The art of the City Deal: why leadership and shared vision is vital for better outcomes

Today sees the Prime Minster, Queensland Premier and Townsville Mayor sign Australia’s first ‘City Deal’ in what I hope will be the first of many such agreements that have the potential to transform our cities and regions around the country. The framework is in place and we have a proof now that these deals can be signed in Australia – it’s now down to local political leaders to agree and drive a shared vision for their communities.

A new approach to driving metropolitan and regional outcomes

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 livable.

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.

Importance of governance

These 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. While this plan has huge potential, without strong leadership and support by federal, state and local government, implementation will be challenging.

Building consensus, setting out a long-term plan and gaining agreement is not simple.

As my colleague Said Hirsh saw in the UK and I’ve seen in Queensland, having a rigorous process in place is critical to bring together a diverse set of stakeholders, to be able to sit around the 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.

Global stage, competing cities

Big and small cities now compete for businesses, labour, investment and more — not just with neighboring cities, but from around the world. The goal of City Deals is to identify and develop the necessary infrastructure and supporting programs to enhance long-term economic potential.

Who leads the vision?

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 view 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 power of a clear narrative for a city that provides the parameters to shape a vision to 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.  The importance of measuring impact and performance is an equally key ingredient as we have seen from the benchmarks applied in the Townsville City Deal to better contextualise that city’s challenges against the State’s wider back drop.

Measurement is fundamental to understanding impact and may also, as the Australian City Deal model evolves, be central to unlocking and sustaining funding streams across medium and longer term horizons.

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 demonstrates the importance of appropriately resourced supporting technical and agency teams to take forward political direction and translate 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.

Keeping a city vision on track – Seven steps for better outcomes

  1. Establishing geographic, demographic and thematic priorities:areas and activities are not isolated, so interactions between initiatives may support or hinder the ability to implement a new vision.
  2. Hold wide and repeated consultations on the plan:confer with the appropriate people frequently, to help people feel “ownership” of the vision.
  3. Give key decision-makers and stakeholders a say:for example, engage property owners, academia, peak body groups, community leaders to ensure diverse views are drawn into the conversations around vision and objectives.
  4. Know where the money is coming from:have a clear, realistic plan around funding and financing opportunities, particularly in the early stages of a City Deal as it seeds innovation.
  5. Focus on feasible projects and actions:a good vision will help make the conversion from the theoretical to reality easier.
  6. Once a plan is launched, stick to it for several years:it can be tempting to reinvent plans and policies at short-cycle periodic intervals however focus on implementation past the startup period is necessary.
  7. Review progress regularly and adapt your course as needed:sticking to a plan does not mean it is rigid — select key measures to monitor progress and allow recalibration of the strategy

City Deals: supercharging Australia’s economic growth and productivity

Prime Minister’s Press Release

Paul Low, Partner, Policy, Programs & Evaluation
Paul is currently the Taskforce Head, Cities Transformation Taskforce, Queensland Government


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