Jobs by municipality in 2006 (Source: Melbourne Metropolitan Strategy, Fact Sheet: Economy)

Work on preparing Melbourne’s new Metropolitan Planning Strategy finally went “live” on the internet yesterday with the curious slogan, A Vision for Victoria. Victoria?!

Although officers in the Department of Planning and Community Development (DPCD) have been working away privately for almost a year, this is the public launch of the Strategy. This is, so to speak, the kick-off (or bounce!).

On the strength of what’s delivered on the web site so far, we could be in for a pretty underwhelming game. The new site has a short explanatory video, ten Fact Sheets and a public forum for discussion (doesn’t look like the public can initiate threads though). Oh, and there’s a weekly photo competition with a $100 Apple iTunes voucher as the prize.

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I expect things will get more serious when the planned Issues and Challenges Discussion Paper is published. According to the timeline on the site, it’s imminent. Although most people barely knew the project was underway, the release of the Discussion Paper will mark the end of the first of four stages leading up to the finalisation of the Strategy.

I’ve had a quick look at the Fact Sheets and a closer look at the one on the Economy. I’m not, to put it mildly, impressed by this particular Fact Sheet. In fact I’m surprised it was ever approved by the study team management, by DPCD, by the expert advisors group, and by the Minister for Planning, Mathew Guy.

My issue isn’t with mistakes or even mainly with what’s there – it’s what isn’t in the Economy Fact Sheet that’s the main problem. Given this is a metropolitan plan, I’m astonished at the absence of salient facts about the spatial geography of economic activities. It reads like no one in DPCD actually has any real idea how planning relates to the economy.

Unbelievably, there’re no facts about activity centres – indeed, activity centres aren’t mentioned. Literally. There’re no facts on how many centres there are in Melbourne, or where they are, or how big they are, or what proportion of jobs they have (or don’t have), or what functions they individually specialise in, or what infrastructure they have, or…….

Apart from informing us about the existence of Docklands and Southbank, there aren’t even any pertinent facts about the CBD, even though it’s by far the largest concentration of jobs in the metropolitan area and has a job composition that’s very different from the rest of the metro area. Nor is there any mention whatsoever of agglomeration economies, even though other key projects like the proposed Melbourne Metro will rely heavily on this concept to deliver an acceptable benefit-ratio cost.

Instead this single sheet of paper is padded with irrelevant data like Victoria’s (not Melbourne’s!) Gross State Product and export earnings. Readers interested in that sort of general stuff can go direct to the Budget Papers. If however they’re reading this particular Fact Sheet, they’re likely to be looking for spatially relevant economic data. And they want it on Melbourne, not Victoria.

Even where relevant facts are cited, you have to wonder if those concerned really get it. For example, while I’m pleased to see there’s a diagram (see exhibit) showing the great bulk of jobs in Melbourne are in the suburbs, I’m amazed that a non-standard definition of the Inner City has been used.

It’s assumed all the municipality of Stonnington is part of the Inner City (whereas usually only the Prahran portion is included). That means the Inner City as defined for the Strategy extends about 6 km to the west and north of Flinders St station, but 13 km east. It includes Chadstone Shopping Centre but not the Westgarth cinema or any part of Brunswick north of Brunswick Rd! It can’t be compared with previous DPCD publications or with the efforts of academic researchers.

Another key problem with this Fact Sheet is the data that is there is a ‘snap-shot’. It’s devoid of any time-series data – trends can’t be identified!

There’s another diagram which shows the contribution by output of various industries to Gross State Product. Again the relevance is questionable and again it relates to Victoria, not Melbourne. Just as troubling though is the decision to use output as the measure, when what counts for planning is employment, not dollars. That’s because employment provides a better indication of an industry’s demand on infrastructure than the value of its output.

Official publications that lack salient information and are padded with irrelevant statistics are a poor basis for genuine consultation with the public. This Fact Sheet has few facts of value that could underpin a genuine dialogue with Melburnians on how the Metropolitan Strategy and the economy are related. It’s pretty hard to engage when no one seems to know the facts that matter!

I hope the quality of the Economy Fact Sheet isn’t indicative of the standard of the other nine, or the forthcoming Discussion Paper. I intend to keep a close eye on the development of the Strategy over however many months it takes (years, I expect). It’s about Melbourne but I think there’ll be plenty of issues come up that are of interest to residents of all cities.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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