Australia: Reinvigorating planning and the planning system in Queensland - a neoliberal perspective - Part 1

Last Updated: 8 April 2012
Article by Ian Wright

In brief

This article explores ideological and planning theories and planning models and identifies the potential for reinvigoration of Queensland's planning system via a neoliberal perspective.


The modernist perspective of planning has been concerned with making public and political decisions in respect of the planning of our places more rationally and consistent with an overarching public interest.

However, the modernist perspective of rational planning action has been challenged by a post-modernist perspective, and more recently by a neoliberal perspective, rooted in the political ideals of liberalism which holds that a liberal market supportive style of planning will produce more environmentally sustainable outcomes.

The paper considers how the modernist, postmodernist and neoliberal perspectives of planning have been applied in the context of the planning system particularly in relation to matters such as the following:

  • the planning of master planned areas contrasting the top down approaches of some structure plans with the bottom up approaches of others;
  • the role of development assessment managers contrasting planners as managing planning decisions and facilitating action to realise publicly agreed goals on the one hand or alternatively realising market sensitive individuals' goals on the other;
  • the planning, funding/financing and delivery of infrastructure contrasting rationally planned methods based on cost/benefit analyses of efficiency and equity on the one hand with the politically market driven methods on the other;
  • the planning system contrasting the top down state directed model of planning provided by the Sustainable Planning Act 2009 on the one hand with community based planning from the ground up geared to community empowerment on the other.

The paper considers the modernist, postmodernist and neoliberal perspectives of planning for the purpose of identifying how the recently elected Liberal National Party (LNP) government may seek to reinvigorate planning and the planning system in Queensland.


Queensland Government reform

In March 2012, Queensland elected a Liberal National Party government with an overwhelming mandate for change.

Central to that mandate is the promotion of a four pillar economy involving the resources, agriculture, construction and tourism sectors, as well as the empowerment of local government.

The LNP government intends to move quickly to implement its reform agenda, which because of the government's majority, is likely to have significant implications for the public, private and third sectors for decades to come.

Neoliberal reform agenda

The full scope of the LNP's planning reform agenda is as yet unclear. However what is apparent is that neoliberalism is the dominant ideological rationalisation for the LNP's reform agenda of the Queensland government.

Neoliberalism is an ideology that involves a commitment to the rolling out of market mechanisms and competitiveness and the rolling back of governmental intervention (See Peck, J and Tickell, A 2002, Neoliberalizing space, Antipode, vol. 34, no. 3, pp.380-404).

From a neoliberal perspective much of urban public planning is seen as a distortion of land markets which increases transaction costs through bureaucratisation of the urban economy. Neoliberalism holds that this should be rolled back by contracting the domain of planning (de-regulation) and then privatising segments of the residual sphere of regulation (outsourcing). As such, the raison d'etre of planning as a tool of correcting and avoiding market failure is dismissed and planning is subsumed as a minimalist form of spatial regulation whose chief purpose is to provide certainty to the market and to facilitate economic growth (See Gleeson, B and Low, N 2000a, "Revaluing planning rolling back neoliberalism in Australia", Progress in Planning, vol. 53, pp.83-164, and Gleeson, B and Low, N 2000b, "Unfinalised business: neoliberal planning reform in Australia", Urban Policy and Research, vol. 18, no. 1, pp.7-28.).

Ideology, theory, practice and policy

While it is unclear how ideology influences planning and in turn how planning theory affects planning practice, a consideration of ideology and planning theory does provide an opportunity to understand the evolving processes that planning practice may face as a result of the LNP's neoliberal planning reform agenda.

As Forester observes in his 1989 book, Planning in the Face of Power:

Theories can help alert us to problems, point us towards strategies of response, remind us of what we care about, or prompt our practical insights into the particular cases we confront.

Themes of paper

This paper therefore has 5 themes:

  • First, it establishes a model of urban change, that seeks to show the relationship of ideological and planning theories and models to the components of urban change and the institutions responsible for that change.
  • Second, it seeks to flesh out the debate on premodernism, modernism, postmodernism and neoliberalism, to provide an ideological context to both the broad policy settings of a neoliberal government and the use of planning theory in a neoliberal state.
  • Third, it seeks to flesh out the debate on planning theory to provide a theoretical context for the consideration of planning models, in particular the postmodernist collaborative planning model and the neoliberal strategic planning model.
  • Fourth, it discusses the key characteristics of the neoliberal strategic planning model to provide context for the consideration of the potential planning practice implications of the use of this model.
  • Finally, it seeks to identify the planning policy outcomes which are likely to be associated with a neoliberal government, to provide context to the potential scope of the LNP planning reform agenda in Queensland.

Urban change model

Components and institutions of urban change

Urban change occurs as a result of the interplay of three institutional components (Newman 2000:1):

  • the market represented by the private sector;
  • the government represented by the public sector; and
  • the community comprising civil society or the so called third sector.

The characteristics of the institutional components and associated institutions of urban change are described in Table 1.

Table 1: Components and institutions of urban change

Planners influence all components of urban change: the market, government and civil society. They work through the private, public and third sectors using a collection of planning theories and practices to influence urban change, or on some occasions to prevent urban change.

Relationship of planning theory and practice for urban change

The interrelationship between the planning theories and practices used by planners and the components and institutions of urban change are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Urban change model

It is clear that planning and the capacity to effect urban change are critically influenced by planning theory and practice.

An understanding of planning theory requires it to be placed within the context of broader cultural, socio-economic and political change; being the historic shift from premodernism to modernism, and then to postmodernism and more recently to neoliberalism.

Premodernism, modernism, postmodernism, neoliberalism

Neoliberalism in a historic context

The broad cultural, socioeconomic and political changes that have influenced western societies such as Australia have had a profound effect on planning theory and practice.

These changes exist in a historic century-long linear process of transition from premodernism to modernism to postmodernism and finally to neoliberalism.

The cultural, socioeconomic and political conditions of modern, postmodern and neoliberal societies are described in Table 2.

Table 2: Cultural socio-economic and political conditions of ideological theories

Neoliberal cultural socioeconomic and political conditions

In the context of the current LNP government it is important to understand the potential political, cultural and social conditions of a neoliberal society:

  • Cultural conditions - Neoliberalism has little to say about the cultural conditions of society as it is a theory derived from economics.
  • Social conditions - Neoliberalism is premised on the social conditions of a service based economy where the provision of services using information technologies to niche markets predominates over a declining industrial sector.
  • Economic conditions - Neoliberalism is premised on the economic conditions of a market based economy involving the private sector, where the role of the public sector is limited to monetary policy by central banks. Neoliberalism rejects the use of fiscal policy by government to stabilise output over the business cycle.
  • Political conditions - Neoliberalism is also premised on the political conditions of a liberal democracy that involves the following:
    • individuals have the right to pursue a good life that does not harm others;
    • services are delivered by the market;
    • the role of the government is limited to providing information and guidelines as well as targeted welfare services for limited social exclusion areas.

These broad socioeconomic and political conditions provide the ideological context which will influence the broad policy settings of a neoliberal government.

Policy settings of a neoliberal government

The broad policy settings which are generally associated with modern, postmodern and neoliberal theory are described in Table 3.

Table 3: Institutional characteristics of ideological theories

In the context of neoliberal theory the following broad policy settings are likely to be adopted by a neoliberal government:

  • Small government - witness the dramatic downsizing of the public service by some 14,000 jobs announced in the 2012 Queensland budget.
  • The downloading of unfunded state government risks and responsibilities to local governments which are forced to compete against each other for economic growth - witness the state government's transition of financial liabilities for urban development areas under the Urban Land Development Authority Act 2007 to local governments, and the Brisbane City Council's 2031 Strategic Vision which envisions Brisbane as 'Australia's New World City' which is competing globally against other world cities.
  • Individual self-reliance and entrepreneurship with little or no government help.
  • The outsourcing of government functions and privatisation of government assets.
  • Lower taxes - witness the cost of living reductions in electricity, water and public transport charges announced in the 2012 Queensland budget.
  • Deregulation - witness green tape reduction, reforms to the Environmental Protection Act 1994, referral agency reforms under the Sustainable Planning Act 2009 and local government reforms under the Local Government Act 2009.

These broad policy settings together with the broader socioeconomic and political conditions of neoliberal theory provide the context for the consideration of the use of planning theories by planners.

Planning theory in a neoliberal state

Neoliberal planning theory

Given the neoliberal socioeconomic and political conditions and broad policy settings which are expected to develop in Queensland under the LNP government, it is likely that the use of neoliberal planning theory will become more dominant amongst planners.

The approaches to planning theory that are embodied in premodern, modern, postmodern and neoliberal ideologies are described in Table 4.

Table 4: Ideological approaches to planning theory

Planning theory is based on two different premises. The first is that planning has a humanistic or social emancipation end. The second is that planning theory has an epistemological premise being the means by which planning delivers the end (namely social emancipation).

Humanistic premise of planning theory

In neoliberal planning theory the planning end is not an end state for society such as the collective public interest (for modern planning) or group public interest (in the case of postmodern planning theory).

Rather it is individual interest; the right of each individual to pursue a good life that does not harm others.

Epistemological premise of planning theory

Neoliberal planning theory postulates that the end of an individual good life is not pursued through the rational scientific method of value free scientific reason (in the case of modern planning theory) or a participative process to define group values (in the case of postmodern planning theory).

Rather, the neoliberal end of an individual good life is to be achieved through a management process of defining goals, objectives and strategies and by implementing them.

In neoliberal planning theory, the managerialist method, which is embodied in the planning model of strategic planning, is the predominant planning model.

Strategic planning model in a neoliberal state

Strategic planning is a planning process that is focused on the implementation of specific and attainable goals, objectives and strategies. It differs from comprehensive master planning which aspires to an abstract common public good or interest. It also differs from collaborative planning which focuses on the group good or interest as defined by groups within society.

It is anticipated that the strategic planning model will become the predominant planning model among planners in Queensland.

The characteristics of the strategic planning model are described in Table 5.

Table 5: Key characteristics of planning models

A strategic planning model operating in a neoliberal state is anticipated to have the following significant characteristics:

  • Institutional arrangements - Planning is market led by private sector developers.
  • Institutional decision making - Planning is a bottom up through the market rather than the top down/bottom up approach characteristic of the comprehensive master planning model (associated with modern planning theory) and the collaborative planning (associated with postmodern planning theory).
  • Planning scales - Planning is focused on local and site level planning rather than the strategic and district level planning and local and site level planning associated with comprehensive master planning and collaborative planning.
  • Planning horizon - Planning has a short term horizon reflecting the reality that planning is intended to be capable of continual revision in response to the market.
  • Planning focus - Planning is focused on place marketing, rather than the spatial based planning and place based planning approaches associated with comprehensive master planning and collaborative planning.
  • Concept of the city - Planning is focused on ensuring that the city is an economic growth object which can effectively compete against other cities for economic growth.
  • Strategic and district level planning themes.
  • Local and state level planning themes.

The increased use by planners of a strategic planning model in Queensland will have a significant influence on the state of planning practice in Queensland.


1 Hirt, S 2002, "Postmodernism and planning models", Critical Planning, vol. 9, p.3
2 Goodchild, B 1990, "Planning and the modern / postmodern debate", The Town Planning Review, vol. 61, no. 2, p.126
3 Ibid
4 Giddens, A 2000, The Third Way and its Critics, Polity Press, Cambridge, p.164

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Ian Wright
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