Thursday, 09 May 2013

Pittwater's Skilled Workforce

Extract from NSW Legislative Assembly Hansard and Papers Thursday 9 May 2013

Mr ROB STOKES (Pittwater—Parliamentary Secretary) [5.54 p.m.]: We need more high rise in our suburbs, more skilled jobs in our central business districts and better ways of linking the two—so suggests a new report released by Melbourne's Grattan Institute this week. In "Productive Cities", Jane-Frances Kelly and Peter Mares argue that existing settlement patterns in metropolitan areas do not reflect contemporary economic realities or community desires. A reliance on traditional Euclidian land-use zoning has locked our cities into geographic ghettoes where people in outer suburbs are denied access to high-skill jobs and education.

The authors argue that knowledge-intensive activities are always attracted towards central business districts so that government efforts to incentivise the location of high-skill jobs in outer suburban or regional areas are largely destined to fail. The solution presented is to intervene in local planning laws to increase residential densities in areas close to existing employment agglomerations and to improve transport links to high-employment areas. The thesis is well-argued and elegantly presented.

The only problem is that, at least in the case of Pittwater, it is wrong. Pittwater is an outer metropolitan area of Sydney that has long suffered from weak transport linkages and is generally characterised by low-density development along steep hillsides and coastal floodplains. If the conclusions of the Grattan Institute report are applied to Pittwater, our community should have a low-skill workforce, with any high-skill workers having little option but to travel into the central business district to find appropriate employment. Yet the reality of Pittwater's local economy is wildly different. Pittwater contains all the ordinary service-based industries that could be expected in an outer suburban location, such as those represented by local chambers of commerce in Narrabeen, Mona Vale, Newport and Avalon.

Pittwater also has a range of specialist businesses because of its maritime history, with shipwrights like Stewart Shipwright Services and Rowell Marine, and marina complexes like Quays and Holmeport on the southern shore of the Pittwater and the Royal Prince Alfred Motor Yacht Club, Royal Motor Yacht Club, Careel Bay and Palm Beach marinas on the eastern foreshore, just to name a few. All these businesses rely on highly skilled employees. In direct contradiction to the Grattan Institute findings, Pittwater also supports a range of large, even global, businesses. In pharmaceuticals Pittwater is home to large corporates such as PharmaCare, which Toby Browne grew out of a small local warehouse into an integrated global business employing 250 staff at a new purpose-built, 15,000-square metre warehouse and office building in Warriewood, and Blackmores, a large publicly listed pharmaceutical company employing 400 staff at a new building in Warriewood that opened in 2009.

An example of another industry is Pandora Australia, which Karin Adcock grew from a garage in Avalon in 2004 to become one of the biggest employers in Pittwater, with over 300 employees supplying product to more than 600 retailers across Australia. Yet another example is provided by the Houden family, whose point-of-sale technology business has grown from a garage in suburban Elanora to become one of Australia's leading point-of-sale software developers at large office premises in Mona Vale. NewportNet at Newport Beach is the result of Simon and Karen Bond's vision for a new co-working habitat, which provides shared office spaces for all sorts of high-skill workers to work together independently in an inspiring, collaborative environment that boasts upload and download fibre optic internet connectivity far faster than that promised under the baseline for the vaunted national broadband network.

High-skill businesses using this space include RBS Morgans and an innovative online wine business, Naked Wines Australia, operated by Luke Jecks, which employs more than 20 people and connects wine consumers directly with regional winemakers. If we were to apply the case study of Pittwater to the Grattan Institute report we could draw three conclusions: first, it is simply not uniformly correct to assume that high-skill jobs will naturally agglomerate into centralised locations. Every city is different and the assumptions in the report simply fail to accommodate the unique topography and geography of Sydney's suburbs. Second, the costs of retrofitting mass transit into outer metropolitan areas are vast and, as the law of congestion would suggest, building more roads will simply lead to more cars as more development opportunities are opened up so that the underlying access problems remain. Third, the idea of increasing residential densities to build deep labour markets might sound reasonable but it fails to ask why people choose to live in different areas.

Many of the people I represent live in Pittwater precisely because of its unique coastal environment, its canopy of spotted gums and space for children to grow and play. Many high-skill people choose to live and work in Pittwater precisely because of its urban form. Government intervention in planning to change the urban form of the area may actually damage the features and attributes that encouraged people to make their homes in Pittwater in the first place. I think Pittwater provides a case study of how decentralised employment can work effectively. The concept of people working closer to home helps foster strong local bonds, provides opportunities for local volunteerism, liberates hours otherwise spent commuting and saves governments from the huge infrastructure costs of trying to transport an entire workforce vast distances to centralised workplaces.