'Fast Five' with Tony Carmichael - National Principal Strategic Advisor

Tony has recently been appointed from the ACT Department of Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development where he was Executive-Director, Strategic Planning. Tony had responsibility for transport policy and planning, major infrastructure projects, planning strategy, social planning, urban design, place-making, tactical urbanism and heritage. He developed the ACT light rail network master-plan and led the stage 2 pre-feasibility study for light rail implementation along with the complementary City and Northbourne Corridor urban renewal strategy. He also completed 13 master-plans for each of the ACT’s town and group centres.

Previously Tony had been Executive Director, Planning Strategy, Victorian Department of Transport, Planning and Local Infrastructure.

Tony has worked in most sectors of the economy including local, state and federal governments, along with private and not-for-profit sectors.

He has practiced and lived in four Australian States: NSW, VIC, ACT and QLD and in both regional and capital cities.

What has been your highlight so far in your 5 months at MacroPlan?

Writing possibly the world’s first automated vehicle implementation strategy on behalf of a State government [soon to be released – so watch this space]. An international search failed to locate a similar document anywhere.

It is important that governments are considering the risks of building infrastructure today that will be made partially or fully redundant by the advent of automated vehicles within the lifecycle of that investment. There is significant uncertainty about when fully automated vehicles will be implemented, but we can be sure it will be within the lifespan of any major transport infrastructure that is built today.

The introduction of automated vehicles needs careful implementation and well considered policy frameworks as they potentially will exacerbate the best and worst aspects of current vehicle use. If automated vehicles are not carefully implemented, cities may just end up with safer congestion and impotent public transport.


While working for the ACT Government, you delivered 13 Masterplans for each of the ACT’s town and group centres. What were the biggest challenges you faced while delivering them?

Every masterplan surfaced the same two big issues. I used to call them the “two most wicked public policy issues of our time” – building density and car parking.  Resolving these concerns is the “holy grail” of Australian cities.

The secret was proscribing good urban design principles in the masterplan, especially high quality public realms. Then making sure there was a comprehensive local transport plan incorporating public transport with high quality station/stop infrastructure and for active travel, making sure cycling and walking networks are clear, safe and comprehensive. Lastly, but most importantly, making the often sufficient parking supply more transparent, increasingly through technology. Electronic signage displaying the total availability of parking at each entry to a town centre is a very effective strategy for demonstrating adequate supply of parking.

Ensuring policy commitments are appropriately implemented is critical to building community confidence and support for higher density development. It develops a “community compact” for development providing predictability about outcomes for the community and certainty for the development industry. When that is achieved you create YIMBYs.  But when sub-optimal proposals get approval, the community contract is broken on higher density development and the NIMBY’s come out in force.


In your view, what is the biggest challenge facing Australian cities?

The challenge of remaking the public realm for people after 50 or so years of prioritising vehicles, properly dealing with housing affordability and getting the right infrastructure in the right place at the right time to maximise amenity and productivity.

I think infrastructure sets the framework for the others so I will start there. Most infrastructure commitments in Australia are made in election campaigns without the benefit of business cases despite the best efforts of expert infrastructure advisory agencies in many jurisdictions.

There is strong bi-partisanship in Australia for ignoring the infrastructure priority lists in elections. The inconvenient truth is these lists rarely reflect marginal electorates nor election policy platforms.

Political parties campaign on their 100 per cent commitment to their election promises. When the benefit cost analysis is undertaken on their chosen infrastructure project post-election and it shows more cost more than accrued benefits, the political talk turns to visionary, world class, transformational city shaping infrastructure and it proceeds.

Poor investments crowd out more critical productivity enhancing infrastructure, produce opportunity costs, force the re-writing of strategic plans to follow infrastructure delivery instead of being the blueprint for this investment, don’t solve city problems and often create their own set of unintended consequences.

This is where citizens need to make a stand. There is a cognitive dissonance that citizens have being concerned about the behaviour of politicians but not bringing them to account on these often sub-optimal but expensive infrastructure investments.


Why is housing affordability so hard to solve?

Most people acknowledge that Australian housing markets, especially in the big cities, are too expensive making it tough for new entrants. Whilst those purchasing or owning a home are at the lowest level in 50 years, still two-thirds of Australians are in that category. Therefore, the majority of Australians are strongly benefiting from the current increase in housing prices at the expense of those trying to enter the market. Additionally, stamp duties flowing from these housing transactions are a key source of income for state governments and rates are similarly an important income stream for local councils. This sets a difficult context for the political class to make bold decisions to “fix” the problem.

Increasing housing supply is a politically popular strategy. But developers, and the banks that fund development, do not want to see supply getting ahead of demand in a way that would put downward pressure on prices. The major banks have substantial borrowings in residential markets and are actively working to protect their investment. Recent publicity about three of our national banks “black listing” particular suburbs where they judge the investment risk is too great demonstrates this. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it is likely to protect uninformed potential purchasers as much as the banking system.

Local council housing approvals mostly run above the level of housing commencements, highlighting that increasing land supply may not necessarily have a significant impact on increasing housing supply.


Why can’t you watch the TV series Utopia?

Mostly because it was my day job for too many years. Most senior public servants working in infrastructure, transport or planning that I have discussed the show with, acknowledge how eerily close to their reality it is.  It is clever entertainment for many, but a documentary for me.

Contact Tony Carmichael today: 07 3221 8166 tony.carmichael@macroplan.com.au