If long term tourism and population forecasts are to be believed, Melbourne is nowhere near ready to handle the 1.6 million extra tourists and 600,000 new Melburnians heading for our city by 2020.
According to Tourism Victoria, the annual visitor nights spent in Melbourne by international tourists are forecast to rise by 42 per cent from 38 million to 54 million over the next nine years. This tourist surge comes on top of an ABS growth projection which states Melbourne's population will likely exceed 4.6 million people by the end of the decade.
For most Melburnians, the idea that their city is set for a population increase of this magnitude will be anathema. Indeed, many would like to see the exact opposite occur.
But despite the political rhetoric to the contrary, no government can stop the powerful forces fuelling this surge. Put simply, our miners and farmers require extra workers; our retailers desire additional customers; and our sick and elderly need more carers. As much as some would like to see a slowdown in the pace of growth, the socioeconomic costs of doing so far outweigh the benefits.
Consequently, Melburnians will need to get used to the fact that their city will be getting bigger, busier and much more cosmopolitan.
In an effort to help the public adjust, the Federal Government has recently released its National Urban Policy, Our Cities, Our Future, which seeks to address the impact of 'population growth and demographic change' on Australia's major cities.
Unfortunately, while the document highlights the importance of planning ahead, it avoids any detailed discussion of urban population forecasts. Moreover, it completely fails to address the complex challenge of managing soaring tourist and foreign student numbers – two key contributors to urban infrastructure strain.
If Melbourne is going to have any hope of dealing with the growth challenges of the future, we're going to need to do the heavy lifting on our own.
In commencing this task, four strategic reforms should be considered.
First, the State Government must discard the historical model for city planning which overwhelmingly focuses on the needs of the domestic population. Instead, it should create a planning document which addresses the needs of Victorians, tourists and foreign students. All of these people use our trains, trams, buses, taxis, roads, restaurants, bars, beaches, sports grounds and accommodation. Therefore, it only makes sense that we plan our city's development in order to meet their service expectations.
Second, the State Ministry must be restructured to better manage our long term population challenges. Having six Ministers and multiple departments responsible for compartmentalised population management is a recipe for disaster. In fact, it is the same recipe used to manage Victorian housing affordability – not the greatest of success stories! As an alternative, the Government should appoint a senior Population Minister with whom all lines of responsibility end. If a Treasurer can be held responsible for the health of a State economy, then a single Minister should be held responsible for Melbourne's rising population.
Third, local councils need to accept that Melbourne's growth has changed the breadth of their planning responsibilities. With a population of over four million people, our councils need to adopt a city-wide view of planning which fully appreciates the concept of greater Melbourne. Big cities require consistent planning decisions, efficient transport networks and affordable housing choices. Most importantly, they require councils which are prepared to look beyond the parochial concerns of their constituents. If local councils refuse to accept that their role in the planning system has changed, then the State Government should consider taking back their original planning powers.
Finally, Melburnians need to recognise that government alone cannot solve all of our population problems, especially ones relating to urban infrastructure. The public must keep an open mind towards innovative solutions such toll roads, infrastructure bonds, road privatisation and planning, transport and construction industry deregulation to better manage our long term growth. By harnessing the natural strengths of the private sector, government will be better placed to leverage the best outcomes on behalf of the community.
As our political leaders contemplate their response to the realities of Melbourne's long term population future, there is one simple fact which they should keep in mind. Despite what we all may wish for, crowded cities never go on holidays.