Decentralisation sounds fine in principle, but who is willing to pay for it?

Decentralisation sounds fine in principle, but who is willing to pay for it?
Decentralisation sounds fine in principle, but who is willing to pay for it?

Opinion:

Whenever someone writes or talks about decentralisation as part of an overall population policy in Australia, I tend to roll my eyes, mentally note the growing list of fans of the overarching policy and then move on.

It all boils down to this: how in an era of continual tax cuts can we expect to pay for the infrastructure - not just transport infrastructure but everything else as well - to ensure the growing regional population base has similar access to services and quality of life as the established cities?

The latest in the decentralisation merry-go-round is an op-ed published in The Guardian by the National Farmers Federation President Fiona Simson.  In it, Simson acknowledges the barriers to greater numbers of people living in regional and rural areas but also makes the mistake of offering a tax-cut as a solution to growing employment to attract the people "out there".

As a lifetime resident (save a couple of years away for study) of regional Australia, I can attest to just how good country living is. I can also attest to its challenges.

Unfortunately for many the dream of leaving the city’s bounds behind is diminished after learning of these challenges. Due diligence quickly uncovers the often-appalling lack of health services, internet and mobile phone connectivity that is nowhere near on par with urban networks; almost non-existent public transport options; and just the glaring evidence that our regions are plainly not seen as a priority in the eyes of decision makers.

Fiona Simson - NFF President via Guardian Australia

If the regionals are already starting from behind - as the National Farmers Federation President insomuch says - how or why should we encourage even more people to move to the regions when both Coalition and Labor governments are more than happy to jump on the tax cut bandwagon for short-term gain?

Health infrastructure and ongoing funding must come from the national or state government purse - and those purses are filled with taxes.  The abortion that is the now even-more multi-modal NBN requires public funding (although you could argue, private sector funding - through the telcos - can build more mobile towers and networks).  

Public Transport absolutely requires public funding and when the regions are concerned there are even more push-pull factors, namely the need to provide high quality and high frequency service to the relevant state capital to provide a conduit for country people to get to the big smoke plus also the need to  service local communities with non-car transport options within regional towns and cities.

Simson advocates for City Deal-type arrangements to be organised in various regions that have specific advantages.  Naturally, agriculture features prominently in the op-ed and Fiona Simson is in a far better situation to comment on regional advantages in the agricultural sector, however it's the advocating for less tax revenue that doesn't sit well with me.

The Business Council of Australia also supports an expansion of the City Deals approach to regional Australia and sees the huge opportunity for its big business members to increase their footprint in regional Australia.

It may also be prudent to provide fiscal incentives.

One idea is to apply a decreased tax rate to individual and companies living and operating a certain distance away from capital cities.

Fiona Simon - NFF President via Guardian Australia

"But the private sector has a role to play in financing and building infrastructure for the bush".  Building the infrastructure on behalf of governments? sure, most people can work with that.  Financing or proposing what to build in the first place? Just look at the unraveling mess of the market-led proposal for the West Gate Tunnel.  

Imagine a West Gate Tunnel-like project cock-up out in the regional areas in the context of tax cuts galore right in every sector of the economy.  Who's going to step in to resolve cost-overruns or project delays?  Why, the state or federal government of course.  Along with its diminishing per-capita tax take.  

I acknowledge there may be other sustainable ways to grow the regions other than through direct taxation, but if the starter's gun fires when we know tax cuts are going to be sloshing their way through the economy over 10, 20 or 30 years, we're handicapping ourselves from the outset. It's good old Australian 'she'll be right' short-termism that needs to end.

And likewise, we need to debate how to grow regional towns and cities.  For instance, just rezoning land next to existing developed areas in regional towns so suburban developers can take over is just replicating the problem of unrelenting fringe development in the capitals.  Do we really want to push that onto regional towns and cities?

Also...

Can you spot the missing regional cities in this list?

Australia has a total land area of 7,692,024 square kilometres, yet the cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide combined only total around 8,202 sq km.

Even factoring in the growth in areas of south-east Queensland and Newcastle and other cities such as Hobart, Canberra and Darwin, it’s accurate to say we need to spread out

Fiona Simson - NFF President via Guardian Australia

Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo combined half about half a million people living in them and as George Megalogenis pointed out in his recent Melbourne Century piece in The Age, on current ABS data and predictions, Geelong will enter the top 10 biggest cities list in Australia this century.

I'm willing to give the NFF President the benefit of the doubt - maybe it was word economisation the Guardian editors decreed - however to not include regional areas of Victoria on a list of possible areas to grow for decentralisation purposes is just strange.

Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo are linked to Melbourne in ways that Wollongong, the Central Coast and Newcastle can only dream of - infrastructure already exists that allows higher-speed rail services to connect the three western big regionals in Victoria with Melbourne.  And plans are afoot to gradually upgrade these lines even further, starting with Geelong.

The City of Bendigo already has a population of 112,000 with a regional population - that takes in cities like Castlemaine and towns like Heathcote - of 240,000.  By 2050, the city wants to see the city itself top 200,000 and the region hit 350,000.

To not even mention cities like these in the context of a decentralisation op-ed is odd - they are the very places that could act as the bulwark for further regional growth in towns in those regional cities' orbit.

Bendigo could be to Echuca and Swan Hill what Melbourne is to Bendigo.  Ballarat could be to Ararat and Stawell what Melbourne is to Ballarat.  Geelong could be to Winchelsea and Colac what Melbourne is to Geelong.  Traralgon could be to Sale, Moe and Morwell what Melbourne is to the entire La Trobe Valley. All on a much grander scale, and so on.

Alastair Taylor

Alastair Taylor

Alastair Taylor is a co-founder of Urban.com.au. Now a freelance writer, Alastair focuses on the intersection of public transport, public policy and related impacts on medium and high-density development.

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Reddie
Pretty sure that Melb, Syd, Bris, Perth and Adel land area is greater than a total of 8202sqkm.
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