Decentralising population growthPosted: March 4, 2010
I watched SBS’s Insight program on Housing 36 Million earlier this week. A theme that recurred during the program and in the subsequent on-line discussion was the idea of decentralising a large proportion of the projected population growth from the major cities to provincial centres.
Decentralisation was tried in the 70s as an alternative to capital city growth but, while it had a measurable impact on major country centres like Albury/Wodonga and Bathurst/Orange, it didn’t significantly relieve growth pressures on the capital cities.
The problem was that it was hard to get firms to move to the country on a large scale even with various subsidies. Those that did were chiefly manufacturers (e.g. Uncle Bens and Borg Warner to Albury/Wodonga) but there weren’t enough of them. Getting firms to move today would be much harder because manufacturing is now a substantially smaller part of the economy. There are regular announcements of manufacturing plants closing in country areas across Australia.
The mass migration from Melbourne and Sydney to coastal areas like the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and Surf Coast in the 70s, 80s and 90s was a form of decentralisation driven by retirees seeking a more amenable climate and cheap housing. However the housing price differential has now gone and, as attractive as they are in many ways, inlands towns like Ballarat and Bendigo do not have anything like the same appeal as the warmer coastal areas.
Even if it were possible to ‘force’ decentralisation of growth away from Melbourne, a key risk is that many workers would end up commuting long distances to jobs in Melbourne. While our largest provincial centres have good rail connections to Melbourne they also have good freeway connections. With 72% of Melbourne’s jobs located more than 5 km from the centre, the likelihood is that decentralisation would give rise to much more long distance car-based commuting than rail-based commuting. And our country towns would increasingly resemble dormitories.
In any event, I don’t think the case has been made that a much larger Melbourne is unsupportable. New York is four and a half times Melbourne’s population but has a much lower per capita ecological footprint. Los Angeles has 12 million people and is the densest city in the US (yes, it’s denser than New York and San Francisco). It’s also considerably denser than Melbourne even though it doesn’t have a good rail system like Melbourne enjoys.
The Melbourne economy is now overwhelmingly service-based and research shows that productivity increases with city size. Spatial proximity is vital in a world where the economic driver is ideas and information, because it is expensive to move people (whereas the cost of moving goods is now very low). That extra income can be used to provide the infrastructure and services needed in Melbourne to handle a much larger population.