Is a new satellite city between Melbourne and Geelong the fillip Ted Baillieu needs?

The editorial in The Age yesterday, Mr Premier times are tough but you can leave your mark in the west, is one of the strangest opinion pieces I’ve seen in a long time. It’s so odd I wonder if its collateral damage from the current restructure at Fairfax.

It ostensibly mirrors an accompanying feature, Faith no more?, on the malaise that’s seemingly overcome the Baillieu Government after just 18 months in office. The gist is Mr Baillieu appears to be a reluctant Premier who’s struggling with undelivered promises, industrial relations fights, political scandals and alienated interest groups.

The Age’s leader writer reckons Ted Baillieu has to offer more than catch phrases like “decisive action.” The Government can get its mojo back by articulating a clear, coherent vision and agenda.

That’s fair enough, but the editorial starts looking weird when the writer reveals what he or she reckons is the silver bullet that could rescue Mr Baillieu’s declining personal popularity – “decentralisation”! In particular, a satellite city on the edge of Melbourne:

Instead of allowing the urban growth boundary to become ever more rubbery in response to perceived population pressure, the government could plan the development of a new city between Melbourne and Geelong.

The editorialist says that would give the Government the “opportunity to take the decisive action its publicists boast about.”

No doubt the newspaper is closer to the political action in Spring Street than I am, but seriously, I’d have thought what Mr Bailleau needs to do right now to bolster his stocks is take some real action, not bluster about decentralisation. After all, the next election is two and a half years away, not ten.

Melbourne already has two satellite cities in the west in Melton and Sunbury. They have their virtues but I seriously doubt they’re so compelling that another one will grip the collective imagination of Victorians. I think the electorates response would be more in the nature of: so what?

Some concrete initiatives to improve public transport, education or health seem much more likely to convince the public of the Government’s decisiveness than broad promises of a new city in Melbourne’s (not Victorias, even!) west. Initiatives to bolster the State’s economy and improve the lot of job seekers and the prospects of small businesses would have broader appeal.

But even if decentralisation were the magic bullet the Bailleau Government needs, this wouldn’t be the way to go about it. I wonder if anyone at Fairfax has looked at a map recently. Because a new satellite city located circa 45 km from Flinders St Station wouldn’t be decentralisation, it’d be sprawl by another name!

The distance between the built-up edge of Melbourne at Werribee and the built-up edge of Geelong at Corio is just over 25 km as the crow flies (and that’s ignoring the township of Lara about 3 km north-east of Corio). Corio is much the same distance from Flinders St Station as outer suburban Pakenham.

Melbourne already has a big and spreading influence on its hinterland. Only last week the ABS announced that the Melbourne Greater Capital City Statistical Area now includes the towns of Bacchus Marsh, Gisborne, Mount Macedon, Lancefield, Wandong and Kinglake.

The inclusion of these towns primarily recognises the high proportion of work and social trips their residents make to the suburbs and the centre of Melbourne. The distance from Melbourne’s CBD to Lancefield is more than 60 km, or about the same distance to Geelong’s CBD.

So just like those who live in Melton and Sunbury do now, the residents of The Age’s new city would mostly work somewhere in Melbourne. But they’d drive a bit further than they would if they’d settled in Werribee.

Then there’re the residents of Geelong. They value their separate identity and would almost certainly fiercely oppose a satellite city between Werribee and Geelong. They’d fear the result would be almost continuous urban development from Melbourne to Geelong.

Some observers think decentralisation is a viable alternative to continued growth of our capital cities. Perhaps that would be true if the growth were to take place somewhere distant like Albury-Wodonga, but creating a satellite city on the edge of Melbourne wouldn’t be decentralisation in any meaningful sense. Maybe it would be a better form of sprawl, but it’d still be sprawl.

Perhaps this strange editorial slipped through amid the current ructions at Fairfax and a more sensible and thoughtful approach will soon be restored. I can’t help thinking though that the custom of newspapers assuming they can and should have an authoritative opinion on anything and everything, no matter how technical or specialised, is long past its use-by date.