You know a local area is struggling with population growth when it talks about stuffing kindergarten children in portables.
Yet that may happen next year in Melbourne’s burgeoning south-western fringe municipality of Wyndham, which welcomes an average of between 190 and 200 residents every week as well as around 86 new babies. To keep up, the municipality needs a new primary school every five years, a new secondary school every three years and a new community centre every three years, along with roads and infrastructure. Currently, it has more three and four-year-olds than there are child care places available.
Wyndham and other greenfield areas are not the only ones under pressure. With the city’s population expected to grow from around 4.5 million today to 8.6 million by 2061, municipalities throughout the inner CBD to the middle ring to the urban fringe are grappling with the duel challenge of accommodating growth whilst maintaining character and liveability.
That raises questions about how this can be done. At a lunch hosted by the Victorian Division of the Urban Planning Institute of Australia in Australia, City of Melbourne Deputy Mayor Councillor Aaron Wood, City of Monash Mayor Councillor Rebecca Patterson and City of Wyndham Mayor Councillor Henry Barlow sat down with Victoria Planning Authority chief executive officer Stuart Moseley to talk about approaches taken in their region.
At the centre, there is the City of Melbourne itself. Over the 20 years to 2036, the municipality’s resident population is expected to almost double from 136,000 to 263,000. Over that time, its daily living and visiting population will grow from 903,000 to more than 1.4 million. Obviously, new housing and employment opportunities must be provided to cater for this.
In addition, there are interesting issues surrounding concerns of a looming short-term apartment oversupply and the impact of foreign investors upon local housing and rental affordability.
On the first point, the predominant strategy is urban renewal. At Fishermans Bend in the city’s inner west, around 480 hectares of former industrial land are being converted into five precincts which will provide employment for 80,000 workers and house 80,000 residents. A smaller project in earlier stages involving 56 hectares of former industrial land at Arden on the city’s fringe will cater for 34,0000 workers and 15,000 residents.
Despite scepticism, Wood says these projects are critical. Early doubts surrounding the Docklands precinct which is now around two-thirds built and when complete will effectively double the size of the Melbourne CBD have evaporated as the development have progressed, he points out.
In all this, Wood says there are challenges in maintaining liveability and ongoing pressures to dial back open space requirements. This, he says, should be treated with caution. Having held the title of the world’s most liveable city (as ranked by The Economist magazine) for seven years, Wood says Melbourne trades off its reputation as a place to live. Its liveability, he said, is a strong factor behind the city’s popularity with international students and booming export business in education.
On oversupply, Wood says stories are oversold. Melbourne’s vacancy rates, he says, sit at less than two per cent. With around 140,000 people coming into Victoria and 125,000 coming into Melbourne per year, he points out that the city throughout its metropolitan area overall needs to add the equivalent of another Fishermans Bend each year to keep pace with demand – albeit with some of these new arrivals being accommodated in middle and outer suburbs.
On foreign investment, a combination of political considerations and concern about local purchasers being priced out of markets has seen the state government impose a seven per cent stamp duty surcharge on foreign buyers and introduce a ‘vacancy tax’ equivalent to one per cent of the capital improved value of taxable land where properties in the CBD and some inner suburbs remain unoccupied for more than six months in a given year.
Without commenting on these policies specifically, Wood sounds a note of caution. Throughout its history, he says, Melbourne has been home to people from 195 different nations representing 140 different faiths, and has thrived on an international reputation as being open for business.
Besides, he says, notions of foreigners gobbling up all the apartments in places like Docklands are off the mark. Around 97 per cent of those currently buying in Docklands are owner occupiers, he says.
What Melbourne does need, the VPA’s Moseley says, is further investment in transport. That includes not just Metro 1 currently underway linking Melbourne’s north-west with its south east via underground including five new stations but the (early planning) Melbourne Metro 2 linking Clifton Hill station in the north-east with Newport in the west via the CBD and Fishermans Bend. Rail to the eastern suburb of Doncaster was also needed as are rapid bus services.
Next, there is the middle ring municipality of Monash. With its setting only 20 kilometres from the city in Melbourne’s popular south-eastern suburbs and being home to Monash University, the municipality is seen as an ideal location to deliver medium density housing as well as local employment opportunities in white collar industries.
A key part of the strategy can be seen through the Monash National Employment and Innovation Hub, which aims to leverage off the university and provide an employment cluster based around research and innovation. Already supporting 75,000 jobs contributing $9.4 billion to the state economy, this is believed to have the capacity to double in scale over the next three decades.
Nevertheless, Patterson says there are challenges.
First, there is local transport and amenity. In this regard, Patterson says projects such as the Rowville Rail Link and the Westall Road extension are critical, whilst local bus services need to be frequent and reliable. At the moment, she says those missing local busses face long waits and there is a local of connectivity between rail lines, trams, parking lots and other facilities.
Also needed are amenities such as chemists, banks, restaurants, shops, restaurants, cafes and function centres. To attract the best staff (and with them their employers), Patterson says workers in the hub and indeed the municipality need the ability as their CBD based counterparts currently enjoy to ‘duck out’ and enjoy coffee or pick up something from the local chemist or newsagent.
Large employers, Patterson says, will only headquarter their operations in Monash if their staff are able to access their offices easily and enjoy local amenity.
Notwithstanding the need to accommodate medium density housing, meanwhile, Patterson says there is resistance to change from many existing residents – over half of whom are 55 or older.
On this point, she says the Council worked hard to bring existing members of the community along over a C125 Amendment process which lasted several years. This delivered opportunities for intensive development involving 10 or 20 stories in and around transport hubs and activity centres but maintained the two-storey or less character throughout much of the rest of the municipality. When doing this, she said, the council consulted with the community about where new housing and businesses should go.
This amendment has been criticised for its failure to facilitate a diversity of housing choices and types and for the way in which it restricts those who do not wish to live in an activity centre limited to single or double storey dwellings only.
Patterson acknowledges this point but says change must be introduced at a scale which the community is able to accept.
“I think it is important to bring the community along with you,” she said. “If we were to take areas where currently the maximum height is two storeys and say that when there are 20 houses in the street that will allow it to go to six storeys and there were people that were having to live next door to six storeys whilst they were still living in two storeys, we would see a revolt from our community.
“I agree that eventually, people would get used to it. But I think it is important to care for the residents we have now as well and do things gradually so they don’t feel that somebody is just hitting them all the way into the future when they are just not ready yet.”
“Maybe this is specific to our demographic…We find it necessary to hold their hand and walk them into the future rather than yank them all the way there.”
Finally, there are the greenfield areas such as Wyndham. As mentioned above, this area faces challenges not only in freeing up sufficient housing to cater for the growing population but also adequate levels of local employment and social and economic infrastructure.
In this regard, interesting questions surround strategies adopted at both a state and municipal level.
From the state perspective, Barlow affords kudos to the current government in respect of its infrastructure approach. A particularly important initiative, he said, was the announcement last year of a $1.8 billion program to be delivered over 20 years through a public private partnership which will see major roads upgraded and local roads maintained throughout Melbourne’s western and south-western suburbs. This, he says, represents visionary planning.
Also visionary is a road/rail separation program through which the government is removing 50 of Melbourne’s worst level crossings. This, he says, makes it easier for business and workers to move around the municipality and safer for children to walk to school. Separation currently underway at two rail crossings on either side of Werribee train station will open up an area which is currently closed for most parts of the day and should prove to be a significant boon for the Werribee Central Business District, he said. It will also open up an extra 10 train services each way per day on top of an extra seven opened up a few months ago.
Nevertheless, he suggests money could be saved by simultaneously doing separation at Hoppers Crossing and thus having all works necessary to complete separation for the middle and outer Western train line completed in one go. By doing that, he said, the infrastructure as far as rail separation was concerned would already be there as soon as two new planned stations are complete.
Another project which Barlow says is the single most important across Melbourne’s western suburbs is the Australian Education City, which would create 100,000 new jobs across areas such as innovation and research and cater for 80,000 new residents and 50,000 students in East Werribee.
For too long, Barlow says, areas such as Wyndham have been seen as ‘blue collar’. Whilst facilities such as distribution centres were prevalent throughout the municipality, these centres often were not large-scale generators of employment despite taking up acres of land.
What the municipality needs are white collar jobs and large technology companies. It would start with the construction of one building and the landing of at least one major technology company. From there, Barlow said, the concept of technology companies basing themselves in Wyndham would have demonstrated success from which others might follow.
Moreover, he says the Council is stretched regarding its own resources and delivering local social infrastructure. The Council, he says, is now spending $134 million per year on infrastructure – up from five million several years ago.
In terms of what the municipality itself is doing, Barlow points to a priority services program under which a special department was set up to work with developers and other businesses at early stages in development proposals and help them to identify areas requiring modification – a response to previous feedback from developers about difficulties in getting planning applications through council.
This has paid dividends as feedback from developers and businesses in the growth area of Laverton North indicates that development processes are now far more efficient.
As for attracting major developers, Barlow says the city has been proactive. As far back as the early 2000s, he said, local council representatives travelled to places such as China and Japan to engage with businesspeople about what Wyndham could offer in terms of proximity to airports and ports as well as large quantities of reasonably priced land. Several months after the China trip, a delegation of Chinese business people arrived to see what the province had to offer. Some business was generated out of those efforts.
More recently, further interest has been shown following a trip by another representative from the Council to China. In November, Barlow himself is travelling to a smart cities conference in Barcelona.
Barlow acknowledges that he may stand accused of lavish spending if nothing comes out of this. Nevertheless, he says this is something he is prepared to wear.
“We are not waiting for the state and federal government to hand feed us jobs, he said. “We are out there canvassing organisations and businesses overseas ourselves. This is not what about what our city is going to look like this week or next week. It’s what our city is going to look like in 20 years’ time.”
Throughout Victoria, challenges differ across inner, middle-ring and greenfield municipalities.
To overcome this, a variety of approaches are needed.