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Small town life-styles

By Lyn Allison - posted Thursday, 28 September 2006

When did decentralisation become a dirty word?

It was probably after the dismissal of the Whitlam Government with its Department of Urban and Regional Development. The Labor Party under Hawke and Keating scrambled to distance itself from even the hint of “socialistic” government intervention, and the Liberals, of course, have never accepted the idea because it smells of Big Government.

So for the last 20 years, we’ve witnessed the degradation of our overloaded big-city services. We’ve seen rising costs in extending and maintaining roads, public transport, schools and hospitals in the outer suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne and services wound back in country towns.


Extraordinary responses to crises like desalination projects to lift water reserves and growing difficulties in moving to the safe reuse of now huge quantities of sewage waste water going out to sea, show how unsustainable our city systems have become.

But no one dares mention decentralisation as a possible solution.

The New South Wales Government, for example, still plans to build 40,000 new homes every year, with each housing two adults and a couple of children. They will all need road transport to get to their new schools, or to the shops, and even to a distant railway or bus station.

Yet any intelligent person can see that decentralisation is not just a “possible” solution - it is the “only” long-term solution to the sprawling problems of Sydney and Melbourne.

As the 17th century economist David Ricardo pointed out in another context, unrestrained expansion leads to marginal inefficiencies and diminishing returns: each additional house adds excessively to the burden on city infrastructure, and costs of supplying these services rise exponentially when the sprawl exceeds its natural limits.

We can’t sit around another 20 years in the hope that hotter weather and higher rainfall will fill our dams, or that technological progress will create some new type of commuter vehicle able to double the capacity of our roads or halve the capital cost of railways.


Australia has the world’s most urbanised population in a land-mass the size of the United States, yet we have never developed the small town life-style that American films so often celebrate. They broke their territory into 50 different states which then developed capitals alongside inland waterways and on their trans-continental railways.

However Australia’s early transport was almost entirely by sea and settlement patterns were directed from Britain. As a consequence, our politicians remained focused on the retention of their colonial empires which were ridiculously large by any standards, and each developed only one capital city planted firmly on the coast. This mentality now seems to be ingrained in our national political psyche.

America is dotted by numerous small towns and almost-cities. Each has a high school and possibly a college or university, and they are usually big enough to provide reasonable sporting and entertainment venues. They often have one or more large industrial employers to retard the urban drift of the young.

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About the Author

Lyn Allison is a patron of the Peace Organisation of Australia and was leader of the Australian Democrats from 2004 to 2008.

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