Infrastructure Australia (IA) is one of the nation’s most important institutions. Since its inception more than a decade ago, it has had the benefit of bipartisan support and the license to think and operate independently.
The catalogue of reports it has produced in recent years chronicling the state of the nation’s infrastructure, the changing dynamics of our cities and regions and the mega trends that will shape future prosperity are to be cherished.
The headline facts are clear. Australia’s four largest cities are experiencing a quantum shift in their scale and density. Sydney and Melbourne will become New York or London by 2050, and Perth and Brisbane are on track to double in size.
The transformation is well underway and has substantial implications for the economic trajectory, prosperity, liveability and sustainability of these cities. The challenge, then, is how we keep pace with the demands that population growth brings.
IA has made clear, in its most recent Infrastructure Audit released in August this year, that we risk falling behind the curve. It starts with a nod to the growing scale of infrastructure pipelines – with $123 billion in work commenced since 2015, and a committed forward pipeline of over $200 billion.
However, it also makes clear that the delivery of new high- quality public transport, energy and water infrastructure, social infrastructure and improved public places and green space needs to accelerate.
The good news is that governments are beginning to grasp the need for reforms and policy initiatives that respond to the public’s reasonable expectation that they better plan ahead.
A new Centre for Population and National Population Plan has been established to better forecast population growth, geographic settlement patterns and channel the data into coherent action by the states and territories given they lead strategic planning.
A National Cities Performance Framework is a new tool that tracks metrics on the performance of more than 20 capital and major regional cities. Likewise, City Deals represent a new partnership approach between the Commonwealth and state and local governments to better align the planning, investment and governance necessary to accelerate economic and jobs growth, urban renewal and reform.
It is also being backed with real dollars, with a headline initiative being the Commonwealth’s plan to roll out $10 billion to fund major new transport infrastructure projects in each of the major capital cities to lift connectivity and mobility.
Collectively, these streams of work have the potential to start changing the game – but there is substantial scope to go further.
UDIA National is promoting a suite of policy priorities to cement the benefits of reform, commencing with the renewed focus on population planning. Next year, Australia will refresh the Intergenerational Report that profiles our long-term demographic trends and their consequences for public policy.
The population data and assumptions that underpin the report need to be used as a common baseline across the entire agenda of governments – federal, state and local. Establishing one, three and five-year population forecasts that are updated on a rolling annual basis is a minimum. These projections should in turn inform better strategic land use and infrastructure plans.
This is essentially the gap IA has identified – that we know high levels of growth are coming but are yet to adequately plan for the base level of services expected for key elements of liveability, including housing, transport, social infrastructure and the environment.
Insulating infrastructure planning, funding and delivery from the whims of political cycles is now an imperative. That is one reason we are championing an Infrastructure Accord to build durability around priorities and funding and give comfort to investments – both in projects, but also the land use and housing supply that follows.
Ingredients of an Infrastructure Accord that both major parties commit to would include:
Using infrastructure investment to unlock housing is also urgent. The current imbalance between supply and demand remains the principal cause of our affordability woes. Even during the peak of the recent housing construction boom, we were barely building a sufficient number of homes to meet demand.
Across the range of capital cities in Australia, it already takes a homebuyer between seven and 11 years to save the deposit needed to buy and home, and well over 30 percent of their income to service it. Prices have begun to rise again, at least in the established housing market, yet approvals and construction pipelines are thinning – meaning we risk freezing a generation of young Australians out of the housing market.
It’s not just volume either. IA’s report – alongside others – paints a compelling case for not only lifting the overall volume of housing stock, but expanding its diversity. Creating new options such as Build-to-Rent, mixed tenure affordable housing and expanded choice for seniors makes sense.
None of this is beyond us. Australia has the land, redevelopment opportunities, expertise, capital and capacity to create one of the world’s most efficient and equitable housing markets.
Likewise, political goodwill has the capacity to tie together the disparate elements of population, cities, infrastructure and housing policy. There’s no time to waste.
Connie Kirk is CEO of the Urban Development Institute of Australia (UDIA), www.udia.com.au.