Bernard Salt had a fascinating but ultimately somewhat flawed article in The Australian last Saturday, “Welcome to the Metropolis“, which looks “at how Melbourne is narrowing the gap with Sydney in the contest to become the nation’s top city”. It’s gated, but well worth reading — I recommend doing what I did and taking out a free 28-day subscription.

In 1901 both cities had about 500,000 people but thereafter Sydney pulled ahead, initially capturing the new technology of aviation, followed in due course by other key new service industries such as media, advertising and finance. Sydney is more conveniently located to the rest of the world, has more national and regional headquarters than Melbourne, and even the PM and G-G each have “a pied-a-terre on that damned harbour”.

Now, however, Melbourne is fighting back and on trend will have a larger population than Sydney some time in the 2030s. He says that’s largely because the southern city set about assuring a supply of cheap land while Sydney dithered — a fringe house-and-land package is $100,000 cheaper in Melbourne.

That advantage underlines Melbourne’s suburban character. Central Melbourne is a gracious Victorian city but beyond those “gorgeous arrondissements” is Melbourne’s “celebrated and caricatured suburbia”:

“The outer suburbs are a different territory, filled with battlers and, less kindly, bogans and other assorted life forms, including the highly prized swinging voter. Working families live in the suburbs. Interestingly I have found the tendency to believe in a god of any description escalates with distance from the city centre: the devout and the godless live at either end of the Monash arterial.”

Salt argues Melbourne’s urban form is predicated on affordable fuel, but what if petrol should escalate to $10 per litre? Workers would not be able to get to CBD jobs so, he contends, “CBD jobs must go to workers”:

“Herein lies the great transformation that will shape Melbourne in the 2020s and the ’30s. Jobs decentralised to strategic regional centres such as Footscray, Broadmeadows, Box Hill, Dandenong and Frankston will reduce the need for suburban workers to get into and out of the city every day.”

He says if jobs were decentralised to Footscray it would obviate the need for a second Yarra crossing to alleviate congestion on the Westgate Bridge. It would also lessen the city’s cultural divide by seeding all those glamorous knowledge workers in the suburbs.

This is the issue I find problematic. He seems to be unaware that jobs are already overwhelmingly decentralised in Melbourne (I’ve discussed this several times before — see Employment in the Categories section). For example, in 2006 the “Golden Mile” had 10% of all metropolitan jobs; the extended CBD including Docklands and Southbank had about 15%; and the entire City of Melbourne LGA had less than 20%. The inner five-kilometre ring had only 28% of all jobs.

The historic decentralisation of employment is true of the other Australian capitals too because it’s driven by underlying structural changes in the economy and society. The process of decentralisation has stabilised since 1996 but it hasn’t reversed — it’s likely all that recent job growth in the city centre has been matched by suburban job growth (subject to seeing 2011 census results).

There’s another problem too. Getting the remaining CBD-type jobs to move to the suburbs is extraordinarily difficult, as the former government discovered with its ill-considered nomination of six suburban activity centres as Central Activities Districts in Melbourne @ 5 Million (a policy Salt seems unaware of). These were intended to provide “CBD type” jobs in the suburbs.

But modern CBDs are highly specialised in corporate headquarters and in firms in the finance, insurance and business services industries. These firms want to be near to each other and to the raft of “producer services” firms they rely on for expert advice and assistance. The evidence of their desire for intimacy is the fabulously high rents they pay to be located in one small, very dense part of the metropolitan area.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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