What we found when we looked into it was a story of how planning and development was influencing political outcomes and a paradox that needs to be addressed as we head toward the 2022 election.
In our growth suburbs, there are towns within towns – the old towns and the new estates which encircle them. It was the new estates that delivered the result for Labor in 2018. People living in new estates had bought those houses with jobs that grew out of the state’s infrastructure program, their kids attended brand-new schools, they still had a bit of money left over at the end of the month thanks to a manageable mortgage. From a Labor perspective, it seems, growth is good. Wherever new estates were expanding, generally speaking, the Labor vote was strongest.
Indeed, the growth-is-good explanation could even be extended into Melbourne’s middle suburbs. Where development was occurring to increase housing density and deliver affordable housing solutions, Labor performed well.
But drive away from the shiny new estates into the older areas in our growth suburbs and things start to change. The old towns that sit at the centre of these growth areas look remarkably like they did in the 1980s. The prevailing narrative for people living in these areas is one of neglect. Not four years of neglect, but decades. Meanwhile, people keep arriving in the estates and are felt to be in competition for local services and infrastructure. The roads are congested. Shopping centres that were new and vibrant in the 1980s are now worn out and half empty … and the only good one is so busy it takes 30 minutes to find a park. Classrooms are overcrowded, because while there might a few schools around, there’s only one you’d actually want to send your kids too. Overloaded and overlooked.
There has always been a sense that outer-suburban “safe seats” were given short shrift. This is decades of neglect, not one term of government, so why is it biting now? The catalysts are the extraordinary population growth which has diminished the quality of life for the “old townies” and increasing personal financial stress. There are now considerable numbers of people living in these areas who are economically precarious, being stretched by debt and worried about job security. These are the voters delivering that hit on the Labor primary vote.
But this is not necessarily good news for the Liberal Party either. I’ve seen this type of anger and sense of neglect many times before, when doing political research in regional areas that have turned their backs on the major parties and swung to independent or minor party candidates. All the same ingredients are there in Melbourne’s growth suburbs. In these electorates, an independent threat to the major parties at the 2022 state election is very real.
So, the Andrews Government faces a paradox heading toward 2022. On the one hand, growth is good. On the other, its consequences are impacting the behaviour of voters who feel they are living with the costs of growth and none of its benefits. The real risk is that this disaffection could spread into the newer estates. If new developments are not well-delivered, then congestion, crowding and competition for local services and facilities will start to undermine quality of life. It’s not as simple as slowing development, though. If housing prices are not addressed, financial stress will ensnare new residents. Essential to quality of life in our growth suburbs has been relatively low mortgage stress. Over the past three years, median house prices in Melton, for example, have grown by over 60 per cent.
This paradox looms large as we look to the 2022 election. The essential challenge is one of planning and development: the ability to maintain housing stock supply to ensure housing affordability, while ensuring the delivery of “self-sufficient” developments that provide solutions to the quality of life problems they create in increasing demand on local services, infrastructure and jobs. Along the way, we also need to support the redevelopment of old town centres. How the state government responds to these challenges may be the defining feature of a 2022 town-planning election and determine whether or not we see the rise of independents across our suburbs.
Simon Welsh is Director of Research and Policy at political consultants RedBridge Group.