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Chapter 6 from: J.J. Ray (Ed.) "Conservatism as Heresy". Sydney: A.N.Z. Book Co., 1974

Decentralisation: or the myth that it is good to get people to live where they don't want to



John Ray

OF ALL THE political lobbies, the decentralisation lobby is perhaps the most confused. Of all the trend-setting causes that represent a desire to have your cake and eat it too, decentralisation could well be the major. How can one have the benefits of the big city without having a big city? That is the question that decentralisation proponents have to answer.

Historically, the great advocates of decentralisation in Australia were the military men and the farmers. The farmers wanted decentralisation for the quite obvious reason that it would bring at least some of the benefits of the city closer to them. They could enjoy farm life while their wives enjoyed the variety of the city supermarkets and shopping centres and their children enjoyed the social opportunities of the city. For them it certainly was a fantasied way of having their cake and eating it too. Of course they were seldom so brash as to advance publicly such considerations as the reason for decentralisation. They would normally in fact appeal to the strategic considerations of the military men.

The strategic advantages expected of decentralisation were fairly obvious for a conventional war. An empty countryside can be advanced through by an invader much more easily than one infested with farmers-turned-guerilla. Having your population scattered also meant that a sudden onslaught on one place (such as any of the great seaboard metropolises) would not immobilise the defenders nearly as much. The loss of one city would not be nearly so tragic and the forces required for occupation of the country would be all that much larger.

Such considerations, however, do seem to have become rather outdated by the nature and probabilities of modern warfare. Australia's defence forces are so weak that any enemy who got as far as landing here would have a practically uninterrupted conquest. Australia being so vast and yet so little populated is practically indefensible by conventional military means. Australia's entire defence effort has been directed towards winning reliable friends in the region and in preventing any invader ever reaching these shores. The armed forces that are maintained have no realistic purpose other than assisting in brushfire wars in neighbouring friendly countries. For all intents and purposes the only significant military defence Australia has is the American Seventh fleet and the U.S. Air Force.

I have no wish to be understood as saying that I consider the level of military preparedness described above as adequate. What I would point out, however, is that there are many more urgent military steps to be taken before any investment in decentralisation for strategic purposes becomes worthwhile. If we were serious about defending the place, we would be better off training some more soldiers. It is no good making one's country defensible if we are not also going to provide it with some defenders. Contrast Australia's army of 34,000 with Taiwan's army of 600,000. The two countries have similar populations. Obviously, in the face of any real threat, neither decentralisation nor anything else will save Australia. An army division in Darwin, however, would be a more realistic defence move than subsidies to rural New South Wales or Victorian farming towns.

Recently, however, new forces have been added to the ranks of the decentralisation advocates. Instead of conservative farmers, we now have radical ecology cranks. An unholy alliance has been forged.

The ecology people see decentralisation as attractive in that it offers relief from what is generically called "urban blight" -- things such as traffic congestion, crime, polluted air and water, overcrowded recreational facilities etc. There are also certain economic attractions in smaller centres -- principally cheaper land.

No one can dispute that smaller cities and towns are superior to large cities in the respects listed. Does it follow however that we should encourage people to live in smaller cities? I think not. Australia has a great range of urban centres. You can live in a small town such as Innisfail (pop. 7,000 ), a small city such as Cairns (pop. 27,000 ), a larger city such as Townsville (pop. 69,000 ), a small metropolis such as Hobart (pop. 150,000 ), a large city such as Newcastle (pop. 340,000 ) , a metropolis such as Adelaide (pop. 820,000) or a very large metropolis such as Sydney (pop. 2,780,000 ).

In the above circumstances, with this range of size, if anyone is really honest about preferring smaller centres to the larger ones, why don't they go there? The smaller towns and the country generally need people. Country people are always bemoaning the drift to the cities. What is holding our trendies back from reversing the drift?

A great deal! While it may be true that the big cities have disadvantages, what is overlooked is that they do have positive attractions as well. Why is it that many country towns cannot get a resident doctor? Why is it that the Education Department has to resort to coercion to get teachers to go to country schools? Why is it that academics are so reluctant to apply for jobs at country institutes of technology that even a bachelor's degree will get you a lectureship there instead of the doctorate that would be required in the city? Why is it that the Australian public service has to offer accelerated promotion to get its officers to go and work in our beautiful decentralised national capital? Because small towns are dead. They lack the social variety and range of recreational opportunities of the big city. The jobs are there and the pay is in many cases better, but still people prefer the big city. And what basically is it that gives the big city its attraction? People! (see Part 1, Chapter 1, page 3 also.) To have social variety means to have more people. To support a variety of recreational and educational facilities there needs must be more people. To have a greater variety of jobs on offer means there must be more people to fill them all. To have a variety of restaurants available means there must be more people to eat in them. To find sufficient people to support minority interest groups means that there must be enough people for the minority still to amount to significant numbers in absolute terms. Most of our rewards ultimately or primarily come from people and people in abundance are what the big city offers. Urban growth is no accident. It is, in at least a large part, the result of people voting with their feet. If the balance of costs and gains was against the big city, the trend would be away from the cities. It is in fact the opposite. More people are moving to the cities than away from them.

Of course, in their foggy way, the trendies do know that big cities have advantages too. They are not moving out, after all. What they believe is that government action can still give the small centres comparable attractions to the larger ones. It is all a matter of subsidies! So simple! What they have to tell us is how subsidies can replace people. What they also overlook is that cities have immense economic advantages -- principally the advantage of minimizing transport costs. 'Transport costs'! some will say. 'How dull. Surely transport is only a minor and highly secondary economic factor!'

Far from it. Depending on what you include, up to half of our GNP goes on transport-related costs. Up to half the work done in the community goes into transport-related activities. Think of the motor vehicle industry, the oil industry, the railways, the airlines, the buses, trams and taxis. Think of our largest single employer, the Post Office. Think of transport substitutes such as the telephone service. Think of shipping firms, sailors, wharf labourers, ship builders, road builders, truck drivers, hauliers and delivery men. Go for a drive on city roads during the day and try to get some faint inkling of how many commercial vehicles there must be in use. Think of the mechanics and the petrol stations on every second corner. Think of the number of people who spend precious hours driving themselves to and from work every day. It may seem absurd, but one of the most characteristic and most frequent of human activities is motion -- transport of ourselves and of objects from place to place.

We all have some conception of the immense number of intermediary steps that have to be gone through before something such as a television set can be produced. Not one of us would be able to, unassisted, make a single component. Think, that for every step in that set's production the components have to be transported from one workman to another -- often to workmen in separate factories. If those factories were far apart imagine the huge extra costs that would be incurred. Concentration of factories, workers and customers in one large city minimizes these costs. Without large cities we would all be so much poorer and so much more lacking the luxuries that we regard as part of the good life. Whatever it is that people want to pay for, they would be able to afford less if it were not for big cities.

Therefore, industrial firms could seldom justify setting up outside major urban centres. Their transport costs would be too greatly increased. The land they build their factory on will be cheaper, but most of the materials they use to build it will be dearer. Hence they will have increased costs getting supplies for their factory and increased costs in distributing the finished product. There normally have to be great natural advantages for an industrial activity to be set up outside the major urban centres.

Big cities have, then, both social and economic advantages. On the social side they offer variety and on the economic side they offer economy of transport. They are one of man's oldest, most versatile and most successful inventions.

When, therefore, governments intervene in the natural settlement process in the name of decentralisation, what they find they have to do is to offer inducements both to the industrialist and to the people who will work for him. These "inducements" are usually of a monetary form -- such as the infamous 60:30:10 rule whereby the New South Wales government pays with the taxpayers' money ninety per cent of the establishment costs of factories built in rural centres. Nominally, of course, the money is lent -- but at such low interest rates and for such long terms as to be (particularly given the rate of inflation) essentially an outright gift. A poorly conceived enterprise that would never get backing elsewhere can always get government backing if it promises to set up in the country. If it has enough taxpayers' money spent on it (including subsidies and outright grants as well as loans) any enterprise will flourish.

To get people to move into the country the inducements are similar. Generally they are not so unsubtle as to pay obviously higher salaries -- though "loadings" of various sorts do from time to time appear. The qualifications needed for a job are watered down. This means that you get a higher classification than normally and with it goes of course a higher salary. Yet because of this little subterfuge, it can still be claimed that officers in the country and officers in the city are being paid equally for equal work. Canberra postings for Commonwealth Public Servants are the best known instance of this potent, but hard-to-prove practice.

What it all amounts to is that people who would not normally want to go to the country are being tempted to give up the attractions of the city by monetary bribery. People who do not want to go to the country are being forced to do so by their own monetary need. And for whose good? The people who go are not as happy as they would be in Sydney or Melbourne on a similar salary (though some do eventually learn to like their new environment) nor is the taxpayer as happy as he would be in spending the tax dollars that it costs on himself.

It would make better sense (though nothing in this connection seems to make good sense) to give the unwilling emigrants from the city the extra money anyhow and let them go on living in the city where they want to live: Then at least some people would feel greatly benefited by the outpouring of taxpayers' dollars.

At this point the whole exercise seems to look a little like the outcome of some moral conviction that decentralisation or country living is merely, in some mystical sense, "good", or to be admired. What makes it "good" no one seems to know. Perhaps it is something like "kindness" -- we just know it to be good. Being what people want to do is not cause enough to make it good -- for the excellent reason that it is not what they want to do. It being essential for our defence cannot be what makes it good because, in fact, if anything, it diverts money that otherwise might go to really necessary and effective defence spending -- such as training more soldiers. Its being necessary because only country life builds up the character and fortitude that a nation needs cannot be the reason or someone will have to explain where the city-bred people of London found the splendid fortitude and character they displayed in the Battle of Britain. Generations of city life with hardly a breath of country air does not seem to have turned them into moral marshmallows.

No, the only possible justification for decentralisation can be that it springs from a fascistic conviction that something is just good for people for some abstract or aesthetic reason and even if people cannot see it for themselves they should still be forced or induced to comply with its requirements. The Nazis thought that blue eyes and fair hair were a good thing for reasons that could never adequately be demonstrated (but which were probably mainly aesthetic) so they determined to fasten such a mould on the whole of humanity. Decentralisation mania seems to be a democratic and fortunately weaker strain of the same virus.

In summary, on the evidence of people's own choices, the balance of costs and gains is in favour of the big city. For people who sincerely disagree with this evident majority judgment, there is already a great variety of smaller centres they can go to.

'But Sydney is the only place I could get a job as good as the one I have now', someone will say. 'I would love to live in the country if only suitable work were provided'. Given the difficulty that employers have in getting people to take the lush jobs of Canberra, anybody who makes such a claim is probably in fact making a false claim. The big city is not the only home of good jobs. It may however be the only home of many specialised jobs and if for you the only good job is one of these then it may be true that you are forever condemned to city life. If, for instance you are a merchant banker you will under no government have congenial job prospects in Coffs Harbour. And the reason is an inevitable one -- because personal contact with the heads of large corporations and financial institutions is so important to your work or the work of your firm. Scattering the financial institutions and big corporations throughout the countryside would be scant help. It would simply render your work less effective, reduce the call on your services and cost you a lot more in trunk-line telephone charges.

The very essence of many specialised jobs is that they are made possible only by having within reach a large population to support them. If only 0.001 per cent of the population on average want your services, it is going to take a very large agglomeration of people to make your service into a full-time job. If you have chosen such a job while also having a liking for 'wide open spaces' then you are certainly in need of help -- but perhaps help of a psychiatric rather than of a monetary kind.

It is nonetheless surprising how few jobs, even ones which are apparently specialised, are limited to the big city. Even computer programmers, systems analysts and university lecturers can, if they try, get jobs in centres as small as Townsville (pop. 69,000). 'But who would want to live in Townsville?' To that there is only one answer possible -- the trite-sounding but ineluctable answer that one must give to all decentralisation advocates: 'You cannot have your cake and eat it too.'




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