My overall impression is that this plan will fail because it does not embrace some fundamental principles of urban economic development. My concerns are as follows.
Decentralisation: In 1965, leading urban economist the late Max Neutze, in his book Economic Policy and the Size of Cities, developed a theory of selective decentralization based on the observation that Australian urban centres were either too large or too small, and therefore population growth should be diverted away from the larger ones to smaller ones. But because of the prevalence of market imperfections in urban development, namely externalities, imperfect foresight and imperfect co-ordination, the free market could not do this without government assistance.
He tentatively suggested that the optimum size of a major city in terms of efficiency and liveability was between 200,000 and one million, and that decentralization policy should aim to push the new regional centres towards that level. But because only a few regional centres could reach such size, decentralization must be very selective, perhaps to only two or three centres in Victoria that are already large enough to provide their own momentum – e.g. Ballarat, Bendigo. Eventually they will become large enough for growth to become self-sustaining and for government assistance to be withdrawn.
Plan Melbourne fails here in two respects. Firstly, it accepts that Melbourne’s population will continue to grow and exceed optimum, with escalating adverse effects on efficiency and living standards. Secondly, it has too many growth centres, many of which are far too small to reach optimum size, even with permanent government assistance. Selection of unviable centres merely diverts resources away from more viable centres and reduces their chances of robust growth.
The multi-nodal alternative: In 1972, I adapted Neutze’s theory to the internal structure of cities, on the observation that most of the problems of overcrowding occur in or near the central business district, while centres in outer suburbs are too small to provide an adequate range of commercial, financial and recreational services. That is, commercial centres within cities were either too large or too small, and therefore an objective of planning should be to divert economic activity away from the CBD to a few outer suburban centres, which would be assisted to grow to a size which would eventually provide a range of activities similar to those offered in the CBD. Again the policy would be selective – perhaps for two or three carefully selected centres – and based on a similar understanding of market imperfections as identified by Neutze. In 1972 the multi-nodal (or polynuclear) concept had been an established principle in town planning and geography literature, but had not hitherto been developed in the economics literature.
Again, Plan Melbourne fails to embrace the selective principle, despite its underlying logic. Selection of too many centres ensures that none of them will succeed and that the city centre will continue to expand, as envisaged in the Plan.
Increased urban density: There is ample anecdotal evidence and formal research to suggest that increasing densities beyond optimum levels adds to inefficiency, reduced liveability and housing affordability problems. Pro-growth optimists constantly claim that problems of congestion and over-development can be solved by good planning and expansion of infrastructure, but do not acknowledge the time lags and huge costs this will entail. For example, the massive construction costs of underground tunnels, desalination plants and high-rise buildings are clear examples of agglomeration diseconomies resulting from over-development.
Furthermore, medium density housing, retail developments and major road projects frequently attract public opposition because of their impact on local amenity. Research that I have done reveals a negative correlation between income and density – that is, as people become wealthier they generally prefer to spread out to take advantage of the benefits of parks and gardens, peace and tranquility, car parking and open space.
Another disadvantage of increasing densities is that the population pressures causing them force up housing and rental costs, pushing low-income earners out of the property market and into a poverty trap.
Plan Melbourne fails badly here, and is certain to exacerbate the above problems.
Conclusion: The fundamental failure of Plan Melbourne is that it is driven by a political imperative to maintain rapid population growth. Developers and some industry sectors will benefit, but to the detriment of the general public. In the 40 years since I did my original research I have seen Melbourne gradually deteriorate, as traffic congestion worsens, commuting distances lengthen, environmental damage continues, water restrictions intensify, more people are priced out of the housing market, successive governments fail to keep up with infrastructure requirements, outer-urban agricultural land diminishes and public opposition to over-development increases.
Planning solutions, whether they be decentralisation, intra-urban dispersion, environmental pricing or other strategies face too many political and implementation difficulties to be successful. Reducing the rate of population growth, on the other hand, would make the planning tasks so much easier. Note also Tim Colebatch’s argument that excessive growth requires massive infrastructure costs and borrowing requirements that will jeopardize Victoria’s AAA credit rating, whereas “most AAA-rated countries have little population growth and modest infrastructure needs” (Melbourne Age, 15.10.2013).