Rapid population growth is bringing Australia to a ‘make-or-break’ moment, but not in the way many people think.
The ABC’s two-part exploration of the issues on Monday evening, on Four Corners and Q&A, featured plenty of voices suggesting that what’s about to ‘break’ is the Australian way of life, the natural environment, social cohesion and our standard of living.
Those arguments, being made by the likes of entrepreneur Dick Smith and former foreign minister Bob Carr, are finding fertile political ground with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives and former PM Tony Abbott.
Expert opinion, however, suggests something else can ‘break’ instead – our habit of responding to population growth by building vast tracts of dysfunctional suburbs.
Migration expert Jiyoung Song defends Australia’s intake on Q&A:
Non-partisan think-tank the Grattan Institute argued last week that the mismatch between people and homes can be fixed if “state governments … fix planning rules to allow more homes to be built in inner and middle-ring suburbs of our largest cities”.
The population debate isn’t just about the number of people and homes, but the types of homes, where they are, and how well connected they are.
Australian cities have been getting that equation wrong for decades, partly because middle-ring suburbs tend to be in planning lockdown, forcing developers to leapfrog over them and build endless miles of outer suburbs.
Federal opposition housing spokesman Senator Doug Cameron says those middle-ring suburbs hold the key to getting the population into the right dwellings, in the right place.
“Most of the new jobs are being created within a 10km radius of the CBD, especially in Sydney and Melbourne,” he told The New Daily on Monday.
“That’s fine if you’re an executive or high-skilled worker on high pay.
“But the workers servicing the needs of those industries find it impossible to rent or own a home close to that 10km band.
“In Sydney we’re seeing people travelling 70km each way from those outer suburbs, when the public transport system is a mess and the roads are at capacity.”
The Grattan report suggests the middle-ring suburbs can be developed if state and local governments issue blanket or “code-assessed” planning approvals over large areas.
However, Senator Cameron warns that “letting the market rip” would not solve the problem.
He says “co-ordinated infrastructure and housing” is the answer but “decades of culture” will have to be overturned for people to see the benefits of a wider range of housing types.
The 2016 census shows that a staggering 50 per cent of the detached houses in Australia are half empty – that is, with two or three bedrooms surplus to needs. (Click the tabs on the chart below to compare with apartments).
That’s fine for people who want to live like that – and many do – but if entire cities are planned that way there are what Senator Cameron calls “significant economic and productivity implications”.
Service workers, students, or young singles are living in far-flung detached dwellings and facing long commutes, when apartments and townhouses closer to the action would suit them better.
The population debate is full of dystopian visions “coming at us through the mist”, as Bob Carr puts it. But what mist?
There are literally dozens of better planned cities abroad showing how the existing footprints of Australian cities can accommodate not only more people, but with better quality of life.
Professor Peter Newman of Curtin University’s Sustainability Policy Institute has spent decades studying the development of cities such as Seattle, Vancouver, Singapore, London, Paris and Tokyo.
He says the best cities are now harnessing private investment to provide what governments have failed to deliver – new transport nodes surrounded by high- and medium-density dwellings.
They are “built for families, with everything from childcare to public open spaces, for people that don’t want to live on cheap land at the city’s fringe”, he says.
“What governments can’t seem to understand is that there is a market for that kind of living.
“The developers want to build it and families want to live close to stations with all those facilities.”
Last week’s Grattan Institute report correctly stated that if governments can’t sort out this mess, “reducing immigration would reduce demand, but it would also reduce economic growth per existing resident”.
Instead of halving immigration, as some suggest, Australia could shake off its 1950s approach to city planning and start building the housing and transport options the next generation is actually going to want.