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Govt won’t be “ATM” for states’ smart city programs

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The federal government is rethinking the traditional approach to providing funding for cities as part of its smart cities initiatives. Speaking at the launch of the government’s new Future Ready program, Assistant Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation Angus Taylor said the cities of the future will require a new approach to investment and grant funding. The government plans to take a closer role in state city development projects, Taylor said. “No longer will the Australian Government be an automatic teller machine for state governments. Going forward, we will operate as an investment partner,” he said. “We need to ensure that every dollar we spend in this era of tight budgets … is an investment in growing the economy, building livable cities and regions, and cutting congestion.”

The government considers cities to be the infrastructure of the 21st century, Taylor said. In looking at major infrastructure projects, the government plans to consider all possible financing options. “Delivering for future generations depends on reducing our significant budget deficit and at the same time investing more in transformative infrastructure. The only way we can achieve both of the outcomes simultaneously is through infrastructure investment backed by smarter financing models,” he said. “Today, we know the Commonwealth bureaucracy lacks the skills and structures needed to assess and broker these deals. So we are establishing a new financing agency — within the Prime Minister’s portfolio — to fill that gap. It will provide commercial discipline in infrastructure decision-making, just as other nations have done in the recent past.”

The rethink of traditional financing models will extend to grants — Taylor said the $50 million Smart Cities and Suburbs program, due to launch this year, will not involve a mere standalone grant program. According to Taylor, this is the impetus behind the new Future Ready program, which is designed to help local councils and communities incubate innovative technology projects that will then become candidates for the grants program. “It’s a break from the traditional grants program, and I’m a firm believer that we’ve become too reliant … on grants programs as a solution to every problem in this country. What we need to do is harness our energy, collaborate, get the right people together, to make things happen… Money is obviously a facilitator, but it can’t lead the way,” he said.

Taylor added that the government’s city deals will provide a key role in developing smarter cities. City deals deliver a coordinated plan for jobs, housing, transport and the environment. They involve each level of government. The first city deal was signed for Townsville late last year, and the next deals are due to be signed in Launceston and Western Sydney. Taylor said the latter deal will represent “the single largest planning, investment and delivery partnership in the history of this nation. This is genuine nation building.” Finally, Taylor noted that emerging new technologies will be critical enablers of the initiative to create smarter cities. “New and developing technologies will fundamentally change the way we live and work, and of course in that process I think they will also fundamentally change our cities,” he said. “Open data is also unlocking opportunities to improve and better utilise community assets and services and we see that very closely here.”

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