‘Greater Perth’ wrapped around the river.
  • One aim of the Perth Waterfront proposal is to link the City to the river but the Cities of Brisbane and Melbourne make the river a central focus, not an end destination.
  • Though remaining separately governed, Kings Park should be made to feel more part of the central urban realm with better transport/pedestrian linkage to the City Centre.
  • The proposed Burswood Stadium could be the beginning of a major sporting complex rivalling Melbourne and Sydney’s Homebush.
  • The inclusion of a major hospital (Queen Elizabeth II Medical Centre) and university (UWA) perhaps Curtin as well.  The desire of both institutions to house the majority of students close to campus – an influx of young people – would only add to the vibrancy of a capital city. The diminishing role of Royal Perth Hospital strengthens the need for QEII to be regarded as ‘central’.
  • Outer City centres such as Leederville, Mt. Lawley, Highgate, Victoria Park, South Perth plugged into a whole of City of Perth experience.

The boundaries of a re-vamped City of Perth could look something like this:

To make these inclusions work in a ‘Greater Perth’ demands an improved public transport, bicycle and pedestrian network. Public transport travel is measured by time, not distance. Compare a 2km journey across Melbourne by a safe, attractive and regular tram service to the Perth equivalent, or a cross river ferry journey between Brisbane’s north and south banks. A larger and more accessible City of Perth could include:

  • An inner city loop rail line linking stations such as Subiaco, Leederville, Burswood, East Perth, Burswood, Canning Bridge, which intercepts commuters coming from the outer suburbs who do not need to access Central Perth.
  • A spur off this loop line to the Airport.
  • A dedicated cycle network following the City Loop route (picking up the excellent existing north/south/west cycle paths running parallel with the Freeway/Rail lines.
  • A ferry system along and across the river (and hopefully like Brisbane with higher residential densities on riverside land to provide increased ferry patronage).
  • A circular tram route along both sides of the river, servicing commuters at peak periods and tourists in between.
  • A tram system, or until that is affordable, an enhanced CAT bus system servicing the larger City
  • An easy interchange between all these transport options.

The Local Government Reform Panel is required to send its recommendations on appropriate boundaries and governance models for local governments in the Perth Metropolitan area to Minister John Castrilli by June 30 this year.

With the release of the Draft Findings <www.metroview,dig.wa.gov.au> is a plea for community input into the decision making process, with a deadline set for comments as 25 May 2012.

It is hoped consultation will be extensive; the general public has expectations that the reform process will set up a capital city worthy of the name.  The opportunity should not be lost.

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