On Thursday the fifth of November 2015, local, state and federal representatives from The Greens launched their plan for a “Better More Liveable Melbourne” but what impact will this plan have considering Victoria's population is increasing by a hundred thousand a year (especially when most of the growth is in Melbourne)?
Proposed renewable energy public transport
At first glance it appears that it would have a major impact, especially as the aim of the plan is to invest heavily in a wide range of projects including three new railway stations, schools in the Docklands, fifty new trams running on 100% renewable energy, a railway line to Doncaster and an upgrade of the train signalling system.
Of all of the aforementioned proposals, it would not be unreasonable to expect that the signalling upgrade would be one of the more affordable options on the table, yet the current state Labor government has already abandoned plans to enact this legislation, precisely because it is unable to find the funds.
So how are the Greens going to come up with the money for a range of considerably more ambitious proposals? Their answer is “through fixing the unfair tax system such as abolishing subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, making sure that the big banks pay their fair share and by ensuring that property developers contribute part of their profits to pay for community infrastructure.”
Limitations of current paradigm and time
While this sounds reasonable, there is nevertheless no hope whatsoever of this policy framework becoming reality in time to prevent a much worse infrastructure crisis. The policies are so far removed from the current political paradigm (as supported by The Coalition and Labor) that to rely upon change in the short or even the medium term would be grossly unrealistic. We unfortunately do not have the luxury of buying that kind of time.
On top of a growing infrastructure debt, Melbourne will require an additional 355,000 new homes in the next decade alone, just to keep up with demand. The Greens advocate urban consolidation, whereby urban sprawl is replaced with higher density development, normally located within close proximity to established public transport. So far in Melbourne at least, this approach has turned out to be a major exercise in greenwash, mainly because the whole process is directed by free market economics resulting in a situation whereby very few high-density residential developments are even remotely affordable to people on lower incomes. Even fewer units are large enough to house families. A recent study by Bob Birrell and David McCloskey from The Australian Population Research Institute has highlighted the fact that ninety percent of new apartment approvals in Melbourne are no greater than sixty square metres in size, mainly because they are aimed at investors.
Developer resistance to good planning
The Greens would like to substantially increase affordable housing while also ensuring that stronger design standards are put in place. This approach however is likely to meet massive resistance from powerful and influential development interests who would, as a result, be forced to take a significant cut in profits. The decision to also make developers contribute towards infrastructure projects would further entrench this opposition.
Therefore if we are to be serious about saving Melbourne's food bowl (which is now under severe attack from urban sprawl) as well as its diverse inner suburban neighbourhoods, we cannot afford to wait until the Greens become strong enough in number to substantially increase their political influence. Bad planning (as well as being a gross waste of resources) is almost impossible to reverse and poorly envisioned development is happening now at an accelerating pace.
Deceptive not to inform public that population growth massively increases planning problems
The fact that this situation is being massively exacerbated by rapid population growth is another issue that cannot be ignored. Informing society that it is our environmental duty to live in high density developments is deceptive when in reality it is as much about forcing communities to adapt to a population policy aimed primarily at boosting GDP.
Long-proposed Fisherman's Bend development would absorb less than one year's population growth
Our population is now increasing at such a rate that even if all of the Greens' policies were already in place, it would nevertheless be impossible to implement a workable and effective planning strategy that could keep up with this demand. This is because good planning needs to be well considered and should take into account much more than the housing needs of its residents. To take one example, the proposed Fisherman's Bend development has been on the drawing board for a long period, yet upon completion, it will absorb less than one year's worth of Melbourne's current rate of population growth.
Medium density alternative to high density
An alternative strategy (which is promoted by forward thinking planners such as Professor Michael Buxton) is to increase the density of middle suburbs such as Reservoir and Fawkner. They already contain a substantial amount of infrastructure and much of the post-war detached housing stock contained within them does not come anywhere close to the energy efficiency standards that would be required if they were built today. A substantial proportion of this stock could therefore be replaced with dual or triple occupancy developments complete with access to private open space. This would be in contrast to the higher density alternatives that are being championed in the inner suburbs, where space is much more of a premium.
The fact that the Greens have contested local elections on the premise of protecting the village culture of inner suburb areas such as Prahrarn and Westgarth shows that they too realise that there is a limit to the amount of high-density development that is desirable in their own heartlands. A slower rate of population growth is therefore required in order to limit ad-hoc and unsightly apartment blocks in the inner suburbs in favour of a slower, more graceful transition to town house living in the middle suburbs.
Another option is to put greater emphasis on developing regional towns but again population growth would need to be slowed until the appropriate infrastructure and policies are in place to make this happen. Otherwise, any policy relating to population that is not in tandem with infrastructure and affordable housing targets will greatly impact our ability to plan resilient communities. Persuading people to relocate from the metropolitan area would also be a long process because we are ultimately a nation of urban-conurbations, not boundless plains.
For example, forty percent of Australians live either in Melbourne or Sydney compared to only twenty percent of people who live in England's two main cities of London and Birmingham. Therefore our population growth (which translates to a new Sydney less than every 15 years) is far less evenly distributed than in many European countries which are served with a large network of established regional towns.
Grow our population or grow food?
Some would argue that despite our current poor planning models, Australia nevertheless has an obligation to help ease the burden of heavily populated countries. This however becomes counterproductive if people are forced to increase their environmental footprint simply by virtue of moving here. It would be better to focus on protecting our threatened agricultural land from suburban sprawl for the purpose of exporting food to those countries that are most in need. Population policy should after all be primarily focused on doing the most good for people who need the most help.
The Greens would not lose any support (and would stand to gain a lot more) if they were to continue to advocate for a higher refugee intake whilst also initiating a wide ranging consultation process on population to include urban ecologists, planning experts and climate scientists as well as the general public. A major component of that process would be determining what infrastructure goals need to be reached (such as high speed rail) as a prerequisite to population targets being met.
In the meantime the full scale and urgency of Melbourne's housing and infrastructure crisis needs to be acknowledged and acted on accordingly. The 'Plan For A Better, More Liveable Melbourne' is not nearly enough to save Melbourne but it is not too late. We must act quickly to demand that population policy and infrastructure policy are in sync and that there is a full and open enquiry into Melbourne's planning strategy.
Mark Allen is an ex-town planner and environmental activist with a particular interest in population. He runs workshops on Population, Permaculture and Planning across Australia and runs a Facebook group of the same name. He can be contacted at [email protected]