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Beyond Utopia

WA is at a crossroads for infrastructure, with hopes a new independent organisation will reshape the planning agenda as well as the skyline of Perth. As Connie Clarke writes, it’s time to go beyond the politics of big projects.

Optus Stadium.
Optus Stadium.

It was the moment Western Australian sports fans had waited a decade to see. Despite naming rights debates, a final cost of $1.5 billion, and delays and cost blow- outs on the yet-to-be completed pedestrian footbridge, Optus Stadium was officially opened in mid-January — ahead of time.

Punters and pundits alike praised its form and beauty, declaring it an admirable engineering and technological achievement that would finally give the State a world-class sporting venue.

The consensus was that the new Perth stadium was the best sporting venue in the land, surpassing even the iconic MCG and the SCG, and would help bring global sporting events and thousands of visitors to Perth.

It was a rare moment of agreement about a piece of infrastructure, in a policy area marred by debate, delays and debacles. Whether it is a budget blow out or an unusable children’s hospital, infrastructure developments are frequently condemned before they can be praised.

Australia’s slapdash approach to infrastructure is so notorious it spawned a television comedy in Utopia, and almost no-one is surprised when projects land nowhere near the initial figures forecast as their cost.

But does it have to be that way?

Not according to experts in best practice for infrastructure, who see innovation, careful planning and an apolitical approach as key to success.

Not according to experts in best practice for infrastructure, who see innovation, careful planning and an apolitical approach as key to success.

Director of ECU’s Centre for Innovative Practice Professor Kerry Brown says that although delivering major infrastructure projects on time and on budget is challenging, Western Australia is in the box seat to transform into a major city.

The answer, she says, lies in developing strong road and rail networks that will create vibrant, healthy, well-connected communities, not just in the CBD and around the Swan River, but in urban areas.

But she warns that having too many projects overlapping can create a situation where too many builders, designers and architects are needed at the same time.

“The layering of projects on top of one another in quick succession can create a crisis of capability,” she says.

“It draws too much on the resources of a local community, contributing to both time and cost over-runs.

The State Government is already liaising with housing, urban development and property groups in gleaning high-level advice on METRONET projects, and has set up a private sector reference group to help advise on complex planning issues.

METRONET is the State Government’s number one priority, says Transport and Planning Minister Rita Saffioti.

“This is the first time in WA history that there are five rail projects either underway or in planning,” she says.

“We will be taking industry with us each step of the way, whether it’s for manufacturing rail cars, undertaking design and engineering or building within the many METRONET precincts that new train stations will enable.

“It’s important we get this key body and future infrastructure projects right in planning for the State we would like to leave our children and grandchildren.”

With the scale of investment at stake — METRONET will be the biggest capital expense the State Government has embarked on in two decades — it’s important to get the details right.

Yagan Square in Perth's CBD.
Yagan Square in Perth's CBD.

Chris Fitzhardinge, chair of the WA Infrastructure Coalition and director of Berkelium Consulting, says consultation between government, industry and the community is essential if the city and other parts of the State are going to achieve their goals.

He points to a 2016 report by the Grattan Institute, that found Australian governments spent $28 billion more on transport infrastructure than they told taxpayers they would during a 15-year period — a common story when it comes to exceeded budgets.

The report found 90 per cent of Australia’s cost overrun problems could be explained by 17 per cent of projects — which each exceeded their promised cost by more than half.

That’s where some oversight can be useful and Fitzhardinge welcomes the announcement of a new independent body to be called Infrastructure WA, designed to take politics out of planning.

A key goal of IWA is to create a unified infrastructure blueprint that is immune from the pet projects that plague election cycles.

It will comprise a panel of private and public sector experts tasked with developing a 20-year plan for WA's key projects. If legislation is passed in the Upper House, IWA should be up and running by 2019.

“Consultation is a crucial part of long-term planning,”Fitzhardinge says.

“If the community understands why and how a project will be implemented, it is more likely to be accepted. A body like IWA can provide the independent link between industry groups, governments and the communities.

“People should have the opportunity to shape projects. With the population growth we are experiencing, now is the time for roads, airports, freight routes, railways, ports, water technology and public transport to be transformed, and for people to play a part in that transformation.”

The IWA can aid planning and setting of priorities, but the third challenge for infrastructure developers remains price.

Fitzhardinge believes the focus should shift from how much a project costs, to whether these costs can be justified in the life- cycle of the piece of infrastructure.

Venues like Perth Arena – widely criticised for its time and cost overruns during construction phase– had been better accepted after its first five years of operation, once adjustments had been made to car parking provisions. Other venues could be adapted over time, giving them a second or even third life.

“We are fortunate that we have plenty of cities in Australia and around the world that we can learn from,” Fitzhardinge says.

“Cities like Vancouver and Toronto have very sound transport systems, and we can learn a lot from Melbourne’s inner-city transport systems, port infrastructure and water management.”

Perth has been transformed by infrastructure projects in the last decade.
Perth has been transformed by infrastructure projects in the last decade.

State manager of Consult Australia Steve Coghlan says that if truly independent, the IWA will be a great step forward for the State.

“We have a massive opportunity to shape the way that we live and work,” Coghlan says.

“We have to remember that we can’t keep building along the coast and we will now be able to review the planning of infrastructure projects with five-year plans, like other states do.”

Engineers Australia WA general manager Susan Kreemer Pickford is also looking to the future, believing an integrated approach between agencies and long-term planning of 15 years or more will help avoid the effects of the boom-bust cycle common in WA.

Longer timeframes for planning reduce risk and can attract investment — as well as providing more secure employment options for young engineers, who take seven years to train.

“If we have an effective blueprint for base infrastructure, which is strongly connected to a clear vision, and we know which facilities we require first, we can work on building a sustainable water future, focus on renewable energy solutions and build smart cities,” she says.

“We can grow safe, liveable places to in which to work and play, and these satellite cities, if planned properly, can retain and attract the right talent without the cost blow-outs.

“We can look for alternate funding models, build stronger links with Infrastructure Australia and start to attract investment from the banking sector.

“IWA can help in building that vision. Having an integrated plan independent of government and planned beyond the election cycle is crucial to our future.”


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