Australia's City Centric Culture and Failure to Decentralise
What Did The Recent Grattan Review “Mapping Australia’s Economy” Really Reveal?
“Too many workers live too far away to fulfil our cities’ economic potential”
- is the conclusion of a recently published study by the Grattan institute.
The report maps the dollar value of goods and services produced by workers within a particular area of Australia’s biggest cities. Demonstrating a disproportionate 80% is created on just 0.2% of the nation’s land mass.
It mirrors findings highlighted in a recent speech by Luci Ellis - Head of Financial Stability at the RBA, who collected the addresses of people’s work places from the 2011 Census, to construct a picture that is particularly striking if directly contrasted with where employees actually live.
“Inner areas have become even greater job magnets in recent years; some middle and outer areas added people, but not so many jobs, so their job-to-worker ratios actually declined.”
Places with ratios well above 1 are employment centres. They pull in commuters across the city even from outside its borders.
While the very pale fringe areas, attracting the largest population growth due to pressures of affordability, are the ‘commuter districts,’ dormitory suburbs, where jobs and community infrastructure have failed to follow through.
The picture is one of increased social polarisation – fringe localities; tend to face higher crime rates, elevated levels of unemployment, along with reports of depression and mental illness.
Poor supply policy and delays zoning pockets within the urban boundaries for residential development, means a typical house and land package on a compact 450sqm site, transacts for no less than $400,000.
Instead of a sensible system of bond financing, where residents pay back proportionally over a lengthy period of time, or a broad based land value tax to replace other taxes as advocated in the Henry Tax Review, funds for the provision of essential infrastructure are loaded onto the upfront cost of housing and promptly passed to the buyer.
Yet Councils can wait years for the finances to arrive. The funds are only payable upon subdivision and with no control over the development or release of newly zoned land; buyers can often pay for services they may never receive.
The Grattan report is subtitled “Cities as Engines of Prosperity” and charts Australia’s evolution from a country that “made things,” into one that is now reliant on centrally clustered “knowledge-intensive and specialised services.”
Together, the cities above, account for 15% of Australia’s economic activity but despite declining job-to-worker ratios in the outer suburbs, along with increases in the price-to-distance trade off for home buyers, only 8% of Australia’s employed population actually work in the central hubs of each major capital.
In Melbourne for example, over 50% of jobs in are located more than 13km from the inner core, with fewer that 20% of jobs in the CBD itself.
These are not high paying jobs however, which leads the authors to imply we need to move closer in and -“Minimise barriers to highly productive activity in CBDs and inner city areas”
They suggest this would provide industries with a “wider range of potential workers to choose from.”
“Australia’s cities are the backbone of our economy, with CBDs and inner city areas critically important to the nation’s prosperity….The more highly skilled and specialised a job, the greater the need to find the best person to fill it.”
Knowledge based and specialised services cover a diverse area, including industries such as, finance, insurance, real estate, and business services, as well as cultural, media, communication, and education facilities for example.
They are gaining predominance across the globe, due to a technological boom that is powering us forward in an expansion not unlike the industrial revolution.
3-D printing is lowering the cost and logistics of production. Advances in the research of solar and renewable energy have paved the way for homeowners to store electricity overnight and possibly disconnect from the grid completely.
Companies such as ‘Uber’ and ‘Lyft’ have created innovative ‘apps’ to provide cheaper transport options for consumers and ironically, changes in the way we interact and communicate have allowed people and jobs to disperse over a broader footprint and successfully collaborate across international borders.
However, this is not where Australia excels.
Moves to take advantage of the innovation revolution have been continually hampered by Government intervention, winding back tariffs and scaling down their 2020 Renewable Energy Target, acting to protect the cartel of the Taxi industry’s ‘licensing’ monopoly, and cutting funding to organisations such as the CSIRO.
No - the predominant sector that yields the most “knowledge intensive” gains in Australia comes from the FIRE industry (finance, insurance, and real estate)– which has its infrastructure webbed like a parasite on the back of the great Australian housing boom.
At a global banking conference in 2013, the question was asked ‘Why the hell are Australian Banks performing so well!?’ – it was in response to a chart showing a decade rise in market capitalisation on the global banking index, from 2 – 14%.
The answer was obvious; the banking sector makes its money by creating debt – mostly mortgage debt and our highly leveraged ‘too big to fail four’ are the world’s most heavily exposed to residential and commercial real estate, capturing 88% of the mortgage market alone.
To be clear, the FIRE Economy is not a value adding economy; it profits by extracting economic rent from the debt on rising land values, impeding areas of productive enterprise, and trading the interest in a multi trillion-dollar derivatives market to advantage those sitting at the top of the financial pyramid.
To survive, the FIRE sector must sell the illusion that the economy and its participants can achieve economic prosperity through speculation on rising property values.
This has been assisted by tax, housing, and monetary policy, resulting in Australian’s holding some of the highest levels of private debt in the developed world
Tax withholdings or exemptions given to land holders for example, result in an increase of unearned monetary gains (economic rent) available to be capitalised at the current interest rate into the upfront cost of land.
This was aptly demonstrated in a recent release by Moodys’ Analytics, estimating how the tax policy of negative gearing, has acted to inflate Australian house prices by no small degree.