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SPA Submission to the Inquiry into the Australian Government’s role in the development of cities.

"As Sustainable Population Australia is an environmentally focused organization, we advocate policies that encourage human activity that is sustainable within finite natural limits and question the ongoing growth paradigm. Growth in the capital cities is reaching limits, whilst coastline development impacts fragile ecosystems. However, inland Australia is more subject to temperature extremes, water shortages and a lack of locational comparative advantage to sustain livelihoods. Within the context of an increasing climate emergency and peak fossil fuel energy, investment will be better spent on resilient communities and foreign aid rather than growth for growth's sake."

House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities
SPAVicTas Submission to the Inquiry into the Australian Government’s role in the development of cities.


Sustainable Population Australia (SPA) is an Australian, member-driven environmental charity which advocates to establish an ecologically sustainable human population. It works on many fronts to encourage informed public debate about how Australia and the world can achieve an ecologically, socially and economically sustainable population.

SPA advocates for a generous humanitarian program for refugees whilst addressing the causes of displacement abroad. SPA questions policies that encourage high population growth rates, particularly when motivated by narrow economic goals (e.g. we advocate for lower non-humanitarian immigration). We work with international colleagues to promote rights-based voluntary family planning programs in high fertility countries, and to elevate the rights of women and girls everywhere.

Our main response to the inquiry is for an amendment to Australia’s population policy. Currently, Australia has one of the highest population growth rate in the OECD. According to Australian demographic statistics, Australia grew by 1.6% pa. to the end of 2016, or by 373 000 people:

(1). This is high by world standards. Some states are growing disproportionately faster, e.g. Victoria grows at 2.4%. Most of this growth occurs in the capital cities which absorb around 80% of total growth. Melbourne expands by 92 000 thousand per annum and is Australia’s fastest growing city
(2). This rapid population growth contributes significantly to the difficulty in town planning systems to maintain or improve the functionality of our capital cities.
However, this population growth is not inevitable. Australia could maintain a broadly stable population and maintain humanitarian obligations without any changes to the current birth rate or the humanitarian program. Non-humanitarian (including skilled) migration is the largest driving force behind Australia’s growing population, which is motivated by economic ideology. SPA argues that it is difficult to meet town planning objectives with this rate of population growth, and that an amendment to population policies, in accordance with former MP Kelvin Thomson’s’ 14 point plan would assist in many of the town planning issues impacting our major cities (3).

As Sustainable Population Australia is an environmentally focused organization, we advocate policies that encourage human activity that is sustainable within finite natural limits and question the ongoing growth paradigm. Growth in the capital cities is reaching limits, whilst coastline development impacts fragile ecosystems. However, inland Australia is more subject to temperature extremes, water shortages and a lack of locational comparative advantage to sustain livelihoods. Within the context of an increasing climate emergency and peak fossil fuel energy, investment will be better spent on resilient communities and foreign aid rather than growth for growth's sake.

The submission shall now address the below criteria directly:

1) Sustainability transitions in existing cities2>

• Identifying how the trajectories of existing cities can be directed towards a more sustainable urban form that enhances urban liveability and quality of life and reduces energy, water, and resource consumption;

By virtue of our increasing infrastructure deficit and indicators that our capital cities are struggling to keep up with growth (4), we are becoming increasingly limited in our ability to reduce our per-capita footprint. This is because suburban sprawl requires longer commutes, increased biodiversity loss, loss of agricultural land and all round higher carbon living. Higher density increases the urban heat island effect, and is requiring increasingly costly and high-environmental-impact infrastructure, particularly for transport tunnels. This is where the dichotomy of population versus consumption starts to break down when discussing sustainability. The two are interconnected.

Melbourne and Sydney are both expected to double their population to over 8 million by 2050 by current trajectories. Therefore the impact of energy, water and resource consumption will also double unless drastic measures are implemented quickly to mitigate per capita consumption of these resources. Without amending our current population policy, this means reducing our per capita consumption of energy, water and resources by 50% in 35 years to maintain current levels of total consumption. Furthermore, there is no plan to stop at 8 million – following this path would lock in further subsequent growth. There is a limit to how far per person demand for water and energy can be diminished. Therefore, vast changes to the way we live, requiring sacrifices of amenity, will have little benefit for sustainability in the long run if population growth remains high.

The State of the Environment report in Victoria 2008 (5) refers to population growth and settlement patterns as contributors to degenerating environmental factors in the state. Academic Rachel Carey in Footprint from Melbourne (6) warns of the impacts of urban sprawl on Melbourne’s food bowl. Continued urban sprawl will reduce the city’s food bowl capacity significantly, from 40% currently to around 18% by 2050. The suburban sprawl model is increasingly viewed as an unsustainable way of living. In the documentary ‘The End Of Suburbia’, James Howard Kunstler refers to suburbia as the ‘greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world’ whereas Richard Heinberg states that ‘suburbs wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for cheap oil’.

The current town planning response to suburban sprawl is to (a) develop on brownfield sites and (b) increase density in the inner and middle suburbs. There is however a limit to which brownfield sites can address rapid population growth. To provide an example in Melbourne, the Fishermans Bend urban renewal project in Melbourne will take decades from inception to completion, yet it will only absorb 10 months worth of Melbourne’s population growth. Meanwhile, town planning academics such as Bob Birrell and Michael Buxton criticise the current high rise paradigm. Reasons include that most new apartments are being built to accommodate specific demographic groups (e.g. too small to house families) and that they are geared towards investors. A downside of this is that new apartments are rarely built to last. Melbourne City Council planner Leanne Hodyl released a 2015 report that said high-rise developments were being built at a rate four times higher than that of some of the world’s highest density cities, and the current Victoria state Planning Minister has admitted that many Melbourne apartments are too small, too dark and badly ventilated. The business model driving their construction is clearly not one intended to enhance urban liveability and quality of life. It is one which aims to force residents to accept the style of housing most profitable to developers.
Regardless of the method in which we continue to grow cities, the costs on infrastructure must be considered. A higher population growth rate means a greater proportion of total economic activity has to be dedicated to expanding infrastructure. The public cost (across all levels of government) per extra person for Gross Fixed Capital Formation (largely infrastructure) is at least $100 000 with some estimates much higher. Dr Jane O’Sullivan has explored the correlation of infrastructure costs and population growth in depth:

“These analyses show that acquiring the durable assets to support population growth has historically cost around 6.5-7% of GDP per one percent population growth rate. Thus, if Australia’s growth is 1.5% p.a., around 11-12% of GDP is diverted to the task of acquiring infrastructure and other durable assets, merely to extend to the additional people the level of service already available to the existing population.” (6)

This long-term average cost has been compounded in the last decade by the much higher cost of retrofitting already built-up areas, and the dis-economies of scale of high rise construction. For example, the East west link tunnel was costed at $1 billion per kilometre, around twenty times higher than above-ground roads and rail.
In its 2013 report “An Ageing Australia: preparing for the future”, the Productivity Commission warned that, due to elevated population growth, total private and public investment requirements over the next 50 years are estimated to be more than 5 times the cumulative investment made over the last half century. They noted that failure to finance this infrastructure would reduce total factor productivity.
Infrastructure has a considerable financial cost but also an environmental impact as all infrastructure requires the use of scarce resources and energy to make and operate. We are not making our cities more environmentally resilient by concreting over them.

• Considering what regulation and barriers exist that the Commonwealth could influence, and opportunities to cut red tape; and

We advise that many of the issues listed above could be mitigated if the Commonwealth government modified its policy on economically driven population growth so that population growth occurs at a slower rate, and tapers off at an anticipatable level. This will make town planning outcomes such as urban form and environmental objectives much easier to manage. National tax reforms such as negative gearing and capital gains concessions, selling the right to develop rezoned land (to capture the windfall gain in property values from rezoning) and reforms to political donations, may assist in mitigating the lobbying power of property developers and private interests over state and local council town planning decisions.
We reject the claim that housing and infrastructure stress is merely a supply problem and attributable to “regulation, barriers and red tape”. It is mostly a demand “problem”, where demand has been deliberately elevated to the advantage of developers, against the interests of existing residents.

• Examining the national benefits of being a global 'best practice' leader in sustainable urban development.

This would enable our conurbations to be in the best position to adapt to a low carbon economy with the knock-on effect of having far reaching economic benefits. However, if population growth continues at the current rate, we will lose the small window of opportunity we currently have to adapt our conurbations to a low carbon way of living. We must preserve the food bowls around our cities and it is imperative that infrastructure and affordable housing is in sync with population growth. (The lack of public transport infrastructure delivery on the urban fringes for example is very disheartening.) Otherwise we will continue to see an acceleration of car dependent sprawl on the urban fringe as well as a poor standard of urban intensification in the inner and middle suburbs (which instead of helping to reduce sprawl is contributing to it due to the spatial inequality that is apparent when there is a severe lack of social housing in new developments). This will also have huge implications for incoming migrants who will be forced further into non-walkable communities on the urban fringe.

Population growth rate itself diminishes prospects for good urban design. It is impossible to design for perpetual growth. All designs have a carrying capacity, beyond which they become congested and inefficient. If our population growth were slowing toward a predictable stable population level, urban design could optimise the functionality and amenity for that population. A perpetually growing population makes all designs ephemeral fixes. Our major infrastructure must spend half its life inefficiently under-utilised and the other half inefficiently congested. Australians who visit Japan or continental Europe often remark on the quality and efficiency of infrastructure. This has been achieved because their populations have been near stable.
Some growth advocates such as Bernard Salt and Lucy Turnbull advocate modular cities, composed of multiple adjoining “20-minute communities” around their own business centre. This is a fantasy which no real city has achieved. Attempts generally resort to secondary centres remaining dormitories with long commutes. The same can largely be said of regionalisation. The only centres to achieve growth at or above the rate of growth of the capital city are those which have become, through improvement in transport and diminishing expectations of commuters, viable for commuting to the capital.

2) Growing new and transitioning existing sustainable regional cities and towns

• Promoting the development of regional centres, including promoting master planning of regional communities;
• Promoting private investment in regional centres and regional infrastructure;
• Promoting the competitive advantages of regional location for businesses;
• Examining ways urbanisation can be re-directed to achieve more balanced regional development; and
• Identifying the infrastructure requirements for reliable and affordable transport, clean energy, water and waste in a new settlement of reasonable size, located away from existing infrastructure.

According to the Productivity Commission (7), regional Australia is generally not attractive for skilled migrants to settle long term. However, there is sufficient intrastate movement from capital cities to regional Australia (particularly from younger urban families) to assist prosperity in regional areas, if there is indeed demand for growth in those areas. For example, According to recent market research, approximately 450,000 people are planning to move to regional Victoria from Melbourne in the next three years. Increasing Australia’ population through the skilled migration program is not therefore an effective method in increasing population in the regions if current settlement patterns persist.
In the past five years (up until August 2016) Victoria's population has grown by five hundred thousand. Twenty six thousand of this was in Victoria's three main regional cities (8). That translates to just fifteen weeks of Victoria's overall population growth in the years since 2011. The potential for increasing the population of even smaller towns (especially those that are not in commutable distance from Melbourne) is considerably less and in the long term you would only be looking at perhaps a few thousand here and there (which is negligible in face of our current rate of population growth).

Previous attempts to decentralise people and jobs from the cities to the regions in Australia have largely been unsuccessful, though politicians still like to cite this as something that we should do. Most of the growth in regional areas currently occur in the peri-urban areas of capital cities (e.g. Newcastle and Wollongong in NSW, Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Geelong, Bendigo and Ballarat in Victoria). Many of these town are becoming effectively dormitory suburbs for the capital cities, and people are still dependent on capital cities for work and services. There is a limit however to how large these urban centres can grow before they start to have infrastructure and urban sprawl problems of their own. For example, if most of Victoria's population increase of 100,000 a year were to be directed away from Melbourne, the question remains how large regional Victoria could grow before we need to return to growing Melbourne? (Large regional cities in Victoria such as Geelong are already starting to be impacted with urban sprawl issues of their own.) Within a couple of decades we would be back to where we are now.

In terms of establishing new, self-sufficient urban centres, it is very hard to create a critical mass of economic activity, if there isn't a natural "attractant", and if there is one, you don't need to intervene - a centre will create itself. The problem is not caused by a shortage of people in that location and can't be solved by adding more. It can be argued that we don't have a shortage of people willing to live in rural areas, we have an erosion of livelihoods that rural areas can support (and this has a lot to do with the increasing share of the value of rural products that is captured up-stream in the supply chain). We don't have a skills shortage, we have a situation where employers are not willing to train and pay people enough to do the job. We don't have a shortage of working-age people to build the workforce, we have a shortage of spending, due to too much of people's income being siphoned off to "capital" (housing costs, and profits or interest payments going to overseas investors, or going to Australian investors who reinvest it in ventures that don't employ Australians, like paying ever more for the same piece of land, or gaming the stock market). It is spending that creates demand for workers, and it is lack of demand, not lack of supply, that limits the workforce.

There have been proposals for new cities, including the CLARA smart city scheme, which would include about 8 new cities along the main transport routes between Melbourne and Sydney, housing around 250,000 people each. However, the investment cost seems formidable, which would require around $200b worth of infrastructure over the next 40 years. Even then, this would still only accommodate six years’ worth of population growth.

We note that these new cities would be within the catchment of the Murray River, whose water is already over-allocated. Water could only be provided by withdrawing it from irrigated agriculture, stripping livelihoods from the rural communities throughout the system. Far from revitalising regions, they would directly undermine small communities. The livelihoods within these cities could only be generated by ongoing government intervention, to locate activities there despite lack of natural advantage. Such subsidies can only withdraw more resource away from addressing the intensifying social issues of our capital cities.

Most Australians also prefer the relatively less extreme temperature variations of living near the coast, which is one reason why we are ultimately a nation of urban-conurbations rather than boundless plains. It is hard to conceive that much of inland Australia, with higher temperature extremes, a drier climate and less access to water would be attractive places to settle for many people. To force people to accept these options, in order to mitigate a purely self-inflicted problem of major city congestion, is in no way improving liveability.

For the above reasons, Sustainable Population Australia does not see regional development as a viable solution to solving population growth issues in our capital cities without amendments to national population growth policies.

The concept of regionalisation is used to give the impression that we can enjoy the supposed benefits of population growth while directing the disbenefits elsewhere. Neither the claimed benefits, nor the proposed regionalisation, have foundations in reality. In contrast, reducing Australia’s population growth is very easily achieved, by the Federal government reducing non-humanitarian immigration quotas, just as it was doubled 13 years ago by increasing them. Instead of discussing the multifaceted benefits of reducing population growth, false “solutions” are offered. These range from regionalisation to densifying middle suburbs, massive government spending (and debt) for infrastructure such as schools, public transport and public housing, building smaller homes, and putting tolls on a range of trunk roads in peak periods (9). These options might mitigate some of the loss of liveability that unmanaged population growth would impose, but deliver no improvement on previous conditions. They provide residents with “less for more”, with severely constrained lifestyles and higher costs of living, rather than “enhancing urban liveability and quality of life”.

In conclusion, there are no solutions to the stresses of population growth, without reducing the population growth itself. Individual projects may provide improvement in the short term, but will soon be overtaken by further growth. While good planning can reduce the erosion of living standards, only ending population growth will allow environmental outcomes and liveability to be improved in a sustained manner.


1. Australian Bureau of Statistics: Population
2. The Conversation - Three charts on Australia’s population shift and the big city squeeze
3. Kelvin Thomson’s 14 Point Plan For Population Reform
4. The Age. Melbourne now as clogged as Sydney, and the city's north-east has worst traffic
5. Comissioner for Environmental Sustainably Victoria: State Of The Environment Report 2008.
6. O’Sullivan, J.N. 2012. The burden of durable asset acquisition in growing populations. Economic Affairs 32(1), 31-37. ; O’Sullivan J.N. 2014. Submission to the Productivity Commission Inquiry into Infrastructure provision and funding in Australia.
7. Productivity Commission 2016 – Inquiry Report: Migrant Intake into Australia
8. Networked Rural Councils Program: Rural Migration Trends and Drivers 2012.
9. Millar R. and Cuthbertson M. 2017-Crammed: Ten ideas for dealing with Melbourne’s population growth. The Age, 8 July 2017.

Michael Bayliss,
SPA Branch President, Victoria and Tasmania
On behalf of Sustainable Population Australia

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Thanks Michael for your frank expose of the deceit of government and big business in Australia. While I admire your effort at exposing the folly of population boosting, getting the message across to the community can be extremely difficult as most take what is on the news (mainstream media) as gospel.

However, there are some glimmers of reality starting to hit home. Recently the State COALition has been running around the country drumming up business with their Population Taskforce with articles in local papers by MPs and others pumping a big Australia. After one such piece in the Riverine Herald a couple of weeks back a subsequent edition had an article that locals in the town of Echuca were worried about available accommodation for workers when works commence on the installation of a second river crossing in the town. Ah! The irony!!