Traffic moves along the Warringah Freeway during rush hour in Sydney.
Traffic moves along the Warringah Freeway during rush hour in Sydney.

Australian cities that never were

In the late 1970s there were big plans to build a new satellite city outside of Adelaide.

But a decade or two later, the bold proposal for Monarto, or "New Murray Town" as it was often referred to at the time, had been completely abandoned.

"It was going to be one of the big new cities," said Glen Searleis, an honorary professor of urban and regional planning and policy at the University of Sydney.

But after Adelaide's population slowed, "these days the land that the government bought up is now an open range zoo".

The biggest in the world, in fact.

The tale is just one of many efforts in Australia to decentralise the population that failed to materialise. Australians today are among the most urbanised people in the world and much of that is concentrated in two cities.

Sydney and Melbourne are home to more than 40 per cent of the Australia's population and together they generate about 43 per cent of gross domestic product.

The phenomenon, sometimes referred to as agglomeration economies, is understandable but Australia's twin cities are straining under the weight of an ever increasing population, ostensibly prompting the government to signal it will cut immigration to allow infrastructure and services to catch up.

"Jobs are the issue, given the way the knowledge economy is growing, you're only getting the growth really happening in larger cities," Mr Searleis said.

He did his PhD studies in decentralisation and has worked in city planning in NSW and in the UK. He believes policies designed to build up our smaller cities are seriously needed to better distribute the population.

"Places such as Newcastle, Canberra and Adelaide are the three I would say that are capable of taking a lot more growth and are big enough to get that range of jobs" to attract new businesses and people, he said. While Victoria's landscape better lends itself to building satellite cities such as Geelong, he also pointed to the northern NSW coast as a potential growth area provided the required investment takes place.

The busy Bourke Street Mall in Melbourne during the Christmas shopping frenzy. Picture: Tim Carrafa
The busy Bourke Street Mall in Melbourne during the Christmas shopping frenzy. Picture: Tim Carrafa

For a long time now, there have been calls for a national policy to ensure a more equitable distribution of the population across cities of all sizes.

In 1972 an Australian Institute of Urban Studies task force emphatically recommended "efficient and humane alternatives to overconcentrated growth". It suggested a massive new-cities program was needed but like Adelaide's proposed satellite town, not much ever materialised.

In 1973, the Whitlam government did enact a cities plan to entice people out of the bigger metropolitan areas. The program allocated funds to develop new cities with 100,000 to 250,000 people such as Albury-Wodonga.

But initiatives like this haven't left much of a lasting legacy, Mr Searleis said.

Workable ideas to achieve decentralisation have proven a tricky nut to crack - just ask Barnaby Joyce who tried to move the Commonwealth's pesticides regulator from Canberra to his rural New England electorate in 2016 and faced swift backlash.

Policy levers such as new government employment opportunities, tax incentives, housing policies and high speed rail are often touted as ways to decentralise population growth.

Mr Searleis said some policies in place at the moment such as requiring doctors who move to Australia to work in regional towns are "working quite well".

"You can probably extend that a bit to other classes of migrants but the demand has to be there. For GPs the demand is there for some towns but across a wider range of skills you might not have the same level of demand.," he said.

Research shows that tax incentives offered by state governments don't have much impact on luring people to regional areas. The important thing is regional infrastructure such as quality hospitals, airports and possibly even the perennially promised (never delivered) high speed rail.

"People talk about fast rail and so forth but fast rail tends to be pretty expensive to put in." As far as keeping people in rural towns, the government needs to make sure it's got really good hospitals and work with the private sector to ensure good air services, Mr Searleis said.

Although rail projects can be expensive, he thinks the neglect of such infrastructure has hurt the eastern seaboard.

"The failure to upgrade the rail service between Sydney and Wollongong to a faster service, where I think you would have enough demand to make it work (economically) is a big mistake," Mr Searleis said. "That could really spread some of Sydney's growth out. And the same thing goes for Newcastle."

A concept images of property developer BHL's Northern Gateway City, located at the Western Sydney Aerotropolis at Badgerys Creek.
A concept images of property developer BHL's Northern Gateway City, located at the Western Sydney Aerotropolis at Badgerys Creek.

A parliamentary inquiry into regional development and decentralisation handed down its final report earlier this year. The government committee set out to explore the best practice approaches to regional development, the decentralisation of Commonwealth entities, as well as ways to support corporate decentralisation.

But Mr Searleis doesn't have high hopes for much to come of the political exercise.

"They help in providing some sort of intelligent debate about decentralisation but I don't think they lead to very much. In the past they've led to very little." he said.

"I haven't seen any evidence from the government coming out of that they're acting on any of the recommendations."

Other political pronouncements on the topic continue to be made, such as the Victorian Nationals promising a $1 billion decentralisation fund if they formed government with the Liberal party after this weekend's state election. But by now, we all know how that turned out.



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