AHURI - Uncharted urban futures: Australian cities post pandemic

Publication Date
19 November 2021

Opening remarks

Thank you Michael for that kind introduction.

Before I begin, I want to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land and waterways on which we all meet today.

For me here in Canberra, that is the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples and I pay my respect to their elders, past and present.

I would also like to acknowledge my fellow speakers –

  • the honourable Paul Fletcher, Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts and
  • Andrew Giles, Shadow Minister for Urban Infrastructure.

And extend my thanks too to Michael Fotheringham and the entire AHURI team.

We have really appreciated and valued AHURI’s contribution as a partner in the development of our advice on Australia’s urban and social infrastructure needs – an area which is increasingly critical as we move to a new COVID-normal.

Today I’m proud to provide an overview of the 2021 Australian Infrastructure Planan incredibly comprehensive and wide-reaching reform document unlike anything that has ever been published in Australia.

The 2021 Plan is intended to support the Australian Government’s objective for infrastructure to:

  • Deliver social and economic benefits
  • Shape productive and liveable cities and
  • Provide connectivity to regional and remote areas.

The reforms in this landmark document are designed to be practical and actionable – and are focused on supporting the national COVID-19 recovery and delivering the infrastructure our communities need.

Spanning the transport, energy, water, telecommunications and digital, waste and social infrastructure sectors – our recommendations prioritise community and user outcomes, while also considering costs and risks in implementation.

As many of you would be aware, this is the first time the Australian Infrastructure Plan has included social infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, parks, community centres and social housing.

This acknowledges the critical role these physical spaces and assets play in supporting the nation’s wellbeing and economic prosperity – and in making Australia a great place to live.

It also reflects how:

  • A growing and ageing population
  • Technological advances and
  • Major events such as natural disasters and the pandemic are changing how Australians live and work.

More than ever, Australians appreciate the value of social infrastructure in supporting our communities.

And as we continue to rebuild from the pandemic, we have a real opportunity to deliver social infrastructure that supports more equitable access to services and improves quality of life –

An opportunity to deliver future-focused social infrastructure –

That opens up new possibilities for making Australia a

  • healthier,
  • more socially cohesive and
  • economically productive nation.

The pandemic has highlighted the need to strengthen our social infrastructure sector.

And apply lessons learned from the past two years to transform the sector and deliver infrastructure that is

  • fit-for-purpose,
  • digitally equipped and
  • flexible.

With this in mind, today I will highlight the need for a robust, nationally consistent framework to capture and measure the real economic value of social infrastructure.

This is critical to support effective and balanced investment.

But first I want to take a step back, and highlight –

  • The social infrastructure challenges that our recommendations in the 2021 Plan seek to respond to –
  • As well as some of the additional pressures that have been brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

2019 Audit findings

The 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan is the reform response to the 180 challenges and opportunities identified in our 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit.

Some of you may remember reading about the Audit when it was published two years ago –

The Audit found that – overall – Australia has high-performing social infrastructure by international standards.

However high-quality service delivery is a significant challenge in a country where social infrastructure is located in disparate geographies – and where our communities have very diverse needs.

A real challenge for us, is that access and service quality vary for different infrastructure types, places and groups of Australians.

Our community research found that Australians rate their experience with social infrastructure differently across sectors –

And that although the quality of social services is high, the assets that deliver them are often old and no longer suitable.

  • For instance, over a quarter of Australians think the quality and accessibility of social housing have declined over the past five years.
  • The Audit identified a general lack of appropriate social housing – of the right type and in the right location.
  • Noting that poor housing conditions (such as overdue maintenance or overcrowding) can create cross-sectoral impacts on other types of infrastructure, such as health, education and justice.

Ageing school assets was identified as key issue in the Audit, with quite a large maintenance backlog for school assets and a lack of modern 21st century learning environments – with flexibility to embrace new technologies and teaching methods.

We also looked at how green, blue and recreation infrastructure is functioning.

We found there are pressures in urban areas, in both inner cities and on the urban fringe in connecting green assets in particular

The 2019 Audit also found Australians often access multiple and overlapping services – pointing to a need for better integration between social infrastructure providers.

Adding another layer of complexity is of course the pandemic, which put additional pressures on our social infrastructure sectors.

COVID impacts

As we acknowledge in the 2021 Plan, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed vulnerabilities across the sector and highlighted the need to strengthen it.

We saw additional pressure on critical health facilities, with vast amounts of specialised medical equipment and supporting infrastructure needed.

  • ICU capacity was made seven times larger and the number of ventilators more than doubled.
  • Meeting these needs highlighted the value of having adaptable facilities that can quickly respond to vital community needs.

The pandemic also put additional pressure on social and affordable rental housing.

  • The economic downturn strained a system that was already severely restricted – and highlighted the shortage of fit-for purpose dwellings, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales.
  • Over the next 15 years, it is projected Australia will need almost 730,000 new social housing properties – with demand significantly outpacing investment.

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on the arts and culture sector –  once thriving, the sector contributed more than $115.2 billion to the economy in 2017–18 and employed 6% of the national workforce.

However, nearly two years of restrictions on venue capacity, interruptions and lockdowns as well as domestic and international border closures have had a serious impact.

A more positive trend that came out of the pandemic was the move to online services that we saw across multiple social infrastructure sectors.

In line with the broader trend, our social infrastructure sectors leveraged digital technology.

  • Education quickly turned to online learning for schools, vocational education and universities.
  • There was an accelerated uptake of telehealth so patients could access health care.
  • Art and cultural offerings shifted to online digital experiences.
  • However, these changes highlighted the limitations of Australia’s digital networks and inequitable digital access.

Finally, the pandemic also occasioned what we have termed the ‘return of the neighborhood’ as more people embraced remote working and demand for demand for community spaces grew.

  • Green and blue spaces such as parks and waterways, became vitally important for community recreation and maintaining mental health and wellbeing.
  • Governments moved quickly to support this by reallocating public spaces — for instance, opening up golf courses to other uses and creating ‘pop -up’ cycle lanes.
  • However, this highlighted the need for investment and reform to improve access to this kind of local infrastructure – for all sections of the community.

Harnessing the potential of social infrastructure

The 2021 Plan details a number of recommendations to harness the potential of our social infrastructure in a post-pandemic world.

In particular, we want to see support for new models for delivering services and continued investment in digital infrastructure.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic provided a unique opportunity to explore, trial and further develop low-cost service delivery through digital technologies.
  • As well as making access to health care, education and arts and culture more equitable, these new service delivery models have significant economic value – that should be harnessed.
  • Telehealth alone has the potential to save the health care system billions of dollars a year simply by reducing hospital admissions by one annual visit per person.
  • However to make the most of this opportunity, it is vital that governments continue to invest in smarter digital infrastructure.

Facilitating shared use of assets is another key recommendation in the 2021 Plan.

  • Social infrastructure assets should be multi-functional so they can be used by different groups for different purposes.
  • Some schools have already established ongoing access arrangements with councils that allow sporting or community groups to use school facilities at agreed times.
  • In return, councils provide funding for capital works or maintenance at the school.
  • This will maximise the value of assets to the community and even generate revenue that can be used to maintain and upgrade these facilities.
  • Of course, another key benefit of this approach is that it provides an alternative to the more resource intensive option of developing new infrastructure.

We also want to see greater emphasis on cross-sector collaboration: 

  • To help the social infrastructure sector recover from the profound effects of the pandemic and catalyse growth, it is also vital to strengthen the connection between arts, culture, sports and tourism.
  • There’s an opportunity for all levels of government to actively work together to better align the planning and delivery of arts, cultural and recreational infrastructure.

For this approach be successful, there needs to be:

  • Coordinated, place-based strategic planning that aligns with regional identity statements (which define local attractions, needs and opportunities) and is undertaken in conjunction with land-use planning and tourism strategies
  • The inclusion of arts, cultural and recreational infrastructure in planning for precinct developments and renewal projects, clustered around strong transport nodes.
  • Principles that promote multi-purpose use of new and existing facilities to drive economic development through tourism and job creation and diversify the use of community and commercial assets.
  • This will help to ensure the facilities and spaces that are maintained and created are those that best serve the unique needs of each community.

Valuing these cross-sector impacts is also critical – which brings me to my final point – which is the need to recognise social infrastructure as economic infrastructure too.

Valuing social infrastructure as economic infrastructure

Nationally, social service sectors contributed 15% of Australia’s GDP in 2020.

The sectors employed over 3.5 million people — around one-quarter of Australia’s workforce.

Social infrastructure, and the services it supports, not only enables Australians to live better lives, it delivers substantial direct and indirect benefits to the nation’s economy.

We need a nationally consistent approach to identifying and evaluating the quadruple-bottom-line value of all social infrastructure investments.

This will enable us to better demonstrate the economic role it plays, and the social benefits that are attached to investing in more housing, education and arts and cultural institutions.

In the case of social housing – there is a particularly significant opportunity here for reform:

  • We know that delivering safe, stable and appropriate social housing has a flow on effect, reducing costs to the health, education and justice systems.
  • We also know that improving how the wider social and economic benefits of social housing are measured and assessed will help demonstrate the current, high levels of demand – and in turn support further investment.
  • For this reason, the 2021 Plan calls for a robust, nationally consistent and agreed methodology for assessing and quantifying these benefits that fully captures their quadruple bottom-line value.
  • This would enable decision-makers to:
  • Better assess social and affordable housing projects
  • Justify future investment and
  • Deliver a better-balanced housing system – which would benefit all Australians.

Concluding remarks

Through the 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan, Infrastructure Australia has set an ambitious vision for reform.

In the case of social infrastructure, our vision is for high-quality, well-functioning and adaptable social infrastructure that meets a community’s changing service needs responsively and efficiently.

Investment in social infrastructure is essential for the health, wellbeing and economic prosperity of Australian communities.

Improvements to the planning, design, delivery and use of social infrastructure assets can contribute to a better quality of life for every Australian.

By embracing these reforms,  Australia can enjoy appropriately designed, future-focused and accessible facilities that improve people’s lives.

Thank you again to AHURI inviting me to speak at today’s webinar – and for your support on this journey to date. 

I look forward to taking your questions.