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Kelvin Thomson - Melbourne's Population: 5 Million is too many

Population Forum 7 Nov 2010 Kelvin Thomson MP from Marvellous Melbourne on Vimeo.

Film and text of speech now available inside article. Speech given at Planning Backlash Forum of 7 Nov 2010: "In July last year I made a 22 page submission to the Victorian Government titled “5 Million is too many: Securing the Social and Environmental Future of Melbourne”. So given that I think 5 million would be too many, you can imagine what I think of the idea of doubling Melbourne’s population to 8 million. Melbourne’s population is growing on a scale not seen in Australia before, swelling by almost 150,000 people in the last two years. Melbourne’s population is growing by more than 200 people per day, 1500 per week, 75,000 per year. This is much faster than all other major Australian cities. It will give us another million people in 15 years."

Text of Speech by Kelvin Thomson, Member for Wills Richmond Town Hall, 7 November 2010

In July last year I made a 22 page submission to the Victorian Government titled “5 Million is too many: Securing the Social and Environmental Future of Melbourne”. So given that I think 5 million would be too many, you can imagine what I think of the idea of doubling Melbourne’s population to 8 million.

Melbourne’s population is growing on a scale not seen in Australia before, swelling by almost 150,000 people in the last two years. Melbourne’s population is growing by more than 200 people per day, 1500 per week, 75,000 per year. This is much faster than all other major Australian cities. It will give us another million people in 15 years.

The national rate of population growth has sped up since the mid 2000s. The recent growth rate of 2% per year is faster than at any other time in decades, and faster than nearly every other developed country.

Is this population growth good? Well it’s certainly not much good for the birds, plants and animals. This year Melbourne’s Urban Growth Boundary was expanded by 43,000 hectares; which is roughly the size of four Phillip Islands.

This will allow the destruction of 7,000 hectares of volcanic plains grassland, and nearly 1000 hectares of grassy woodland. Since European settlement over 95% of Victoria’s original native grassland has been destroyed. I believe we should be protecting the less than 5% we still have.

And it’s hard to see how extra population is good for people, either. Expanding the Urban Growth Boundary contradicts the Melbourne 2030 Plan. Melbourne 2030 was justified in the name of stopping urban sprawl. It hasn’t. Suburbs continue to march out onto the horizon.

Property developers are having their cake and eating it too. We’re growing both upward and outwards. Melbourne is becoming an obese, hardened-artery parody of its former self.

At the current rate of car possession per household, Melbourne will add a further 1.1 million cars by 2036, or well above 3 million cars in Melbourne. Does anyone in this room seriously think moving around in Melbourne is going to get anything but harder? We presently have 2 million cars; we are heading for an extra million! And yes, we should be virtuous and get out of our cars and onto trams and trains, but, as it turns out, they’re full too.

Melbourne’s population growth is bad for the environment. We all know we need to reduce our carbon emissions, but its pretty hard to reduce your carbon footprint when you keep adding more feet.

We are using less water than we used to, but we still have to turn to energy-hungry desalination to cater for our growing population. And Melbourne’s 75,000 extra people every year undermines the value of the water restrictions we put on ourselves. Growing population puts upward pressure on prices and lowers our standard of living. Scarce resources like land, water, petrol, electricity become dearer, as we turn to more expensive sources of supply. Competition for food and housing pushes food and housing prices up.

These cost of living pressures are most clearly evident in electricity and gas prices and council rates. The most populated cities, Melbourne and Sydney, have seen the highest electricity price rises. Prices have more than doubled in the past 10 years. In real terms, Melbourne prices have risen by over 50% - 52%. So have Sydney’s – 51%.

Now you might think that more people – a growing population – would lead to economies of scale and lead to lower electricity prices, but you would be wrong.

Instead of rising population causing lower prices, it leads to a need for extra infrastructure and therefore higher prices. And the more crowded a city becomes, the higher the cost of doing business. Congestion costs kick in, and just maintaining electricity infrastructure becomes more expensive.

Rising population is putting upward pressure on water and gas prices. We’ve already got at the easy water, and the easy gas.

Augmenting our supplies involves things like desalination plants and pipelines, which come at greater expense than our present supplies. It is a similar unhappy story with local council rates. I always expected that more people in my municipality would lead to lower rate bills, due to economies of scale, and more people sharing the rate load. The opposite has been the case.

In nominal terms Council rates in Melbourne have increased by over 100% - more than doubled – from 2000 to 2010. In real terms rates have increased over 48%. Regrettably this pattern of increasing rates is set to continue. Victorians will pay an average of $79 more in their rates in 2010-2011, up by over 6% from last year, based on draft Council budgets. This is well above the CPI, and again underscores the impact of rising population on local government finances. These costs of population growth – rising electricity prices, rising water prices, rising gas prices, rising Council rates – are being borne most of all by those who can least afford them – fixed income earners and pensioners in particular.

Now the growth lobby has to concede pretty much everything I’ve just said, but they say the problems are poor planning and lack of provision of infrastructure. If you scratch below the surface, they think its all about multi-unit developments, dual occupancies, and increasingly high rise.

Now the first problem with high rise is that it doesn’t do what its claimed to do; that is, reduce our environmental footprint. The Australian Government’s State of Australian Cities Report 2010 found that, when both direct and indirect environmental impacts are taken into account, environmental impacts at the household level are associated with higher incomes and smaller household sizes.

Therefore, despite the opportunities for efficiency and reduced environmental impacts offered by more compact forms of urban living, inner city households of capital cities, followed by the inner suburban areas, feature the highest consumption of water use, energy use and ecological footprints, even when reduced car use is taken into account.

The second problem is that high rise and infill spells the death of the suburban backyard. I confess to being a fan of it. There is something intangible but important about the personal space of a backyard.

I believe the children who grow up in concrete jungle suburbs are subject to more bullying and harassment and are more vulnerable to traps such as crime and drugs. What do you call a kid with a backyard? A free range kid. I think free range kids have a better time of it than battery kids.

The third problem is that not everyone wants to live next door to high rise or multi-unit developments, but these things are imposed on them anyway. In Dick Smith’s film ‘Population Puzzle’, you will see the story of the dignified elderly widow in Sydney – I think it is in Double Bay – who refused to sell her home to property developers who wanted to build a skyscraper on it. She found herself surrounded by skyscraper developments which dwarfed her home and blocked out the sun.

The fourth problem is the issue of health. In April the Medical Journal of Australia published a study which found heart disease, diabetes, chronic neck and back pain, asthma and migraine were less prevalent among those with more green space available to them. There was a very strong correlation between lack of green space and depression and anxiety disorders. Those living in more built-up areas are at an increased risk of developing schizophrenia.

Another study found urban sprawl in Sydney was linked to a greater likelihood of being overweight or obese, and inadequate physical activity. Physical inactivity is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some types of cancer.

I want to turn now to two matters which have featured recently in the news. You know that the growth lobby says that Australia is short of workers – to be precise they say ‘Australia has a skills shortage’ for which their solution is to import more labour. Yet a fortnight ago it was reported that Broadmeadows has an unemployment rate of 15.9% - I repeat 15.9%. Broadmeadows is just beyond the northern boundary of my electorate and I know it very well.

According to the 2006 Census, of the people in Broadmeadows aged 25 and over, over 50% were born in non-English speaking countries – over 50%. And for men aged 25-44, over 47% of the Non-English Speaking Country born reported income of less than $399 per week. This is entrenched unemployment, poverty, and disadvantage.

Now if we continue running a high migration program, they might go and work in iron ore mines in the Pilbara, but the evidence isn’t promising. It suggests that significant numbers will simply get caught up in a cycle of unemployment, poverty and disadvantage, as has happened in Broadmeadows.

So I suggest, before we succumb to the wailing of employers crying “skills shortage”, we put our talents to finding work for those 15.9% unemployed in Broadmeadows who are entitled to our attention. I don’t care whether we find them work in Broadmeadows or in the Pilbara, but let’s not talk about skills shortage again until we’ve got them into the workplace.

And the second item in the news recently was the latest rise in interest rates. Australia used to be the envy of the world in terms of its levels of home ownership. It was the place where everyone could aspire to a home of their own. Now housing in Melbourne is as unaffordable as just about anywhere in the world.

During 2009 housing affordability around Australia declined by over 22% due to a massive gap between the number of dwellings being built and the number of new people wanting housing. The Housing Industry Association says Australia’s fast growing population is pushing new dwelling requirements to record high levels. It predicted around 152,000 new dwellings will be commenced in 2010, well short of the 190,000 it estimates is required to keep up with a growing population.

The inevitable consequence of this gap is rising house prices which, combined with the rising electricity, gas, water, council rates, I described earlier, pushes the Reserve Bank to increase interest rates to head off inflation.

Australians now owe financial institutions more than $1 trillion in housing mortgages, almost 15 times as much as 20 years ago, according to the Reserve Bank.

Rising interest rates claw away at already poor housing affordability and will send Australians deeper into debt.

Runaway population growth is damaging our young people’s chances of buying a home. Our children’s chances of buying their own home are fading away, and unless we take steps to tackle runaway population growth, they will disappear.

Many people – a two to one majority according to opinion polls – share my concerns about population growth. But many people think it’s inevitable, that there’s nothing we can do about it. This is not so. Our population number is a direct consequence of our level of net overseas migration, and that depends on decisions made each year by the Federal Government. If we return our net annual migration number to 70,000 – the kind of number we had quite often in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, we could stabilise Australia’s population at 26 million by 2050, instead of the 36 million it is presently projected to rise to.

The best way to cut back our migration number is to cut skilled migration, which in 1995 was 24,000 but is now over 100,000. It should go back to 25,000. There is no need to cut the family reunion program, and indeed there is room to increase the refugee program, which is presently 13,750 and could rise to 20,000.

We should get rid of the Baby Bonus, and put the $1.4 billion we would save each year into educating and training young Australians at Universities and TAFE.

In November last year I issued a 14 Point Plan for Population Reform, which goes into these matters in detail. It is available on my website.


Like a man rapidly gaining weight who loosens his belt rather than confront his weight problem, Melbourne needs to ask itself, is a population of 5 million really going to give us a better city than one of 4 million?

Accepting galloping population increase as inevitable, or even desirable, will lead to a more polluted, congested and unsustainable Melbourne. Melbourne is generating more greenhouse gas emissions, using more water, losing open space and turning into a high rise steel and concrete jungle. Planners and developers talk the talk of protecting Melbourne’s environment, but their actions have the opposite effect.

They behave as Gough Whitlam once described rowers-facing in one direction but heading in the opposite one.

We need an environmentally sustainable planning policy for Melbourne. We do not need more loss of open space, high rise buildings turning Melbourne into Shanghai or Mexico City, ever larger dwellings like the energy-guzzling McMansions, or policies which encourage reduced numbers of people per dwelling.

We must show the same foresight the founders of this city showed when it was initially designed. They left us with a city with open space, extensive tram and train networks, and liveable suburbs supported by extensive local infrastructure in the form of schools, hospitals and social services. We too should leave a legacy for future generations that we, and they, can be proud of.

I thank you for your interest in this debate. I think no issue is more fundamental to our successfully discharging our responsibility to pass on a world, and an Australian way of life, to our children and grandchildren in as good a condition as the one our parents and grandparents gave to us.


Member for Wills.

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The following letter was written to the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) one year ago. No reply received.
I understand that the next "Australia Talks" program is to be on the subject of "planning."
A few thoughts occurred to me on hearing of this. I write from a Melbourne perspective.

Saturday week ago in the morning there was a program about planning on local ABC radio which made me nearly apoplectic ! It was promoted with the delighted question from the presenter "Is the 1/4 acre block gone forever?"

Naturally, it was all about how we have to live more densely packed in the future because of population growth. The program immediately preceding this one was about research on lack of activity in very small children in Australia - partly due to diminishing space for play. The irony of "The end of the 1/4 acre block" segment aired immediately after did not escape me nor another person who pointed this out in a text message .

As I recall it was a panel of 3 presented by Hilary Harper.
One was a real estate agent called Monique Wakelin who said a number of times during the program that ..words to the effect- "we haven't changed the mindset yet" i.e we have to shake them out of their love of space and amenity and persuade them that they should live in flats and units close together.

As Wakelin specialises in property I don't imagine she lives in a shoe box . In any rhetoric one hears on the media one always gets the impression that living close together is for the ordinary people -not special people or rich people. Rich people in fact do the opposite of what is expected of the rest of us. Rich people can acquire more space by demolishing next door for a tennis court and really take up a lot of room with large residences and multiple homes.
Those who would talk us out of our current but disappearing lifestyle refer to the 1/4 acre block, it seems to me because that is what the ordinary people aspire to.

It's the ordinary people who have to move over.

The other 2 people on the panel were academics in the area of architecture and design from both Monash and Melbourne Universities.

One of the academics rubbished the idea of setback rules - setbacks being the distance between the house and the fence- as this meant people could not use all of their land. He advocated building right to the fence- which is now being done frequently with the result that all the light is lost from the sides of the house!!
We end up effectively in terrace houses.

The other comment from one of the academics that struck me - was that there was "no need to lose privacy" with higher density living as it was "all in the design". He continued- "Europeans have their privacy!" Advocates of high density living always cite Europe as though we have to pull everything down around us and re-start as Europe! This blithe solution ignores the history behind the planning or evolution of either and ignores the relative public amenity in either case.
It is quite true that good design can make a huge difference in terms of privacy and amenity up to a certain density - BUT I do not see "good design" anywhere. It's like saying we could stack more people in if we lived more sustainably. The fact is that we are not doing it !
It seems to me that domestic house design has deteriorated incredibly in the last 2-3 decades.

Domestic architecture theorist Alistair Knox designed beautiful low rise houses with lots of light - 1950s- 60s. Even the much maligned (especially by Barry Humphries) A.V. Jennings type triple fronted cream brick veneer style is a work of art compared with the oversized, monuments to mediocrity crammed uncomfortably and insensitively on their tiny sites on our city fringes where only recently cattle and sheep or kangaroos grazed.
To add insult to injury, these new suburbs on the fringes of the city , are a recipe for unsustainablity in the face of inevitable oil depletion because they lack public transport infrastructure, have insufficient land for food self sufficiency, and in many cases they cover up land that once produced food.

The bayside suburb of Beaumaris, much of it built in the 1960s was characterised by modest sized architect designed houses with plenty of bush surrounding them. Now these are being pulled down and replaced by neo Georgian or neo classical edifices , sprawling over the whole block and up to the sky with their double storeyed greed for a glimpse of the bay and blocking their neighbours' light so the only option for the neighbours is to sell out and let someone else do likewise on either side.

"Planning" in Melbourne is a corruption of the meaning of the word.
It is all about the State government wrenching power from imperfect but not always ruthless local councils and centralising it- fast tracking planning decisions and road projects (recent Transport Facilitation Bill)

Melbourne is bursting its seams- and the Government wants to extend the Urban Growth Boundary.

It seems there is no end to the ultimate boundary of Melbourne.

At the current rate of growth, Melbourne will have a population of 32 million in just over 100 years.
No-one's planning for that, but that's the path we are on

According to Environment Minster Gavin Jennings, losing our diminishing grasslands in Victoria, and we only have about 0.1% of native grasslands left, is the fault of "nimbys" who don't want higher density living! As a consequence we have to keep opening up more land for urban sprawl and keep destroying what grasslands we have - with native vegetation "offsets". That's a bit of reverse psychology,

considering we don't have to have the growth anyway. It is about manipulating guilt.
Also, we can't keep our "luxurious lifestyles" and "abundance" for ourselves. We have to "share" with the world, and people will always reproduce.

How is that we are losing our ecosystems, our rivers, our wetlands, our forests, our species and our lifestyles if we are living abundantly?

There are so many dubious and manipulative ways to justify us shoving over to allow more growth.

Population growth is a political choice, one that is indefensible when our natural resources and ecosystems, here for millions of years, are being eradicated, tarnished and threatened.

All we get is political spin from politicians, who keep plying us with green-washing terms and policies, while the elephant in the room - population growth - grows into a mammoth.

nimby writes:

It is about manipulating guilt.
Also, we can't keep our "luxurious lifestyles" and "abundance" for ourselves. We have to "share" with the world, ...

Why don't the "growth" pushers lead by example if they truly believe that we should share our wealth with the rest of the world? Instead they take the wealth of the poorest in our country, mostly through housing hyper-inflation that they have deliberately brought about, whilst forcing the poorest, but not themselves, to share their already meagre wealth with the rest of the world.

Gavin Jennings studied at Beaufort High School and Monash University, attaining degrees in arts and social work. He worked at various times as a factory worker, actuarial clerk, actor, social worker and policy analyst. Jennings won preselection for the safe Labor Legislative Council seat of Melbourne Province in advance of the 1999 state election, and was thus easily elected.

Following the November 2002 election, Gavin became the Minister for Aged Care and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. After the November 2006 election, Gavin became Minister for Community Services and Aboriginal Affairs.

Gavin is now the Minister for the Environment and Climate Change and the Minister for Innovation.

Gavin’s interests include spending time with his son, Huw; photography; films; innovation and design; supporting his football team, the Bombers; and making – and then eating desserts.

He has no personal interests in ecology, environment, wildlife or any formal qualification in the Environment. He is merely an office bearer, an administrator with no special qualities to endorse his position as leader of such an important role as Minister for Environment and Climate change. With such crucial issues at stake, and our dependence on depleting environmental resources being flattened and consumed, such a role should be of highest priority.

To our State as one of "abundance" and privilege - and one that needs to be shared with the world - in light of drying rivers, species extinctions, climate change threats, loss of native vegetation, justifying logging in catchment areas because of "legislation" commitment is simply a sign of incompetence and being out of his expertise and depth!

Is our Gav a maaate of Peter Garrett and Penny Wong (real name, Huáng Y?ngxián)
Pete was Environment Minister and he can sing; now he is on reprieve trying his luck at being Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth.

Huáng was Climate Change and Water Minister; now she is having a bash at Finance, and she's a lawyer.

And of each, their environmental competence and credibility record?

In Victoria, Hulls' a lawyer, Cameron's a lawyer, Pallas is a lawyer. Gillard's a lawyer and even Howard's a lawyer. Even if you've done a bit of public speaking - may be as a teacher or journo, politics beckons.

So what prerequisite qualifications does a minister need to 'look' credible and competent in a portfolio, or is it not what you know?

Just be prepared to sign your soul over the Paaarty. Apply: NSW Labor Party, 377 Sussex Street, Sydney and ask for Karl.

With Gavin Jennings as environment minister, who needs enemies of the environment? I do not understand how this man lives with himself and the hypocrisy of pretending to represent the Victorian electorate.

Sheila Newman, population sociologist

Labor has continued to waste the money of the public on freeways, myki, the desalination plant, the north-south pipeline. VicForests, and put more pain on the people by adding to urban sprawl and environmental destruction. With an Environment Minister, Gavin Jennings, more interested in developer profits than the environment, the interests of Victorians, the majority, will not be met. The pain of growing Melbourne will not translate into gain, but more costs and depletions of land, water, coastlines, and what used to be scenic areas of Victoria.

'Goth graffiti' may be an effective tactic to deploy against the ever expanding concrete and bitumen.

Brumby's growthist expansion of urban Melbourne by sprawl is like the Roman Empire's insatiable expansion across Europe two millenia ago.

So just as the Goths were amongst the first of the barbarian tribes to launch counter attacks on the Roman Empire a370 C.E. led by King Alaric I, graffiti goths could launch clandestine graffiti attacks on the new concrete and bitumen.

Every new concrete expansion would be tag attacked.
Each ceremonial unveiling of a new highway and development opening by Emperor Brumby would be adorned by 'protest graffiti'.

...given me a home among the gums trees...

Suggan Buggan
Snowy River Region
Victoria 3885

I like Tigerquoll's idea. We need to demonise the infrastructure. That's what destroys nature.