Big city blinkers in the Big Australia debate
As seen in The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 March 2018
The big population debate we need to have in Australia is now well underway. Decisions we make on migration, on urban development and on infrastructure will determine what the future looks like for all of Australia.
But it is incredibly disappointing to see dismissive attitudes to the potential contribution regional Australia can make to a big Australia. Regions are already home to nearly nine million Australians and a national network of thriving great small cities. Their future will be shaped by this debate too, and limiting the debate to challenges and opportunities for city slickers alone, is just the wrong approach. Unfortunately last week the ABC didn’t think a regional perspective was necessary on Q&A. A sophisticated regional view was clearly absent, even though the audience and twitterati forced the panel to clumsily engage with the issues.
Writing for Fairfax Media last week, Peter Martin doubled down on this bad start, arguing that building new cities is hard and that Canberra was the only example of Australia achieving that goal. This view of our recent history is plain wrong. It misses arguably the last 40 years in Australia’s urbanisation journey – the growth of our great small cities.
Australia has in fact developed (mostly by accident) a network of great small cities stretching from Cairns in the north to the increasingly vibrant and growing cultural capital of the south in Hobart. Canberra is now a thriving and growing small city. But what about the Gold Coast which has grown from a coastal town to a city well on the way to 1 million people, what about Newcastle and Wollongong in NSW, what about Geelong in Victoria which has avoided becoming Australia’s Detroit and is emerging as a bigger, brighter and successful small city?
Twenty years ago we had a network of provincial country and coastal towns. Since then a concentration of regional population growth in these areas means we have 31 new cities whose population is sufficient to generate much of the economic performance of our largest cities. As a result of this we now have a national network of small cities with the capacity for much stronger growth without the congestion and other costs that are locked into the development pathway for Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.
The Regional Australia Institute has been looking hard at the status and recent development of our small city network. Our conclusion is that these small cities are ready to go to their next level of development, that they are already successful urban players in their own right. We expect that they will grow and succeed regardless of decision on the population pressure in our big cities.
But surely we must look properly at the merits of shifting some outer suburban growth to these areas. Existing small cities are much better placed to contribute economically and socially as hubs of the future than the next batch of disused paddocks owned by eager property developers on the fringes of Sydney and Melbourne. They have emerging CBDs ripe for further development that can deliver the kind of urban amenity our big cities offer, they have hospitals and services networks, they have land that can be used for low medium and high density housing development. They have existing industries and innovation capacity that can be taken to the next level.
Unfortunately the current debate is blinded by the short term and the dominance of the inner city view, supporting the pervasive myth that regions are stuck in a cycle of low or no growth, that they are a second rate investment and a poor career choice.
This view is misguided, Regional Australia Institute analysis in 2017 busted these and other myths. Prior to the GFC regional cities were growing at 4.1 per cent and faster than our largest cities. Productivity in our small cities is also not far below our largest cities which is remarkable given their much smaller size.
Regardless of the Big Australia debate we expect to see growth in our great small cities to regather pace. The ripple effect from the housing boom and ridiculous housing prices in inner Melbourne and Sydney is pushing people to look elsewhere.
This is a good thing. We estimate that for every 100,000 people who choose small cities instead of big cities $50 billion is released into the economy through avoided congestion and mortgage costs. If we could achieve this level of change every two years through better migration, planning and infrastructure policies, regional and metropolitan population growth would even out and many of the mega city challenges discussed this week could be more easily resolved.
It’s short sighted and unnecessary to dismiss the role of regions and particularly our great small cities in creating a big and successful Australia. We have built many small cities and can continue to develop them. It’s time for Australia to take a proper look at the regional option.