Daniel Andrews

The Andrews Government in Victoria is shifting into election mode and announcements are coming thick and fast. They range from big shiny promises to initiatives across affordable and social housing, social infrastructure and low-carbon energy projects.

The big-ticket promise is the $50 billion suburban rail loop announced this week. The government proposal involves connecting the outer suburbs with an underground rail loop that also links to all existing suburban lines.

The loop could reduce congestion and travel times between key nodes including Melbourne Airport, Cheltenham, Box Hill, Monash, Bundoora, Clayton and Broadmeadows.

Currently a rail commuter from Broadmeadows needing to go to Monash at Clayton would need to go into the CBD and out again to get there, adding massively to the travel time. To get from Box Hill to the airport also requires going into the city and out again.

The modelling undertaken for the project shows the trip from Box Hill to Tullamarine would be cut to around 25 minutes.

The proposal includes stations at the suburban university campuses and at TAFEs including Box Hill Institute, VU Polytechnic and Melbourne Polytechnic.

“Super hubs” are proposed for Clayton, Broadmeadows and Sunshine to enable regional passengers to connect to the new line.

The government has given an indicative timeframe for the project of 10 years, and if it wins the election in November, has pledged a start date for construction of late 2022, with completion, however, flagged to be not until 2050.

An initial budget of $300 million has been earmarked for a business case and design.

A new tunnelling training centre

In addition, the government has just announced a $16 million spend to fund Australia’s first specialist Tunnelling Training Centre at Holmesglen Institute in Chadstone.

Slated to open next year, it will be modelled on the UK’s Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy established as part of London’s Crossrail.

Premier Daniel Andrews said the pipeline of tunnelling projects planned for Melbourne has created the need for the centre.

They include the Metro Tunnel and West Gate Tunnel, where work is soon to commence, and the planned North East Link, Melbourne Airport Rail Link and new Suburban Rail Loop.

More than 15 tunnel boring machines (TBMs) are expected to be required for the suite of projects, as well as a large local workforce trained in tunnel construction works.

The government’s pipeline is already stimulating new business, with the company that is currently building the TBMs for the Melbourne Metro and Westgate Tunnel, Germany’s Herrenknecht, announcing it will be establishing a Melbourne office and maintenance facility.

It will also commence investigations into recycling TBMs for deployment to new projects – a .

A welcome change from the monocentric mode

SGS Economic and Planning partner, Terry Rawnsley, told The Fifth Estate the suburban rail loop proposal would achieve several positive benefits.

For a start, it would break the current “monocentric mode” of Melbourne employment, where the majority of jobs are concentrated in the CBD.

It will also service the big suburban centres that currently do not have good transport access. Monash for example, attracts 40,000 students and has 60,000 jobs based in the area. Currently, that causes massive commuter congestion.

While detail is “scant” at the moment, Rawley says that the proposed first stage of the loop, from Cheltenham to Box Hill would help reduce congestion at Monash and service an existing market of employment and residents in the Burwood corridor.

Monash could then become similar to Parramatta in Sydney as a non-CBD hub of employment, education and economic activity, he says.

Already the relative affordability and availability of land in the area is seeing a boom in developments of commercial buildings of five and six storeys, Rawley says.

“But congestion holds it back.”

The second proposed stage, from Box Hill to Bundoora will connect places including Latrobe University, Faulkner and Reservoir.

“This will help spur commercial and residential activity around the corridor,” Rawley says.

It is a project that would “shape the city” and see it “unshackled from [existing] transport limits”.

He points to Sydney’s Macquarie Park as an example. When there was no rail, the commercial hub was a source of congestion and required significant parking. As a result, it did not achieve its potential – until the rail station went in, when it gained a “second wind”.

Asked why a great big road wouldn’t solve the problem of cross-connectivity in outer Melbourne, Rawley said that while cars and large freeways are a good solution for dispersing people in large volumes, the congestion problem occurs when they have to leave the freeway for smaller subsidiary roads and then access parking.

He says the loop could help meet some of the key objectives of Plan Melbourne in terms of outer suburbs such as Box Hill, Waverly and Monash by linking homes and jobs and students and universities.

It is an “economic development tool” that will help to bring jobs into the south east and north east. It will also help with housing supply and affordability objectives, he says.

Affordable housing pledges aplenty

On the red-hot political topic of affordable housing the government has announced a raft of initiatives, most involving spending commitments before the election.

They include the $2 billion Social Housing Growth Fund which was released earlier this month.

The fund would create an investment pipeline of up to 2200 new social housing places through a combination of new dwellings and leases over the next five years. There will also be support for community housing providers to access low-interest finance, with $1.1 billion earmarked for low interest loans and government guarantees.

The government will run a series of tender processes for two programs under the fund, a build and operate program and a new rental development program.

“The Victorian Social Housing Growth Fund is the long-term financial commitment that will deliver real improvements to the supply of social and affordable housing in Victoria,” Victorian minister for housing, Martin Foley, said.

“We look forward to seeing what communities, councils, philanthropic partners and housing agencies propose to help us deliver over 2000 social units for those in our community who are most in need.”

Rough sleepers in regional and outer areas have been targeted for assistance too, with 19 new modular homes and allied support services announced for Bacchus Marsh, Norlane and Dandenong through the Towards Home program.

Tenders have been called for service providers.

Also earlier this month, the Inclusionary housing pilot program was extended to a nation-wide call for tenders.

The government is calling for expressions of interest for projects to be developed on six sites comprising surplus government land.

The sites for the new round of inclusionary housing projects are located at in Broadmeadows, Boronia, Parkville, Wodonga, Reservoir and Noble Park.

Two of the sites were previously earmarked for the mothballed East West Link road project, and according to the government’s information, are “no longer required”.

This could create an interesting situation, as with the sites out for tender ahead of the election, it can be safely assumed the would-be developers will have skin in the game in terms of the road remaining a no-go.

However, the Victorian Liberal party in its criticism of the Suburban Loop project this week raised the spectre of the East West Link from the dead as the kind of solution Melbourne still needs.

Tenders close on 6 September, and the government expects to announce the preferred bidders in late October, before the election, on 24 November.

Social infrastructure – small interventions for big results

This month has also seen the dollars flying towards social infrastructure in regional and suburban communities, such as upgrading community sportsgrounds to make them female-friendly.

Libraries have also been recipients of the largesse.

An announcement this week of $4.5 million for nine projects by Victorian minister for local government Marlene Kairouz included upgrade and refurbishment projects at Prahran Library, Sandringham, Cranbourne, Tatura in Greater Shepparton, Kyneton, Glenroy, Foster and Edenhope.

The funding is part of the government’s Living Libraries Infrastructure Program, which has so far seen the government support local councils and regional library corporations with more than $18 million to support 59 projects worth a combined $154 million.

Rawley says that libraries are “not just empty spaces full of books”.

“You go into any library now, and they are pumping.”

People without computers access the library ones, others bring their laptops. Older people use them as places to socialise and read the paper. Young families access activities.

They enable people to undertake a whole range of activities, including accessing job opportunities, learning and seeking information.

Rawley says funding directed towards libraries supports other policy goals around education and employment.

They are also a climate refuge.

In many cases they are co-located near local pools, Rawley says, giving people several ways to keep cool during extreme heat. This is also accessible to people who may not be able to afford other popular heat-relief activities like going to the movies or who can spend time at a “big box” shopping centre.

One of the interesting aspects of most announcements and promises the government has made, including those around renewable energy, is their scale.

“There’s not a lot of huge, billion-dollar promises,” Rawley says.

“There’s a lot happening at a smaller scale.”

He says the approach looks like one where the government has been looking at individual communities, asking them what they want and need, and developing programs specific to those communities in response.

The over-arching theme of those programs is working out what can best build each community’s social, economic and environmental resilience, Rawley says.

Getting tough on behalf of the environment

In addition to its ongoing emissions-reducing renewable policy roadshow, with announcements ranging from microgrids for the Latrobe Valley, community energy hubs in regional cities, urban microgrid trials and support for residential solar, the government has announced a crack-down on all manner of polluters.

New Environment Protection Amendment Bill 2018 strengthens the powers of the Victorian Environment Protection Agency.

The rules have a focus on prevention, with a new criminally enforceable “General Environmental Duty”.

This requires people conducting activities that pose a risk to human health and the environment from pollution and waste to take reasonable steps to eliminate or reduce them.

Maximum penalties for all offences have also been substantially increased.

EPA officers have strengthened powers to enter premises and investigate suspected breaches, and members of the community will have the right to seek civil remedies to enforce the EPA act and environmental regulations.

The new laws are due to come into effect on 1 July 2020.

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