The 2016 Australian Infrastructure Plan: What does it mean for regional Australia?
Following the February 2016 release of the Australian Infrastructure Plan outlining 93 ‘High Priority’ and ‘Priority’ infrastructure initiatives for the nation, Regional Australia Institute (RAI) General Manager Policy and Research, Kim Houghton questions the government’s commitment to overcoming infrastructure constraints in regional Australia.
The Australian Infrastructure Plan supports the companion document The Infrastructure Priority List and sets out the results of a national infrastructure audit undertaken in 2014-15, and has recommendations to drive “… improvements in the way we invest in, deliver and use our nation’s infrastructure.”
The Plan covers metropolitan and regional Australia, with the regional coverage stretching across high population regions close to the east coast capitals, through inland Australia and out to remote parts of WA and the NT.
This looks like good news for regional Australia. But what happens when the rubber hits the road?
The analysis and recommendations in the Plan are weighted towards the four largest mainland state capital cities, as they are expected to account for almost three-quarters of projected population growth through to 2031.
In all, 32 of the 93 priority initiatives are directed at relieving urban congestion in these four cities. Sixteen priority initiatives are directed to improving road and rail connections within these four cities, and another five initiatives to protection of corridors for future transport infrastructure in these cities. All up, of the 93 priority initiatives, 53 are pitched at resolving current problems in our four biggest cities and trying to mitigate the impact of future congestion problems.
Thirty-one initiatives are directed towards regional Australia, almost all of which focus on inland road and rail. There are just nine initiatives addressing the needs of regional towns and cities – it is as if our regional towns and cities don’t actually have any infrastructure constraints. The nine initiatives cover just five places: three east coast large cities – Gold Coast, Newcastle, Wollongong; as well as Hobart and Darwin.
While The Plan states that “Our smaller cities have many advantages … We should capitalise on the character and appeal of these cities to grow their populations” (pp6-7) it makes virtually no provision for advancing this aim. In fact, the first approach recommended for growing a regional city’s population is “… community-led campaigns to attract people to live and work …”. This suggests that lower population growth would be attributable to poor marketing by residents – which is bordering on insulting to the many regional cities that are strategically building a long term future. This approach is followed by two other suggestions: ‘transformative infrastructure’, which relates to only five places; and changes to the skilled migration program.
The Plan’s authors clearly had no understanding of the infrastructure constraints that are holding back the competitiveness (and attractiveness) of Australia’s regional towns and cities.
But it does make a strong case supporting the RAI’s calls for a new way of driving long term planning in regional cities. The Plan states that “…the importance of medium to long term metropolitan planning … has never been greater” and cites the worst examples of poor planning as:
• “Ad hoc delivery and implementation of metropolitan plans;
• A lack of integration within government departments and between different layers of government; and
• The politicisation of the process, resulting in plans wholly or partially being re-written following a change of government.
In future, consistent and integrated metropolitan planning should be a high priority for state and territory governments.”
This conclusion is at the heart of the RAI’s call for reform in the way regional city strategic planning is done and funded – as the ad hocery, politicisation and lack of integration is just as much an issue for our regional towns and cities as it is for the four largest capital cities.
The Australian Infrastructure Plan is long on support for concepts of regional involvement in infrastructure priority setting, on regional towns and cities playing a bigger role in Australia’s future, and on sharing the infrastructure costs between the existing largest cities and their regional alternatives. But it is very short on commitments to follow through.
The Australian Infrastructure Plan:
|93 projects comprising:||Metro||Regional||Notes|
|Capital City Urban Congestion||32||5||Regional cities, Canberra x 2, Gold Coast x 2 and Wollongong|
|Capital City “National Connectivity”||16||22||Regional roads & rail and Hobart|
|Capital City “Corridor Preservation”||5||2||Newcastle & East Coast High Speed Rail|
|Other regional infrastructure||8||Hobart (UTAS) and Darwin (water)|
There are nine non-capital city urban infrastructure priorities for five places, and nothing at all for inland regional cities.
The Australian Infrastructure Plan includes some benchmarks and statistics likely to be useful to people in regional Australia looking to make a case for investment. It quotes the Grattan Institute report Productive cities: Opportunity in a changing economy to list the proportions of jobs accessible to residents in the four biggest cities within a 45 minute commute (typically 30-50 per cent of jobs for inner city residents and only 10 per cent of jobs for outer suburban residents). Congestion costs are also cited (from the Australian Infrastructure Audit in 2015) as running at $13.7 billion in 2011, forecast to increase to $53.3 billion by 2031. Both these burdens (commute times and congestion costs) are neutralised in our regional cities.