Queensland is known as the sunshine state and its capital Brisbane attracts 1300 new residents a month, lured by good weather, cheaper housing and a relaxed lifestyle. So what’s happening with the infrastructure?
A recent article in The Fifth Estate examined how the “pinch point” of the Brisbane River traffic nexus affects the entirety of SE Queensland’s transport network. That also works as a metaphor for the state’s poor record on infrastructure planning, stemming from Brisbane city and radiating outwards in a kind of systemic black hole.
Queensland architects and town planners have voiced concerns about the broader picture for Queensland and seem to agree: the three main problems with long term state-wide planning begin in the greater Brisbane conurbation and from there affect the regions.
These are specifically the political divides around the ownership of major projects, frequently alleged and corruption beginning at council level and congruently, developers with virtual carte blanche to self regulate.
Combined, some views say these issues are crippling the state’s transport networks and prospects of sustainable development.
A critical example is Brisbane’s pinch point. While the Palaszczuk Labor government controls the $5.4 billion second Cross River Rail project, the Liberal-controlled Brisbane City Council is responsible for the $944 million urban Metro service.
Both are critical to traffic flows through the city. Consultation and coordination between the two projects has, by all accounts, been minimal, creating future headaches for the traffic networks radiating from this crucial juncture.
Peter Skinner, a past president and Life Fellow of the Australian Institute of Architects, told The Fifth Estate this is a crucial issue for Queensland.
“The Metro and CRR are partisan projects and the saddest thing in Brisbane has been the competition between the two. There’s a lot of synergy that could have been achieved by aligning the two projects together, but that doesn’t seem to have been happening. That’s a petty political weakness in the system.
“Like all politics in Australia it’s so short term and once you start trying to marry the Federal election cycle with the state election cycle and the municipal election cycle, the amount of time that the parties have to cooperate is very small.
“The amount of time they have to compete just dominates the system. Somehow we’ve got to try and get those three layers of government working together and maybe longer, synchronised election terms might create some productive periods in between, where cooperation can triumph over competition.”
The immediate effect of this contest is a strangulation of commercial links and commuting thoroughfares.
“Brisbane calls itself the river city, but there are very few cross river links and only one rail bridge north to south, so there’s a bottleneck to get goods from the airport to the southern industrial estates, or to get agricultural products through,” Skinner says.
“The CRR is really important to double the capacity of connection north to south, but it really should be linked to Maroochydore in 30 minutes and Surfers within 30 minutes, so that there are better links between the municipalities.”
Already home to 70 per cent of Queensland’s population, the South East faces a population increase of 1.98 million to a total of 5.35 million by 2041. Peter Skinner considers this a statewide problem.
“We need to start seeing this as a unified city that requires infrastructure for the whole of the conurbation and when you start to think about distribution of hospitals and jobs, parks and natural resources across the whole of that area, it starts to decentralise some of the state government offices both north and south.
“The regions are doing it tough economically. There are regional universities in Rockhampton, Townsville and Cairns, but other than that there are not a lot of tertiary employment opportunities, so the attraction of the urban centre is great.”
This holds true across the state, where fractious councils prevent contiguous projects that might better link them together. Skinner sees this as an opportunity lost two decades ago.
“Going back to the turn of the millennium, the first southeast Queensland regional plan was put forward. It was a terrific opportunity to look at the planning of the region itself, but there was a hesitancy to look at what is effectively a 200 kilometre conurbation and the regions in between.
“I think in southeast Queensland there’s been a push and pull between whether we’re one large conurbation or whether we’re still regional shires, along with the Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast and Toowoomba as our western corridor.
“I think there’s an uneasiness about regarding the whole thing as an entity. It’s time to say we’re one big city, because the main transport problems are really the north-south axis from the Sunny to the Gold Coast, which could be partially solved with a fast train linking them.”
That lack of interconnection repeats in the interface between Brisbane City and the greater Brisbane area, where again, political fault lines, exacerbated by the recent federal election, prevent cohesive planning.
Read Brisbane City Council’s Future Blueprint Plan and you could be forgiven for thinking it’s tracking brilliantly for a cohesive urban destiny. It boasts, “We’ve created more lifestyle and leisure options and delivered better public transport while keeping Brisbane clean and green.”
It outlines a series of mostly cosmetic measures around retail villages and prettifying the urban profile, celebrating Brisbane’s outdoor lifestyle and the popular fast food trucks.
As part of its pre-election spending frenzy, the Morrison government favoured its Liberal stablemate with a pledge of $130 million to fix traffic headaches on the M1, Mount Lindesay Highway and Ipswich Motorway corridors, an investment guaranteed to perpetuate a reliance on car transport.
Brisbane Residents United spokesperson Elizabeth Handley pointed out in our previous story on Brisbane infrastructure that this kind of thinking has combined with a loss of green space, increase in high density apartments and poor building quality to create a drastic decrease in resident’s quality of life.
Brisbane architect Dion Seminara agrees.
“Brisbane City has no plan or oversight. Most of the buildings built recently of a multi residential nature are built very cheaply.
“Although the council is responsible for approvals, town planners do not come back and inspect the buildings. They’re self assessable and that’s outrageous.
“Are they going to comply? No, they’re not, they’re going to do it the cheapest possible way. They’re also building high rises in isolation on main roads, so there’s not spines of pedestrian connections to supermarkets.
“They’re just popping up everywhere, so there’s no infrastructure for people movement without relying on cars. There’s no tram system like Melbourne – we don’t have the population here to fully support that.
“Probably in 10 years we’ll be at those population levels, but we’re not putting in the infrastructure now. In Wollongabba there’s one shopping area surrounded by six lane roads that disconnect it from any other developments.”
1300 moving to Brisbane each month and no commitment to a public transport vision and sustainable long term planning
With 1300 people moving to Brisbane each month, roads are vital requirements for an existing car-reliant population. But in keeping with the federal Coalition’s lack of vision on climate change planning, the Council’s plan fails to anticipate changes in the demand for public transport and the impacts of climate change that will affect large scale development. While the plan is at pains to emphasise a bright, modern facade for Brisbane’s urban lifestyle, there’s no commitment to a public transport vision and sustainable long term planning.
It makes noises about zoning for residential densities, but gives a lot more space to recreational amenity. Food trucks and the myths of Aussie backyards are the hallmarks of this vision. Critics say it’s a glimpse of a “Scomorion” future, where gated suburbs, insulated from climate change, resound with clinking stubbies and barbecue banter.
But there are bigger concerns.
Dion Seminara contends that neither councils nor state government are actually in control of these crucial developments.
“Unfortunately governments don’t have the foresight to make the best decisions. They’re only in for three or four years, so their agenda is to get things done within their period of government and to look good in front of the people, but that is not how good planned outcomes occur and that’s why we have things that don’t really work.
“[In those circumstances] planning is never done sustainably. They never really put enough thought into the proper networks and where the growth is going to occur. They shoot from the hip, rather than from the basis of any real studies.”
Planning regulations are regularly overridden on the basis of use, location, building scale, building height and building requirements.
Northlakes has a new train station and new shopping precinct but they don’t connect
That’s seen a patchwork of poor decisions across the conurbation, including residential areas in koala habitats. Northlakes has a new train station that’s too far away from a new shopping precinct for any pedestrian traffic.
So if neither party or its planning authorities are in charge, who is?
Developers are calling the shots – with loose and friendly planning assessments
Greens councillor for the Gabba Ward, Johnathon Sri contends that developers are calling the shots.
“We’ve definitely seen a very loose and developer-friendly planning and assessment over the last few years. We’ve seen a lot of stuff approved that wasn’t of particular high quality and is replicating a lot of the mistakes of the past, in that the design doesn’t engage well with the streetscape.
“There’s still a heavy emphasis on cars as the main way of getting around and there’s not enough public open space or community facilities and so we’ve seen a real saturation of some neighbourhoods with rapidly increased construction, where some projects are starting to go bust.
“There are three or four large high density residential projects in my ward that have fallen over in the last months and are sitting empty, with the scaffolding around them. In other areas we’ve seen sites sitting empty for years and years, so the council has screwed things up by giving the private sector so much free rein.”
That kind of negligence has long term consequences for public transport infrastructure and implies a fatal lag in future-proofing the conurbation.
Car centric urban sprawl chewing up bushland and farmland
“The broader trend really is that they’re continuing to allow rampant suburban sprawl.
“If you look at Ripley Valley out near Ipswich or South Caloundra on the Sunny Coast, they’re still facilitating car-centric suburban sprawl that’s chewing up bushland and farmland and at the same time they are rapidly over-densifying a few suburbs of the inner city, without doing anything about existing sprawl in middle suburbia.
“So right now in inner suburbs like Woolongabba, Spring Hill and New Farm, they already have sufficient density to support a good public transport system, to support good local infrastructure sustainably, but meanwhile the outer suburbs are not dense enough so it’s hard for them to be supplied with enough schools and public transport services, so you just end up with everyone driving.
“Really what councils and state government are doing is saying ‘we don’t want to engage with the difficult question of in-fill development, we’re just going to keep cramming people into the inner city and building more and more suburban sprawl further and further out’ and that’s got negative ramifications for the local community, also for food security and climate change preparedness.
“We’re relying heavily on the Lockyer Valley to supply a lot of our salads and fresh veggies, but if there’s one drought or water shortage in that area, suddenly Brisbane’s food security is looking very precarious.
“This idea of dormitory suburbs where everyone drives two hours into the city, obviously that’s bad in terms of fossil fuel emissions and loss of community, it’s also not great in terms of being able to retrofit these neighbourhoods to make them more sustainable down the track.”
A hotbed of corruption
This development feeding frenzy flourishes off the back off what Alan MacSporran, the head of the Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission, has called a “hotbed” of corruption.
Four current and former mayors, along with a dozen officials, are facing serious criminal fraud, corruption and even assault charges, while two entire councils, Ipswich and Logan City have been sacked en masse.
As if in anticipation, the state Labor’s 2016 South East Queensland Regional Plan instigated punitive measures aimed at cosy relationships between councils and developers seeking financial gain, through the use of sunset clauses.
Identifying current local government planning horizons as being set at 10 years, it stressed new visions of up to 20 years and singled out key land use and financial implications, in what seems essentially a declaration of war on councils unwilling to comply with their own development agenda.
The Palaszczuk government hits back at the problems with plenty of aspirational sustainable growth plans
As if to distract from this turf war, the Palaszczuk government has no shortage of aspirational “sustainable growth” literature.
There’s the Advance Queensland initiative, touted as a $420 million driver of economic growth, employment and innovation projects.
Or the Queensland Plan, a 103-page document whose 30-year sustainability vision is based on startling growth projections and climate change solutions.
The Department of Energy and Water Supply has a One Million Rooftops target for that number of solar installations by 2020.
But in practice, the government seems intent on business as usual.
In Moreton Bay it fast tracked a boundary change on an internationally listed wetlands for a proposed $1.4 billion development at Toondah Harbour.
The developer, a source of major political donations to both Liberal and Queensland Labor parties, was approved for building on mangroves with acid-sulphate soils, work that has been banned in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania.
A $1.2b residential development on Hummock Hill Island that had been previously rejected by Gladstone Regional Council has also been approved.
Outside of Brisbane
Along with coal mining, aluminium refineries and heavy industry are significant employers in far north Queensland.
This left the Labor state government in a quandary over Adani before the election and promising to fast track an approval schedule immediately after the devastating election loss to Labor.
But even the Australian Mining website has admitted that thermal coal prices are expected to decline by 14.2 percent, as global economies continue to transition away from coal. And in good news for climate activists, an “even bigger” mine than the controversial Adani coal mine, the $6.7 billion China Stone next to Adani and promising 3000 jobs, announced it was pulling out, according to The New Daily.
The demand for metallurgical or coking coal, a component in steel making, however, is expected to continue into the foreseeable future.
Evidently hoping to offset this quandary, the state has committed to drought proof planning for northern Queensland, with a $225 million water pipeline.
As part of its commitment to a 50 per cent renewable energy target by 2030, it’s developed a $386 million Powering North Queensland Plan, promising 4600 jobs in hydro electric power stations.
The $1.16 billion Powering Queensland Plan boasts of a $2.2 billion renewable energy boom, creating 2200 construction jobs.
Rather more telling is that thermal generation continues to constitute around 80 per cent of the state’s generation capacity.
The Queensland Gas Action Plan guarantees the release of over 450 square kilometres of new gas tenure, on top of the 18,000 coal seam gas wells and 4000km of pipeline in the existing gasfields of the Surat Basin.
Meanwhile Mines Minister Anthony Lynham has approved the Cameby Downs thermal coal mine to increase its production by 20 per cent.
That would create a mere 20 new jobs and extend the mine’s production to 75 years. None of these figures count favourably for state Labor’s credibility in tackling climate change.
The Palaszczuk government’s planning headaches continue to pile up, with the Sunshine Coast earmarked as the next major dam site to supply SE Queensland, setting the scene for controversy over environmental values in damming the Mary River.
With half of Australia’s most rent-stressed federal electorates occurring in south-east Queensland, it seems there are no provisions for key workers on low incomes.
There’s also a health crisis looming, with two in three Queensland adults and one in four children classed as being overweight. The response has been a $33m public relations bandaid.
The ongoing Bruce Highway upgrades constitute an $8.5 billion investment, of which the Feds will contribute $6.7b and the Queensland government $1.8b. But a two-car crash at Easter threw that entire system into congestion, with traffic slowed to a crawl for virtually the entire length of the conurbation.
While partisan divides and corruption distract from the business of governing, and with no cohesive future proofing for a rapidly burgeoning population, the outlook for sustainability in Queensland does not look good. Five, 10 or 20 years down the track, the best case scenario could be hideous congestion. The worst, a population hamstrung by drought and food shortages from climate change and lots of gated backyards.