No foundation for policy on centres

The  six building blocks for a better Melbourne announced yesterday by the Premier are innocuous (the term mother’s milk springs to mind) except for the third one, in which he pledges to ensure the planning system “encourages the transformation of Melbourne from a mono-centric to a multi-centred city, so that people can work closer to where they live”.

The belated recognition that large modern cities tend to have multiple major employment centres was set out in the Victorian Government’s supplementary strategy plan, Melbourne @ 5 Million, released in late 2008. The original strategy, Melbourne 2030, implicitly conceived of Melbourne as a nineteenth century monocentric city – with jobs in the centre and with the suburbs acting as dormitories for workers. The multitude of small suburban centres identified in Melbourne 2030 were seen as largely providing retail and personal services for residents.

It seems the Premier knows that 72% of Melbourne’s jobs are now located more than 5 km from the CBD and 50% are more than 13 km out. But the Government doesn’t seem to know much about the geography of suburban jobs, particularly the number and role of major suburban activity centres.

Melbourne @ 5 Million designated six new Central Activities Districts (CADs) to provide “significant CBD-type jobs and services” in the suburbs. The Age described them as “mini-CBDs”. They are Broadmeadows, Box Hill, Dandenong, Footscray, Frankston and Ringwood.

I find it very hard to imagine that any of these CADs can seriously be thought of as having the potential to provide “significant CBD-type jobs and services”, at least in the foreseeable future. All the indications are that six of the existing Transit Cities were simply redesignated as CADs without much further thought.

Consider the case of Broadmeadows. On 24 March The Age ran a story headlined “Broadie all set for major revamp”, with the subtitle “Broadmeadows could become a major economic centre in the north”*. According to the story, the outstanding prospects for Broadmeadows come down to its designation as a CAD.

I don’t however see much evidence that Broadmeadows is acquiring a CBD-type character. The story lists a number of major investments that are either proceeding or planned, all of which are public sector driven.

There’re new Council premises, a Global Learning Centre, a leisure centre, a secondary school, a tree-lined extension of Main St, an upgrade of the railway station and a parking station. There’s a planned seven level office building but it is intended to accommodate public servants. All in all, there is little evidence that the private sector, which is the backbone of the CBD, has much interest in Broadmeadows beyond retailing and consumer services.

An examination of the composition of jobs is revealing. Whereas almost half of all jobs in the CBD are in Commercial Services (i.e. Finance, Insurance, Business and Property), the corresponding figure for the Broadmeadows CAD is just 4%. Where it excels however, as the projects listed above suggest, is in government – 44% of jobs are in the public sector.

Broadmeadows also has neither of the other two key characteristics of the CBD – size and density. It has only 1% as many jobs as the CBD and is only one eighth as dense. The idea that it could function like the CBD in the foreseeable future seems fanciful.

It is hard to imagine that any of the other designated CADs can seriously be thought of as having the potential to provide “significant CBD-type jobs and services” either. The largest, Box Hill, is 6% of the size of the CBD, four times less dense and has only a slightly higher proportion of Commercial Services jobs as the rest of the suburbs (yes, the rest of the suburbs).

The CBD is a highly specialised precinct with a singular set of attributes. They include accommodating Melbourne’s major corporates and the seat of Government. Moreover the CBD is no longer declining but growing vigorously. The idea that any suburban centre could function like the CBD within a plausible time frame is, to put it very nicely, optimistic.

Some of the CADs might nevertheless have the potential, especially with the sort of public sector funding provided under the Transit Cities Program, to function as regional ‘central places’ and perhaps that is what the author’s of Melbourne @ 5 Million meant. If so, I wish the Minister would rename them to something sensible, like Regional Business Districts.

However not all of the CADs are the best candidates even for this more limited role. Measured by the number of jobs, only one of the CADs (Box Hill) ranks among the nine largest suburban centres in Melbourne. The largest suburban centre is Clayton, but it is not designated as a CAD even though it has three times as many jobs as Box Hill, seven times as many as Dandenong and fifteen times as many as Broadmeadows.

Jobs are a fundamental characteristic of any centre. There would need to be very good reasons for giving priority to centres that are not the ones employers prefer. These reasons are not articulated in Melbourne @ 5 Million or, apparently, elsewhere.

I’ll post more fully on suburban centres next week, explaining some of my own research on suburban employment (but in the meantime look here). I’ll also take a closer look at the Premier’s contention that suburban centres mean “people can work closer to where they live”. There’s a lot more to that old chestnut than meets the eye.

* Sorry, but The Age Online appears to have slipped up here – I can’t find this article anywhere on the site. Please let me know if you find a link.

2 Comments on “No foundation for policy on centres”

  1. […] previously pointed out there’s little evidence that any “science” was applied to the selection of the CADs. It seems […]

  2. […] Clayton/Monash precinct is by far the largest concentration of employment in suburban Melbourne (here, here and here). It has three times as many jobs as the largest of the six existing CADs – Box […]

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