I had a weekend recently in a place where I spent many school holidays as a kid.
My father moved back to his native Mildura some time in my pre-teens and lived there throughout my high school until doing what I thought at the time was the sensible thing in moving back to Melbourne. As a kid there was plenty to do, particularly as my dad had a property growing oranges and sultanas that happened to back onto the river.
Mildura still has the same smell, the same red brick paving, and that unbelievably lush grass that grows like shag pile. Its locals also still sport a particularly strange collection of hair dos, ranging from the Governess on “Prisoner” to an extra on “Mars Attacks”. What was different was the street activity, with hundreds of people enjoying a warm evening having a late dinner on Langtree Avenue.
The reason we were there, of course, was for Stefano’s, the little slice of culinary excellence in the basement of the Grand Hotel. Stefano De Pieri has built a great empire of businesses in Mildura, showcasing local produce, with food that would be the envy of most Melbourne restaurants.
This situation is mirrored in towns and cities across the state. There are great restaurants in towns as diverse as Dunkeld, Bendigo, Daylesford and Kyneton, as chefs and restaurateurs get closer to the source of their produce and rents that allow a little more experimentation. These restaurants are becoming destinations in their own right, bringing hoards of diners who stay and spend money in the region.
There is a broader thing at work here. I think we’re in the middle of a regional renaissance, driven by a number of factors from cost of living pressures and congestion in Melbourne to the abundance of good cheap land close to centres of activity. Probably the most influential factor is the quality of roads and availability of rapid and frequent transport between regional centres and Melbourne. It’s possible to live more than 100km from the centre of Melbourne and work in the city, commuting in less than an hour. How many city workers in outer suburban Melbourne can say that?
Strong regional connections are vital for the economic wellbeing of this state. They turn a city of four million into a diverse economic area with over 5.5 million people.
The important thing here is the ease of accessibility and flexibility of movement of people and goods across the state. In the case of Mildura, it’s a one hour flight away. Bendigo is two hours by freeway or train, Daylesford and Kyneton closer still. Ballarat is an hour away.
These connections are vital for a number of reasons. They allow regional centres to grow and thrive, while being connected to the diversity of everything that a large metropolis has to offer. On the flip side, they take the pressure off Melbourne’s struggling infrastructure.
It’s no longer enough to treat regions and centres in isolation. We really need to start looking at Victoria as a whole, rather than Melbourne as an autonomous part of the state. Thinking in silos, whether about urban development or anything else, is really not acceptable anymore.
Tony Abbott infamously said something along the lines of “we don’t fund railways, we fund roads” when talking about future federal funding of the Melbourne Metro tunnel, the project that is at the top of Infrastructure Australia’s priority list. This kind of comment reminds me of the attitude Kodak management had on the eve of the digital age. The company that practically defined photography during the twentieth century is now a marginal player. All because they saw themselves as a film and camera company, rather than a company involved in the creation of images.
We cannot allow this kind of thinking to give us the same old outcomes when it comes to defining cities and regions.
And so it is for transport. Why limit the conversation to road and rail? Surely we should be looking at the movement of information as a key transport strategy. We are still planning our state like it’s the 1960s. Our roads are fundamentally built to deal with commuter traffic from dormitory suburbs to the city centre. Our rail system is far better at dealing with this kind of movement but is chronically underfunded while the state government plans to spend billions on new inner-city freeways. Regional cities are treated as places to go visit for a weekend away. Debate on the movement of information and the NBN usually consists of a discussion about download speeds for movies.
Apart from a complete lack of vision in policy, what are all of these things telling us? No one is looking at the big picture. What do people actually want and need? What goods need to go where? And more to the point, why are people doing what they are doing? Is the infrastructure used in the way it was planned?
Ironically, it may be that the problems caused by successive government inaction in Melbourne are pushing more people into a rural existence. The internet, good road and fast rail links to the city mean that it is possible to do business in rural areas while still connecting with the general Melbourne markets and beyond. Add to that low levels of congestion, cheaper real estate, a touch of community and some good restaurants, and regional areas seem like a viable alternative to living in the city.
My Dad recently bought another house in Mildura, with the idea of moving back there from suburban Melbourne. This time, I think he might have the right idea.