21/07/2021 - 09:00

Langoulant says community key for infrastructure

21/07/2021 - 09:00

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Ahead of Infrastructure WA releasing a draft of its inaugural strategy document, agency chair John Langoulant spoke to Business News about the future of infrastructure in the state.

Langoulant says community key for infrastructure
John Langoulant has chaired Infrastructure WA since 2019. Photo: David Henry

Infrastructure has been a constant at the forefront of John Langoulant’s mind for decades.

Part of that reflects his formative years as an official at the Department of Treasury, which culminated in a near decade-long tenure as Western Australia’s under- treasurer.

Broadly speaking, though, his interest in the topic reflects its inherent importance to a booming but sparsely populated state like WA, where big-ticket items such as football stadiums, underground railways and freeways often assume the legacy of their advocates.

“Infrastructure builds states,” Mr Langoulant told Business News.

“People often are remembered for infrastructure.

“What did you build?”

If that sense of history initially endeared him to the subject, his analysis of infrastructure as part of a broader review of the state’s public sector he led in 2018 placed him among its most prominent proponents today.

Many will remember the findings of Mr Langoulant’s review, which pilloried the public sector’s short-term focus and lack of common purpose.

Most notably, his recommendation the state government create Infrastructure WA – an independent advisory body to assess the state’s long-term planning priorities – proved popular with both industry and the state government.

Mr Langoulant was named the body’s inaugural chair in 2019.

Now, as the agency prepares to release a draft of its first 20-year strategy for feedback later this month, Mr Langoulant believes the state has taken the necessary steps towards depoliticising planning and addressing the economic, social, and environmental aspects of WA’s long-term infrastructure needs.

“When you build infrastructure, it’s got to have more than an economic focus,” he said.

“You’ve got to balance the program by thinking about the community.

“That is the social and environmental aspects of what you’re building.”

Outsourcing strategy to an independent agency has become commonplace in most other states and territories in the past decade, with the model used in NSW named by Premier Mark McGowan as its closest counterpart when pitching Infrastructure WA in 2019.

The NSW body, which produced its first 20-year strategy in 2012, recommended a slew of projects that largely focused on turning Sydney into a global city and developing major transport connections through the state’s exurban locations such as Parramatta, and regional cities including Wollongong and Newcastle.

Many of these recommendations were later parlayed into the state’s $10 billion WestConnex proposal, which, while drawing the ire of the state’s environmental left and local councillors, enjoys the political support of both the state’s government and opposition.

To the south, Victoria’s own infrastructure agency released its report this past December, recommending a circular, net zero emissions economy by 2050, replete with greater tree canopy cover in exurban Melbourne, bicycle paths and off-peak fares for public transport.

Whatever is in WA’s strategy, which will be released at a joint event with the Property Council of WA later this month, is likely to reverberate across the state in the months ahead. Many will likely take a keen interest in the strategy’s medium-term outlook, which will identify priority infrastructure projects and programs.

Anyone looking for specific project recommendations may be disappointed, however, as Mr Langoulant pointed instead to broader issues, such as addressing inequalities with the state’s indigenous community, as major elements of the draft strategy.

“One of the things you’ll notice when you pick up the report is that we don’t have a list of 25 things you have to build tomorrow,” Mr Langoulant said.

“We’ve sought to identify what are the key issues that will assist in enhancing service delivery, such as to the indigenous community across the state.

“How can we deliver infrastructure to improve that community’s economic and social wellbeing?

“It is going to be interesting to see if people think we got it close to right or not, but we’ve done a lot of work by reaching into representative groups and working with people in the community who are well informed to advise us on these things.”

Those in regional WA will likely focus on the strategy’s long-term recommendations, given the body’s discussion paper released more than a year ago identified coordinating infrastructure across such a vast, sparsely populated area as a major challenge.

So, too, was identifying where the state’s major regional centres may emerge, with either Bunbury or Mandurah the most likely cities to serve that role in the coming decades.

Mr Langoulant noted great difficulty in addressing these needs in the past, with the report to feature digestible breakdowns of the needs of the state’s 10 regions.

Perth, meanwhile, is the subject of growing transport, education, and health needs, with at least 1 million new residents set to pour into the metropolitan region within the next two decades.

And while the city is almost guaranteed to need additional hospitals and schools as a result, Mr Langoulant said asset management, either through technological optimisation or maintenance, would become paramount to catering for that growth.

So, too, would matters connected to the changing climate, such as ensuring the state had drinking water and was able to transition towards green energy sources in the decades ahead.

Mr Langoulant was keen to emphasise the economic undergirding of the strategy’s recommendations, and particularly a focus on what was economically achievable for the state.

“You can’t get too romantic with this thing,” he said.

“You can’t think out of the box about everything that would make the program undeliverable at the cost of the essentials of life, like water.”

While the strategy’s 20-year timeline may appear daunting, Mr Langoulant was keen to reinforce its malleability.

Once the draft document is released later this month, the agency will go through a final consultation before preparing the document for submission to the state government in December.

From there, the state government will use those findings to dictate projects undertaken in budgets from the 2024 financial year onwards, with Infrastructure WA to provide annual reviews of the government’s performance in meeting these strategy’s priorities.

Infrastructure WA will then enter a five-year cycle of reviewing and updating its strategy to account for evolving priorities, ensuring community feedback remains paramount to how the state’s schools, hospitals, roads, railways, and ports are built.

“This has been the product of huge amounts of community consultation and collaboration,” Mr Langoulant said.

“We are about to reach out to the community and do that consultation all over again with this draft strategy.

“It is one of the big foundation initiatives in changing how we think about infrastructure that we’re about to embark on here, and if we can achieve change, then a lot of people in the community will benefit from it.”

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