Cities that don’t work

It’s time for a national discussion about population

The Victorian bushfires highlighted the growth of suburban Melbourne into the rural countryside. Many places caught in the fires were once villages, separated from the city by farms and bush. Today they form part of metropolitan Melbourne.

The pattern is repeated throughout Australia. Cities are growing like amoeba, relentlessly occupying every inch of available space.

As a consequence, our roads are congested; our public transport overcrowded; our water supply inadequate; and our amenities are under threat. Experts warned recently of more frequent disruptions to our electricity as power supplies fail.

Journeys that once took 30 minutes often take an hour. The congestion has spread beyond peak hours to much more of the day.

Since 1980, the number of cars registered in Australia has almost doubled. In the 30 years from 1973, urban car use increased from 72 billion passenger kilometres to 171 billion. In 1991, one million Victorians drove to work. By 2006, more than this number drove to work in Melbourne alone.

The former head of Sydney’s road network has suggested the introduction of a London-style tax to reduce congestion.

Overcrowded public transport has become the norm. In Melbourne public transport patronage has increased significantly since 2000 when there were 351 million boardings. By 2007-08, this figure reached 450 million with often overcrowded trains, buses and trams.

Australia is facing an unprecedented shortage of housing. Underlying housing demand is booming, buoyed by accelerating population growth, while supply continues to be restricted by limited land availability, excessive infrastructure charges and developer uncertainty. In 2006, the Urban Development Institute found that land costs comprised up to three quarters of the costs of a house and land package, with land supply diminishing in every state.

Lot sizes have been shrinking. The traditional quarter acre housing block is now little more than a distant memory. A 450 square metre block, characteristic of contemporary greenfields development in Sydney, represents close to one ninth of an acre!

The Urban Development Institute predicts that:

the newly married young couple, the young family with children, the medium-income single person, and the teachers, nurses, and police will have few opportunities to purchase in the new high-cost, unaffordable Australian city unless steps are taken to make land more affordable.

The Planning Institute’s Jason Black recently proposed bulldozing spacious suburban blocks to replace older homes with three to six story apartments. The Victorian government has already removed the power of some municipalities to determine planning applications in key development locations and is proposing a significant increase of housing into green areas.

Waiting lists for public housing increased from 202,349 in 1990-91 to 220,146 in 2000-01, before falling to 177,652 in 2007-08. While the current government has promised to increase public housing, population growth will continue to exert pressure on the stock.

According to demographer Graeme Hugo, population growth has accounted for around three quarters of household growth in Australia since 1961.

Immigration has accounted for almost 60 per cent of Melbourne’s population growth over the past decade.

The impact of migration has not been factored into discussions about housing problems. Household formation will continue to outpace the rate of population growth with households growing from 6.9 million in 1996 to almost ten million in 2021.

The demand is also driven by the increase in temporary immigrants, including international students and short term workers. Overseas student numbers have increased from just 7,351 in 1978 to 537,893 thirty years later. International visitors have also increased significantly, rising from 581,000 in 1978 to 5.6 million in 2008.

There are other consequences. A million additional people have settled in Melbourne since the last dam was built.

The number of public hospital beds in Australia has fallen from 62,401 in 1970 to 54,601 in 2008. While this has been offset by an increase in private hospital beds, the total numbers have fallen substantially behind population growth.

There is one common factor is this development: a growing population. It is time we addressed these changes, not in the piecemeal fashion that we have to date, but as part of a national discussion about population. Planning, infrastructure, transport – even health, education and policing policies – share population as a critical element.

It is time for a national discussion about population.


Kevin Andrews is the Federal Member for Menzies and Chair of the Coalition Policy Review

Leave a Reply