Reinvesting in Our Suburbs: A role for the Commonwealth Government?

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Every morning in suburban Melbourne a typical resident — let's call her Teresa — faces an unenviable decision. Either she battles congestion, with all the stress and escalating costs of driving, or spends an inordinate amount of time each day on public transport.

Teresa and many like her choose to drive through Melbourne's suburbs, from her home in suburban Thornbury to Werribee where she works. For many Melbournians public transport is not a viable choice. Even in Melbourne's transport rich inner suburbs over 40 percent of residents drive to work, a figure which rises to over 74 percent in outer suburban Whittlesea. For Teresa and her fellow commuters the aspiration of 8 hours work, 8 hours rest and 8 hours leisure pioneered by the Victorian labour movement one hundred and fifty years ago is non-existent.

 

Petrol prices and increasing travel times are threatening the lifestyle of Australian families living and working in the suburbs of our major cities. According to the Department of Victorian Communities working families are being ghettoised in public transport poor localities. In these suburbs the lack of transport choice has become a contributor to poverty and disadvantage. In 2003, before the recent petrol price spikes, the cost burden in Victoria of running a medium sized car was up to $172 per week.

The Federal Government's response is to do nothing but offer token subsidies and motherhood statements. It has a tendency to pass the buck to State Governments, governments that are struggling to make up for a dearth of investment in urban transport infrastructure over the past few decades, while at the same time meeting the need for proper roads to service the growing outer suburbs.

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To long term observers of the Federal Government's attitude to urban policy this comes as no surprise. One of its first actions on coming to office was the abolition of Labor's Better Cities program in 1996. Since then the Howard Government has shown very little interest in addressing the urban development, or for that matter transport needs of Australia's suburbs.

Auslink, the Federal Government's transport funding program, is an example of this. Auslink demonstrates that the long term objective of the Federal Government is to introduce market based mechanisms — however flawed — into program funding. Auslink funds projects around the country pitching States and Territories against one another in competition for funding. Auslink also represents a rather limited vision of the Federal Government's role in transport, indicating a view that roads and rail freight are what should be funded, not public transport.

The fundamental failure of the Commonwealth's policies has been demonstrated not only by the emergence of financial stress in Australian families, partly induced by a lack of transport choice, but also a lessening of social diversity in our suburbs.

This has been recognised by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Heritage who stated in their report, Sustainable Cities:

"Australian cities are facing a number of crucial issues. Water shortages, congested transport, and demands placed on energy and urban development must be addressed."

Sustainable Cities calls for Commonwealth intervention into the planning of our suburbs and for funding to be made available for urban public transport infrastructure, a call echoed by Federal Labor.

In the suburbs, increasing vulnerability to oil prices spikes, inflation and interest rate rises is causing local governments — which have traditionally been more inclined to support the private car as an option — to campaign for Commonwealth assistance to make public transport a viable alternative.

While calls continue for Commonwealth involvement in urban transport, there is little discussion about what funding model might replace or supplement existing programs and what the Commonwealth's role in urban development would be.

A Commonwealth role is justified on the grounds that inadequate infrastructure provision in our suburbs threatens the health and of our cities and consequently threatens national economic prosperity. Accordingly, the Commonwealth should institute an initiative – lets call it Future Suburbs – focussed on improving the quality of life and service infrastructure in growth suburbs and regions.

Future Suburbs would require the States to nominate priority zones or growth suburban corridors. A joint strategy would be agreed upon by all tiers of government for these zones which would then utilise a whole of government approach to improve the delivery of infrastructure and services to these zones. Such a whole of government approach has been trialled with some success across Victorian government agencies through the neighbourhood renewal program.

While States and Territories should retain responsibility for the actual delivery of services Future Suburbs should include some key elements, namely:

  • a focus on improving transport, housing and service delivery infrastructure in designated suburban growth corridors of Australia's major cities and regional centres.
  • funding designed to supplement existing State capital spending — capital funding rather than recurrent funding
  • and a methodology designed not to invest in specific projects but a suburban corridor approach — places rather than projects.

The key here is that Future Suburbs would depend upon a co-operative approach to planning and investment in our suburbs, rather then leaving it up to either a flawed market or the competing demands for State government infrastructure spending.

Unfortunately the Federal Government shows little interest in moving into this terrain. To do so would acknowledge that the critics are right and that they erred in abolishing Better Cities in 1996. Alternative progressive forces have an opportunity to take up the challenge in developing a Commonwealth leadership role in guiding the future of our cities — a future based on co-operative planning, not the distortion of an imperfect market.

What of Teresa? Well, Teresa is on the lookout for a new job. She can't afford the petrol to drive to Sunshine each day. Nor can she afford to spend four hours a day on a long journey by public transport.

Thousands of people like Teresa are suffering due to the failure of John Howard's distorted market based solutions to urban development — surely that is reason enough to try another approach.

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