We’re squeezing the life out of our cities
I have spent most of my life living in Melbourne. I was born and raised there. I have lived elsewhere, but have made Melbourne my home for at least part of the year, for more than a decade.
Take it from me, Melbourne is in the process of moving from being one of the most livable cities in the world to one of the most unlivable. Mind you, these international comparisons of livability have always been pretty dodgy: having a temperate climate scores a city a whole lot of points.
But would any Australian really choose Melbourne for its weather?
There is no doubt the primary reason for Melbourne’s loss of livability is the excess growth of its population, which has been apparent for at least a decade, but has accelerated in recent times.
Take the latest figures. Victoria’s population grew by 2.4 per cent over the year ending in the December quarter. Most of this growth was in Melbourne. Australia’s population, by contrast, grew by 1.6 per cent. The two states with the closest rate of population growth were NSW and Queensland, which recorded an annual increase of 1.5 per cent.
Last year’s census reported the population of Melbourne as 4.49 million, a figure that shows it closing in on Sydney, which has 4.82 million people.
Between 2004 and 2016, Melbourne’s population grew by almost a million compared with a rise in the number of residents in Sydney of 821,000.
According to Victorian government projections, Melbourne’s population is likely to exceed eight million by 2050.
When it comes to explaining why Melbourne, in particular, is growing so strongly, there are two principal reasons: overseas migration and interstate migration. Note that close to 90 per cent of recently arrived migrants opt for either Melbourne or Sydney.
Net interstate migration has also been strongly positive for Victoria in recent years.
While the annual net average figure for Victoria over the period 2005-06 and 2014-15 was 2885, more than 10,000 individuals moved to Victoria in 2014-15.
The 2016 census confirmed the continuation of this trend, with a remarkable number of people from Western Australia relocating to Victoria in the past two years.
For NSW, by comparison, net interstate migration has been consistently negative over the past decade, meaning more people chose to depart the state than arrive in it.
So what are the undesirable features of the galloping rate of growth of Melbourne’s population?
For starters, the new infrastructure projects that would normally be associated with such strong population growth have struggled to keep up. Think schools, hospitals, additional public transport and roads, particularly those linking different parts of the city — the list goes on.
The congestion on the roads and public transport at certain times of the day and week is something to behold. If I take the train to the city during peak times, the experience is akin to travelling in a sardine can. Even though we are not many stops from the beginning of the line, there is no hope of getting a seat or even finding a secure standing spot.
Driving is equally unbearable. Consider also the developments that have been allowed to occur in our precinct. On the arterial roads, the big houses have been sold, pulled down and replaced mostly by tacky-looking, albeit expensive, apartment blocks.
Nothing else has changed in terms of the local schools, local transport, local shops and other local amenities. There are many more people living in the area, but none of the supporting facilities has been altered. Evidently, we locals are being unreasonable trying to block this sort of development; we are guilty of selfish nimbyism and we just need to get with the program.
And that program is medium and high-density living, whether the longstanding incumbents like it or not. I used to think that it was our democratic right to express opinions about how our local suburb should develop, but apparently I was mistaken.
Perhaps I am also missing the point about the vibrancy, excitement and entrepreneurship associated with having such strong population growth, most of which is made up of overseas migrants. But it’s not entirely clear that these benefits are showing up in the economic statistics.
While the labour force participation rate in Victoria is slightly higher than the Australia-wide figure — 66 per cent versus 65 per cent — the most recent rate of unemployment in Victoria (5.9 per cent) is above the national average and well above the rate in NSW (4.8 per cent).
And while the rate of economic growth in Victoria on the face of it looks impressive, although not as impressive as NSW, it is per capita growth that is the more reliable indicator. On this score, the performance of the Victorian economy is only mediocre. Also bear in mind that most of the employment growth in Victoria has been in health and social assistance, public administration and safety, and education and training — all sectors dominated by the public sector.
Bear also in mind that the diseconomies of strong population growth, coupled with inadequate infrastructure provision, mean many Melburnians simply don’t feel as if their wellbeing is improving. Rather they feel stressed by packed trains and trams, congested roads, schools bursting at the seams and newly built hospitals that are already too small.
The policy implications are clear: there need to be steps taken to limit the rate of population growth in Melbourne, in particular, but also in Sydney. Blind Freddy could have predicted that excessively low interest rates, credit availability and rapid population growth would lead to skyrocketing house prices. For this reason alone, there should be some relief.
While the federal government has altered the provisions related to the entry of skilled temporary workers (the old 457 visas), which may have the effect of reducing the number of these entrants, it is as plain as day that the annual migration program — the permanent migrant intake — must be cut from 190,000, the figure that is in place for this financial year and the next three after that.
This number is simply too high given that almost all migrants head for Melbourne and Sydney and there are obviously limits to the extent to which these cities can absorb these extra people without causing serious downsides.
The only surprising aspect is why our political leaders have delayed the decision to cut the number of migrants. After all, Australia has nearly three times the population growth of the average of developed countries. Why this is sensible has never been properly explained.
Read the original article HERE.