‘Collaboration crucial for better regional infrastructure’

Infrastructure Australia this week released its first report on regional strengths and infrastructure gaps. Director of Policy & Research Jonathan Cartledge unpacks some of the findings and what they mean for government.

Jonathan Cartledge

GN: What are the key insights relating to housing, water security, telecoms, skills and public transport in this report? 

JC: Each of Australia’s regions is unique, and so too are their infrastructure needs and the resources available to meet these challenges.

Key insights from the five most commonly prioritised infrastructure gaps in Australia’s regions are listed below. Each region’s challenges and opportunities are explored in more detail in the report, reflecting the area’s local context.

  • Availability, diversity and affordability of housing to meet the growing and changing demands of regional Australian communities is a major constraint in attracting and retaining skilled workers, growing regional productivity and maintaining liveability.
  • Water security to meet fundamental residential and commercial requirements is crucial to the productivity of the traditional ‘engine’ industries of regional Australia, including agriculture, mining and manufacturing, as well as emerging industries.
  • Broadband and mobile connectivity is an enduring concern across many communities and increasingly crucial to the economic and social wellbeing of regional Australia, particularly through the COVID-19 pandemic with increasing reliance on digital connectivity for access to essential services and products.
  • Access to further education and skills training, aligned to a region’s existing employment opportunities and industry growth profile, is critical to enabling economic growth and attracting and growing local skills particularly in critical service sectors.
  • Capacity, connectivity and quality of public transport infrastructure within and between our regions is essential to access services, employment, education and economic opportunities.

Why do these gaps exist? What is contributing to them? 

Infrastructure Australia has long acknowledged the need for equitable service delivery in our regions, as well as the challenge of providing affordable, high-quality infrastructure in a country as vast and geographically dispersed as ours.

The 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit found that poorer access to services in many regional and remote communities is reinforcing disadvantage, eroding confidence in the long-term viability of some communities, and concentrating economic opportunities in fewer parts of Australia.

On top of these existing challenges, patterns of economic activity and settlement can shift quickly in this digital age. Shifting economic fortunes and patterns of trade, changes in population, settlement, productivity, liveability and technology, natural disasters and climate change all continue to redefine what it means to live in Australia’s regions.

The lived experience for communities in Australia’s regions reflects many of the challenges addressed more broadly through the 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan.

What is the message for government at all levels? 

The 2022 Regional Strengths and Infrastructure Gaps report is the first report to leverage regional strengths and infrastructure gaps for planning, policy and investment, undertaken at a national scale. 

Governments at all levels, businesses and communities themselves, have acknowledged the need to address these challenges for many years, however too often work in isolation. By identifying and spotlighting priority challenges and opportunities in each region, we hope to encourage governments at all levels to work with industry and the community to identify, develop, and submit proposals to address these gaps.

What role can regional councils play in addressing the gaps, given lack of resources? 

The analysis contained within Regional Strengths and Infrastructure report does not reinvent the wheel, but builds on existing local infrastructure and regional development strategies across governments to identify regional infrastructure gaps informed by industry and community consultation.

This challenge is a shared one. Local government has a critical role to play, but there needs to be close collaboration with state and federal governments, business and the community.

Through stakeholder consultation we heard that better collaboration in infrastructure policy and delivery, and clear ownership of responsibilities across the levels of government were crucial to delivering on strategic priorities and infrastructure provisions. If governments are disconnected, the likelihood of delivering on strategic priorities, or realising the full benefits and desired outcomes of a project become difficult. The impacts of increasing expectations for leadership in infrastructure planning and delivery from local government were also identified by stakeholders as a capability and capacity barrier through our consultation workshops.

Through this project, we hope to highlight commonalities to enable collaboration, best practice sharing and proactive planning by local communities. Organisations such as Regional Capitals Australia and the Gateways Cites alliance are great examples of this kind of collaboration.

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