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Growth Areas

Mar 1, 2017

Is regional sprawl better than suburban sprawl?

There's a strong push to divert more metropolitan growth to regional cities, but the case hasn't been made that capital cities are "too big" or that it's the best strategy

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Distribution of population growth within Victoria, 2001-2011 – Melbourne accounted for 88% of growth (Source: Plan Melbourne)

On Monday, the Victorian opposition’s spokesperson on population policy, Tim Smith, laid out the coalition’s case in The Australian for taking population growth pressure off Melbourne. His answer is decentralisation; specifically, the development of regional cities (Forget the niche issues, just give us proper roads and rail).

Noting that Melbourne is currently projected to double in size to 8 million residents by 2051, Mr Smith argued that growth is good but not when it’s unplanned:

The present state government is more interested in allowing citizens to self-select their own gender on their birth certificate than planning for this massive growth in population… The state desperately needs a government that is committed to decreasing the percentage of newcomers who make their home in Melbourne… An effective decentralisation agenda is key to improving capital city liveability and the economic wellbeing of the regions.

He notes that Victoria is only slightly larger in land mass than Great Britain:

Yet almost 800,000 people commute to London from the rest of England and Wales, mainly by train. We want to see more people commuting to ­Melbourne from regional Victoria — we can’t have a Melbourne that expands forever.

This looks like a stronger restatement of the decentralisation theme in Plan Melbourne, the strategic development document produced by Opposition Leader Matthew Guy when he was Planning Minister (and is still current policy under the Andrews government).

I think the opposition might be on a political winner here. It’s promising voters a solution to big city woes like increasing traffic congestion, poor housing affordability and redevelopment pressures in established suburbs, while simultaneously delivering new economic opportunities to the regions and better transport links to the capital.

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Decentralisation is an enduring idea that’s seemingly up there with the “fair go” in Australian political folklore. But it’s never really worked. Albury-Wodonga was the glamour project of the Whitlam government’s early 1970s decentralisation push but it only had a very modest target of 300,000 persons by 2000. It’s current population however is just 90,000.

Back then it seemed plausible that manufacturing industry – much of which didn’t need to be in a big city – could be induced to relocate from the capitals to the country. Manufacturing employment was already declining, though, and not much happened in the regions.

The growing industries of today are likely to find regional centres even less attractive. They’re much more knowledge-intensive than yesterday’s manufacturing firms and want to locate in big cities where they’re close to other firms and can draw on a large pool of well-educated workers.

The modern version of decentralisation promoted by Mr Smith sidesteps this problem by regionalising workers but not firms. It’s a plan to create dormitory cities in the regions connected to jobs in Melbourne by high speed transport links. It’s really regional sprawl i.e. suburban sprawl pushed further out.

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It might be attractive politically, but the key question is whether there’s a significant advantage in replacing suburban sprawl with regional sprawl (bearing in mind that cities always expand to a greater or lesser extent on the fringe).

There’d be an upside for regional cities because all those new households would create jobs in population services e.g. retail, schools. But it would require massive investment in long-distance transport infrastructure to dramatically improve commute times between various regional centres and Melbourne. Moreover, each regional centre would have to expand key services; in some cases, like sewer and water supply, that would mean foregoing economies of scale available in Melbourne.

The popular notion is regional centres would be connected by High Speed Rail (HSR) but that would require much higher subsidies than equivalent trips by public transport from Melbourne’s fringe suburbs. It’s in any event likely that residents would use cars more for local trips and would make regular long distance non-work trips to Melbourne by car e.g. to see family and friends, perhaps in conjunction with an event.

Another common idea is that new housing developments in regional cities would be medium density, walkable communities. It’s hard to see why that could be achieved in the regions but not in the fringe suburbs. Indeed, the relatively small size of regional cities might encourage residents to build at lower densities than they would if they settled in Melbourne.

It doesn’t seem likely that the push to regions would have a measurable impact on traffic congestion in Melbourne. Even if one million of the circa 3.5 million projected increase in the city’s population over the next 35 years were absorbed by the regions, Melbourne’s population would still increase by around 2.5 million. Moreover, most of the regional growth would likely come from the fringe, not from the inner and middle ring suburbs where on average congestion is worse.

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As I noted here, the case hasn’t been made that Melbourne is or will become “too big”. Melbourne needs what all growth requires; better management of existing assets and better infrastructure (see Will population growth ruin a city’s liveability?). It’s interesting that Plan Melbourne was adopted in-principle by the Government when it took office in November 2014. It’s promised a “light refresh” but it’s over two years and we’re still waiting. What’s missing from the original document and from the ongoing public debate is data and analysis related to this issue; there’s no attempt to systematically evaluate the upsides and downsides of pushing more growth from Melbourne’s fringe to regional cities. And there’s no doubt some regional residents don’t want change.

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