by Romilly Madew AO, CEO, Infrastructure Australia
Infrastructure Australia’s 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit highlights the important role social infrastructure plays in our growing communities. However, as Chief Executive Romilly Madew AO explains, the ease of access, quality and cost of social infrastructure varies across the country.
Australia has high-performing social infrastructure sectors by international standards, as reflected in our ranking as the country with the third highest quality of life and standard of living in 2018.
On a national scale, social infrastructure sectors contributed 12.5 per cent of Australia’s GDP in 2018. These sectors employ just over three million people, or around a quarter of Australia’s workforce.
Compared to economic infrastructure, individual social infrastructure assets may be smaller in scale – a local public swimming pool, park or single social housing dwelling – however, together these assets form networks that deliver nationally-significant benefits to the community, the economy and our environment.
Critical for social inclusion and cohesion, social infrastructure provides not only the essential services required for communities to function, but also the services that make places liveable and help improve the quality of life for people living there.
Alongside economic infrastructure, it provides direct benefits to individuals, as well as broader social and economic benefits to local communities and Australian society as a whole.
However, Australia’s growing and aging population, increasing urbanisation, advancements in technology, and changing work patterns will impact the social infrastructure sector over the next 15 years and beyond.
These trends will increase demand for social infrastructure, particularly in our cities, and change the expectations people have for the variety, quality and accessibility of social infrastructure services and assets.
Community confidence in social infrastructure is waning
Infrastructure Australia’s 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit examines social infrastructure for the first time.
This reflects our view that the liveability of our communities is about more than just access to transport, energy, water and telecommunications – but access to a whole range of supporting infrastructure like health, education, housing, justice, cultural spaces and green space.
However, the Audit finds that community confidence is waning in the face of a widening gap in outcomes between different Australian geographies.
Communities in our fast-growing cities are witnessing rapid population growth, often without commensurate increases in social infrastructure and services needed to maintain liveability.
Competition for space in growing and densifying cities can mean that commercial or residential buildings are being delivered without sufficient access to social infrastructure, such as green space.
At the same time, declining populations in regional, rural and remote areas has resulted in funding shortfalls for vital assets, from hospitals to schools and parks.
Sporting facilities, community centres and libraries often play central and multiple roles in these communities. This helps to build social cohesion and identity, and can help foster community resilience in times of stress, such as natural disasters.
Investment in hospitals and universities is particularly important, as these assets also act as economic anchors for regional, rural and remote areas, providing a source of stable employment and supporting local economies.
It is clear from the Audit though, that access to and quality of social infrastructure varies for different types of infrastructure, across different places and groups of people.
For example, over a third of housing in remote areas is overcrowded.
Emergency service response times can be four times longer for regional and remote areas, compared to urban areas.
People living in remote areas accessed Medicare-subsidised mental health services at a rate of three times less than people living in major cities.
The quality of arts and cultural infrastructure is rated higher in urban areas than in rural and remote areas, while ten per cent of people in outer urban areas expect access to green space to worsen over the next five years.
In areas where it costs more to deliver services per capita (such as rural or remote areas), or where space is constrained (in fast-growing cities), it may be difficult to access all types of social infrastructure.
Delivering essential services such as primary health care and school infrastructure has typically been prioritised over other services, such as arts and culture or green infrastructure.
In our cities, the high cost of land prohibits the development of new green spaces. Australians often expect their green spaces to be free to use, which limits the possibility of a return on investment.
In smaller towns, lower population densities have reduced demand, making it difficult for local governments to secure funding to develop and maintain green, blue or recreation infrastructure.
There is already an awareness in the community that these infrastructure assets are scarce, with our community research showing only 25 per cent of Australians believe the quality of their green spaces will improve over the next five years.
Breaking down siloed planning, funding and governance structures
While the 2019 Audit finds common challenges and opportunities across the social infrastructure sectors, there are also interdependences between them.
For example, access to green and blue infrastructure can improve mental and physical health outcomes, reducing pressure on the health system.
Health education and prevention programs in schools can improve community health outcomes from childhood, while poor health, education and housing outcomes can increase demand on justice infrastructure.
A lack of integration across portfolios can lead to disjointed social policy and infrastructure investment, and poor outcomes for communities who may receive high-quality access to certain services but not others.
However, some sectors are leveraging these relationships to improve benefits for communities.
There are a growing number of health and education precincts across Australia, where hospitals and other medical facilities co-locate with universities and other research facilities to share resources and boost outcomes for both sectors.
There is also growing recognition that social services do not end at delivering a single asset.
For example, realising the social and economic benefits of a hospital requires the physical buildings to integrate with transport infrastructure, so that people can access it.
This requires health and transport sectors to collaborate – meaning we need to continue to breakdown sector-based planning, funding and governance structures which limit the incentives for different infrastructure sectors to work together to drive community benefits.
Similarly, shared and joint-use assets provide a chance to make better use of our infrastructure assets. In particular, there is a unique opportunity for school infrastructure to provide essential community facilities and spaces outside of school hours.
Australia’s governments are increasingly recognising the need for better integration across social infrastructure sectors.
This will be even more critical in the context of a growing and aging population, increasing urbanisation, advancements in technology, and the changing nature of work which will impact this sector over the next 15 years and beyond.