Tight budgets combined with remote working trends and the rise of suburban activity centres, could see a flight to Perth’s urban fringe. Even before COVID-19, the State Government’s official forecasts envisaged population growth on Perth’s urban fringes outpacing inner suburban areas by a factor of four between 2021 and 2031.
The core reasons for this growth differential reflect issues that will be even more pertinent post-COVID than when the forecasts were prepared: affordability and lifestyle. The cost of housing is lower on the urban fringe, reflecting lower accessibility to services and employment. But more remote working and investment in activity centres could change this perceived ‘distance disadvantage’.
And lifestyle – often defined in Perth by access to the coast, proximity to open space, and lot size – may be more of a driver in housing choice in future if more homes double as offices. The extra space for a desk and/or the bigger back garden may be more attractive than ever.
The foundations for this flight to the fringe are already being laid, with significant stimulus offered by the WA and Commonwealth Governments to kick-start residential construction. The rise of the urban fringe has important implications across a range of infrastructure – from education and health to utilities, justice, transport and recreation.
Infrastructure for the future
But perhaps the biggest trend that ought to shape our infrastructure needs post COVID-19 is our long-term economic road map. We would never start building a highway or rail line without knowing its precise route. So why would we develop a long-term infrastructure strategy without a long-term plan for the State economy?
The current upheaval presents an opportunity to take stock of our future and plan our economic path to ensure we are set up for the future. Some thinking is needed on how our comparative advantages intersect with the needs of a changing world post-COVID. And an infrastructure strategy should then help WA capitalise on that intersection.
Here’s an example. As the world’s workforce goes more remote, giving staff access to portable electronic devices such as mobile phones, computers and tablets is likely to be a necessity rather than a luxury for employers from New York to Mumbai. Many of these devices need lithium-ion battery technology.
WA is the world’s largest lithium producer and a significant producer of other battery minerals. Even before COVID hit, one of the highest growth markets for the global lithium battery sector was for use in portable electronic devices.
What does this intersection of potentially explosive global demand growth and related battery minerals mean for infrastructure here? Accelerated development of industrial precincts around these strategic mineral processing facilities might enable quicker integration across the battery supply chain in WA.
Here is another example. COVID-19 has seen some mine operators execute secondary control rooms, equipped with relevant hardware and network capabilities to allow seamless handover between shifts in separate locations. Some have also executed remote capabilities which enable their workers to operate and maintain control of on-site activities from the safety of their homes.
These changes today are likely to accelerate the adoption of digital technologies in the mining industry in future. As WA’s most important sector unlocks the value of intelligent operations, how can infrastructure help position us as a pioneer in digital ‘nerve centres’ and encourage the take-up of such operational changes in other sectors? Should we be encouraging investment in data centres to help make this a reality?
No time like the present
With Infrastructure WA releasing its draft discussion paper on WA’s 20-year Infrastructure Strategy in late June 2020, the time is right in WA to have these conversations and plan for the right infrastructure at the right time.
Noel Richards is a Partner of Deloitte Access Economics, Perth.