It’s time to change the face of Australia and marry social and physical infrastructure

As many of my readers already know, I am a passionate advocate of more and better infrastructure for Australia, striving persistently to promote an increase of meaningful investment in it, rather than the wasteful pork-barreling of poorly-researched projects that politicians love, but which have no relevance to any master plan for the development of the nation.

Years of frustrating negotiations with politicians and bureaucrats in three levels of government have revealed how they spend most of their time fighting one another at political and bureaucratic levels over what should or should not be implemented. When they do come to a decision, they then spend even more time searching for plausible reasons to slow it up so as to delay the spending of committed capital and ensure they have funds available to buy votes through election handouts.

These experiences have given me time to understand a very strategic fact that politicians deliberately ignore that physical infrastructure has value only if it is implemented in close association with appropriate social infrastructure that will enable the nation to gain maximum benefit from it.

This is particularly relevant with creating infrastructure for an ageing population, a modern challenge that will change the world. There are many aspects of this, and they cover such vital matters as new structures for mature age employment, lifelong learning and technology — but let’s look for a moment at Age-Friendly Cities so as to open-up a debate on the many opportunities associated with ageing.

Older Australians who are city dwellers want to live close to transport corridors, particularly railways, as they don’t relish sitting in buses and cars on perpetually clogged city streets. They also deplore living in retirement villages located in the outer suburbs as they feel ‘left out of it’, even though this gives them the benefit of cheaper land. Only a few seek peace and quiet. They want to be close to the action and this means there must be closer development of age-friendly housing in inner city regions in a number of forms.

One clear possibility is for apartment towers to be built on top of every railway station in every one of our capital cities, with Seniors Club facilities located in the middle floors of each building. Most would sell their cars and move in so long as they can be assured that, when they take the elevator down to the railway, it is modern and age friendly, with swift trains operating on a vastly expanded rail system which must include a Circle Underground Line around the perimeter of the CBD.

This would also create a genuine opportunity to build many small clusters of town houses in suburbs on the Circle Line. None of these town houses would have an institutional name on them.

They would just look like any other private housing. But, they would have links to central clubs which would provide a myriad of the services that the elderly need.

Those Circle Line suburbs will need village shopping centres, as surveys show that Seniors feel threatened by huge shopping centres, preferring to stroll around villages with small shops and lots of outdoor dining close to underground rail stations.

The lustre of retiring to the beach has dimmed greatly. After looking at the water for a few months, many decide they have seen enough of it, and loneliness sets in. Beach apartment towers become ghettos, and many retirees who live in them want to come back to cities, provided they can live in the style and location that I have been describing. This will cause lots of vacancies in apartments and houses in places like the Gold and Sunshine Coasts, together with a subsequent loss of property values, but this issue must be laid at the feet of governments who have turned a blind eye to the impact of the Ageing Tsunami because they are hidden in the ‘too hard basket’ out of sight.

There is a slowly growing trend towards retiring to the bush, particularly if Seniors can play a role in helping to create economically and socially viable communities in small rural towns that may otherwise die. The so-called ‘tree huggers’ look for a little town not far from a regional city — like Toowoomba or Wagga Wagga or Wangaratta — and try to find a small colonial-style cottage at a fraction of city prices. They renovate it to suit their needs while they seek to invest locally as minor partners in farms or shops or tourist facilities, giving them a real reason to live longer and enjoy interesting roles in community organisations.

The main issue that Seniors face in planning to retire in rural communities is the lack of medical facilities, clear evidence of the failure of governments to have serious plans for social infrastructure.

Many who would like to become bushies remain in cities so they can be close to top quality doctors and hospitals when the inevitable health problems of ageing hit them. For exactly the same reasons, many who have lived in the bush all their lives and would like to stay there are forced to move to coastal cities.

This failure to provide the medical infrastructure that is needed outside of capital cities is the result of long-term neglect and blinkered vision by Federal and State Governments, which denies Australians the privilege of living wherever they want to on our vast continent. Flynn of the Inland spent 40 years trying to create a mantle of safely across the Inland, but much of his visionary work has been allowed to decay. It is now long overdue for an enlightened leader to fix it.

Another deterrent to encouraging Seniors to go bush is the reality of drought conditions that regularly prevail and cause the economy of the Inland to shrink. This can be solved easily and economically as Dr Bradfield proved in 1930 — but there are not enough votes in the bush to encourage politicians to move on to the obvious fact that, without water, life is impossible. Sadly, the National (Country) Party has been operating for 80 years and has done little about it, to their eternal disgrace. The ALP could have won every seat in the bush if they had been willing to invest in it, but they had no foresight either, and must share the blame.

All of the above combine to highlight once again the scarcity of fast, efficient rail transport in the Inland, either for freight or passengers, and this kills the incentive to invest there. Many more would live in the country if there were fast trains that will get them to cities in a couple of hours when they need specialist medical treatment. But, country rail tracks lie rusting with neglect, and there are no serious plans to bring them, and their bush communities, to life again.

This means that if we create the right physical infrastructure and the essential social infrastructure that must be associated with it, we can encourage many people, especially Seniors, to live away from capitals. Likewise, with the correct physical and social infrastructure for inner city areas, many will depart from the suburban sprawl and have a great life in the centre of age-friendly cities.

It is time to change the face of Australia and marry social and physical infrastructure, a concept that will work splendidly once we acknowledge that every economic decision must contain a response to the social impact that it creates, and vice versa. Economics and social policy are now indivisible, and this means that the old political structures of right and left are outdated. We now need efficient managers of conscience, not hack politicians clinging to old political dogmas that are fast fading.

It is this belief that is the guiding force behind my work with Per Capita, an eminent Australian Think Tank, in preparing a Blueprint on Ageing which has the potential to change the threat of ageing into the basis of a new and positive lifestyle for a nation that leads the world.