When we talk about revitalising our cities after COVID-19, let’s really mean it — from CBDs right out to the newest house in the newest estate. For growth areas, populations are found to be increasing more than twice as fast as the rest of Australia and this isn’t set to slow down.
Thanks to the HomeBuilder grant, the boom is far from over, with more Australians moving to the outer suburbs to become homeowners. Unfortunately, the boom and population growth are already outstripping infrastructure capacity in these areas, and government funding is needed now to avoid hitting crisis point.
So, while governments are bringing CBDs back after lockdown, let’s not forget about the outer urban growth areas, home to one-fifth of Australia’s population and still catching up with the consequences of decades of massive growth. Recovery will take longer in the outer suburbs: they were Australia’s main COVID-19 hotspots, already had high unemployment, and now, have among the highest levels of mortgage stress in the country.
Our most recent research paints a picture of communities consistently overlooked by government and areas that are a key national economic asset, well placed to support the recovery of the Australian economy as we emerge from the pandemic. This is why ahead of the next election we are calling for a dedicated ‘minister for growth areas’.
This position would help to deliver stronger planning that distributes infrastructure, jobs and housing more evenly across metropolitan areas, to take advantage of the many opportunities and huge potential in growth areas.
Local governments in growth areas do not expect state and federal-funded infrastructure to be provided overnight, but we do want firm funding commitments made and transparency about when funds will be available.
We don’t want to see any more of these real examples of growth area growing pains: thousands of people in a 10-year traffic nightmare with just a single exit road from their suburb; 17 years for a community to hear that a promised train station for their ‘new’ suburb might be considered in the next five years, or a suburb bigger than a major regional city that still doesn’t have a hospital.
Just four years ago, growth areas received only 13% of federal infrastructure while they generated 35% of population growth and 25% of jobs growth. Recent infrastructure investment by state and federal governments has started to improve on the shocking growth areas infrastructure deficit (20% less than other metropolitan areas), but there is still a long way to go to end the postcode discrimination.
The cost of under-investing in outer urban growth areas is more than traffic nightmares. Higher unemployment (particularly for young people), lower levels of educational attainment and a higher incidence of mental health problems are some of the other human costs of under-resourcing the outer suburbs and making it hard to access jobs, study and health services.
Off the back of the latest lockdowns, we found one in five (21%) outer suburbs residents reported that they are living in a ‘financial survival mode’. This has left more than half (51%) struggling to pay at least one bill, particularly energy, groceries, rent and personal loans. This figure reaches 64% for the under 40s.
Greater access to local jobs and infrastructure is key to addressing financial stress in these communities and can transform them by matching their vitality and pace of growth. Outer urban growth areas are innovative by nature — we’re here because we have turned paddocks into postcodes and built thriving communities.
We’re more culturally diverse and younger than the rest of the country. The potential of the outer suburbs was highlighted during COVID-19 lockdowns, when people who were able to work from home enjoyed spending more time with family and in their local community, instead of a daily, expensive nightmare commute.
As a nation, we have enjoyed the economic benefits of a booming population. Yet, we’ve neglected the new suburbs and communities that are the consequence of population growth. Cities have changed dramatically from last century’s model of a wheel of suburbs around one CBD hub, yet infrastructure funding still lags behind the polycentric, multi-nodal reality.
Our capital cities need better planning and investment that supports distributing infrastructure, jobs and housing more evenly across the entire metropolitan area, including bringing new jobs closer to where the growing population lives. All of which could be made possible with the help of a minister for growth areas.
Some positive steps in government policy and funding, like the City Deals program, reflect the spatial shift. Yet, despite this and the widespread benefits of changes like remote working for outer suburbs residents, some governments still want them to return to a daily nightmare commute into the CBD.
As well as talking about revitalising the CBD part of our cities, let’s use this recovery period to take a holistic view of all that our cities are and can be. Let’s include all of the city in our policy, planning and funding decisions — right out to the furthest edges. Let’s focus also on transforming our outer suburban economies and communities with infrastructure and services for the 5.2 million people who are already here — and the many more who are still coming.
The federal election is imminent. The government and the opposition are saying the right things and promising major infrastructure investment in outer urban growth areas. Ahead of the election, we will be keeping watch on whether those good intentions, policies and funding promises become a reality.