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Built environment meets parliament

Melonie Bayl-Smith reports on this year’s Built Environment Meets Parliament event.

BEMP, or Built Environment Meets Parliament, has established itself as an annual summit bringing together an alliance of leading property industry associations as well as Members of Parliament. This alliance comprises the Australian Institute of Architects, Consult Australia (previously the ACEA), the Green Building Council of Australia, the Planning Institute of Australia and the Property Council of Australia.

This year, a series of presentations and panel discussions were held across one day, with a broad array of speakers drawn from industry and the professions. This list of participants included Sue Holliday (former Director-General of the NSW Department of Planning), Ken Maher (Hassell), Brian Howe (University of Melbourne), Chris Caton (BT Financial group) and Ed Blakely (University of Sydney). In keeping with the purpose of BEMP, several ministers and senators also presented and participated in the closing panel session – Tony Burke, Penny Wong and Christine Milne, among others.

The central focus this year was a specially commissioned discussion paper prepared by Sue Holliday and a team from KPMG entitled “Spotlight on Australia’s Capital Cities”, an independent assessment of city planning systems that can be downloaded at www.bemp.com.au. In essence, this seventy-three-page report measured each capital city against the performance criteria for effective city planning adopted by COAG late last year and provided an overall score and ranking. The report also measured these planning frameworks against actual performance in the following areas: budget performance, population planning, housing affordability for key workers and traffic congestion.

The media loves nothing better than a league table on which to hang its opinions, and the June long-weekend newspapers in NSW were filled with uproar because the report, unsurprisingly, handed Sydney a plethora of poor rankings. And while much air time was spent at BEMP further unravelling the ranking angst of various attendees, Sue Holliday and others pointed out that even if the criteria and methods were imperfect, it remains disturbing that Australia’s largest and most internationally important city performs so badly.

Dovetailing with these discussions about land availability, public transport and planning policy were presentations about affordable housing schemes, population projections, urban renewal challenges and the inevitable (and unfortunate) greenwash. Pardon my cynicism, but Penny Wong’s declaration of the government’s commitment to ESD via the delivery of solar panel and hot water systems rebates sounds like a local council scheme in this day and age. It would have been more impressive to see greater governmental commitment (funding and otherwise) to fostering quality urban design – partnerships in development, infrastructure and planning that truly enable sustainable living and working. On this point, the brief lunchtime presentations from Arup and Chris Bosse contained greater vision and evidence of problem solving thinking in action.

The rankings and assessments of the BEMP report resulted in a series of eleven recommendations, ranging from lifting the involvement of the Commonwealth Government in embedded metropolitan planning to improving development assessment processes, establishing modern public funding mechanisms and setting city-based performance targets. These proposed actions or agendas are all commendable and the thinking evident in the details is strong. However, arguably the ability of the industry and profession to successfully deliver on the recommendations hinges largely on Recommendation 10. Without wishing to be overly pessimistic, there is little chance of increasing Australia’s strategic planning and design capacity if the Commonwealth Government and the universities do not commit to appropriate levels of funding for our schools of architecture and planning. Education to facilitate excellence and to provide larger numbers of quality graduates will simply not arrive out of thin air.

Another point worth raising is that while a diverse group of delegates was present at BEMP, it was disappointing to see very few representatives from Australia’s largest developers, builders and retail companies present. Each of these plays a substantial role in the workings of our cities and towns – a concerted effort to engage with these sectors would not go astray in future.

Reflecting back on the day, the BEMP organizers did well to provide a thought-provoking and challenging series of speakers and ideas. It was disappointing that the parliamentarians who were invited to attend and/or speak invested little time actually present at the summit. This was not a reflection of the quality of the debate, but may have been because Parliament returned from recess that week and then the week later presented us with a new prime minister. If the next BEMP considers these factors, it may lead to increased parliamentary involvement in the BEMP forums. Oh, and don’t forget – perhaps we need a new acronym …

Melonie Bayl-Smith is a director of Liquid Architecture.


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