Amid strengthening resources and property sectors, how should Perth manage the prospect of a big population increase?
POPULATION pundits predict that, by 2050, there will be at least 3.5 million people living in the Perth metropolitan area.
But with all these extra people, needing a range of additional infrastructure from housing and schools, to roads and rail networks, what sort of city does Perth need to be?
Participants at a recent WA Business News boardroom forum agreed Perth has the potential to grow and flourish as a leading economic hub in the Asian region, but it needs to embrace an identity as a truly global city.
The executives in attendance agreed that the backing of a resources-rich backyard was a crucial growth factor, while its position in the same time-zone as Beijing, Singapore and Hong Kong would cement its status as an economic powerhouse.
Western Australian Planning Commission chairman Gary Prattley told the forum Perth’s growth would occur faster than has been forecast, and said he had wagered that the city’s population would hit 3.5 million early, by 2035.
“It won’t be too many years in the future that Perth will be the most important city in Australia in international terms,” Mr Prattley said
“The centre of economic activity is shifting west. I think the inevitable future of the world economy is in our time-zone, and that poses some incredible challenges for us.”
“I don’t think there’s a question of Perth being a global city, it’s a question of what kind of global city does Perth want to be?”
Architecture firm Hames Sharley principal Bill Hames said any long-term planning for Perth had to take into account that the resources sector would not underpin the economy forever, and preparations had to be made to develop a knowledge-based economy.
“Where are we going to be after all these commodities are gone? What sort of community vision have we got? What are we going to be?” Mr Hames asked.
“I think this is a really long-term thing and it’s probably going to evolve and it’s going to take on many forms.
“It’s going to come down to the only things we’ve got – culture, quality of place and amenity. Those are the sorts of things that are going to attract a knowledge economy, because that’s all that we might have after all the holes are dug.”
According to HASSELL head of planning Chris Melsom, one element of major change towards 2050 he expected was for the city to become significantly more cosmopolitan and multicultural.
“Our population is not growing by local birth rates, it’s growing by migration and the fastest migration will be coming from Asia; so what does that mean in 30 or 50 years time?” he said.
“We need to recognise that there is a significant dynamic change happening that’s not just about built form. It is about culture and it is about the need to accommodate a future population.
“Perth has to get a lot bigger, and grow and accommodate growth, but the form of that development in telling a story about Perth and our culture I think needs to be thought about a bit smarter than what it is currently.
“Perth has one of the fastest growing populations in the country and we have some of the highest land prices and housing prices per household. We’re going down in liveability internationally, and all of this is in the middle of a boom.
“So what decisions have we been making wrongly, or not making to allow us to take advantage of the boom factor?”
Saracen Properties managing director Luke Saraceni said it wasn’t a lack of planning that was the roadblock stopping Perth from becoming a truly vibrant, global economic hub.
Plans released for public discussion for major infrastructure and urban renewal projects, such as the Northbridge Link, the Perth Waterfront and East Perth’s Riverside precinct, were a step forward, but there was something lacking in the implementation, he said.
“People measure you by the quality of your capital city,” Mr Saraceni told the forum. “I can’t help but think the City of Perth has done a great job on its own.
“I don’t think it’s had the support of government that it should have, in terms of turning Perth into a truly international capital city.
“The biggest criticism that I’ve got ... is that we don’t seem to get a handle on the implementation process.
“As a developer, when you start up a project or when you conceive a project you have to work out how you’re actually going to deliver that project, how you’re going to make it happen.
“Everyone supports the fact that if we’re going to have 2 million extra people in the city, we’re going to have to have urban consolidation, but how much work is actually being done on how we achieve the results? We don’t seem to focus on how we’re going to deliver our plans.”
NS Projects managing director Neill Stevens, whose firm has project managed major city projects for more than 20 years, agreed with Mr Saraceni that major projects tended to be “planned into oblivion”.
“We often get involved in projects and there are 20 versions sitting around and they help to bring things to a head and move forward, but if you look at the structures in place it’s quite obvious that we’re not really structured to deliver major projects across the city and get consensus and drive them forward,” Mr Stevens said.
“We’re not structured to take a risk. No-one wants to get things started on the foreshore because it comprises a risk, a public risk, and someone may not like it. I think it is a question of getting a vision, getting it organised and getting an executive in place that can make the decisions.”
Mr Prattley agreed that the Planning Commission had to be more focused on implementing plans, rather than creating them.
“If we are going to achieve some of these infill targets then the commission and government and all of us have to be far more proactive, not just produce plans and guidelines because it doesn’t make things happen,” he said.
“It helps if everything else is right but we’ve got to go in there and take a more proactive role and drive and lead these things, and not just sit back.
“The industry, the private sector is critical in delivering these projects because government doesn’t have the resources to deliver them by itself.”
Woodhead principal Jacqui Preshaw said no plans would progress without a visionary leader, such as former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett, who was prepared to make unpopular decisions to progress crucial projects.
She has grown frustrated with multiple plans released for single projects, such as the Waterfront, without action on implementation.
“I think somebody needs the have the guts and just do it,” Ms Preshaw said.
“It sounds like people are getting that enthusiasm to make some of those hard decisions but I’m still very nervous; it will take a bit of time for that to occur.
“What you need is that momentum of someone putting their neck on the line, making that hard decision and making sure those processes somehow get dealt with, so the result of what’s been put out there in the public sector actually happens in such a short space of time.”
Mr Stevens said another factor delaying infrastructure growth and major projects was extended public debate.
He told the forum that debate could slow the delivery of major projects, often compromising the outcome.
“We were the project managers on the Barrack Square redevelopment and the Bell Tower,” Mr Stevens said. “That should be a thundering great thing that really sits against the skyline.”
“Sadly, I was just recounting earlier that, as the project manager, I used to go down to Bill Hames’ office and ask him to trim the budget. It’s probably a sad day if you think back, we should have been arguing for a bigger amount. It’s a legacy we’ve left Perth with.”
Mr Prattley said debate about the size and scope of the Bell Tower was a poignant example of a project that should have been iconic, but its outcome was ultimately disappointing.
“We were laughing before about the debate that went on when we were trying to approve that, and it how terrible it was, how it was too big, it was going to impact on Kings Park and the city, and my thought at the time was ‘what a load of crap,’” he said.
“You look back now and say ‘what a load of crap that was’ but there was huge debate in those days and it was nonsense.”
Town planning business TPG director, Peter Simpson, said it wasn’t just major projects that needed special focus as Perth’s population grew and its economy evolved.
“Some of the little things are just as important,” Mr Simpson said.
“It’s the little things that make a city; walking past a nice shop front, having activity there, it’s getting a university or more students into the city, and it’s those types of things that make a city work.
“Rather than focusing solely on the big projects in the city it’s actually the finer grains of the city that make a great city.”