Our chance to shape the post-COVID future of Ballarat

Published 17 May 2020, The Courier, Ballarat

Many of us will have pondered over recent weeks what our world, our country, our region and our way of life will look like after COVID-19.

I live on the edge of a park and have been buoyed by the number of people now walking, cycling and enjoying time together as a family.  A colleague has described how her primary school-age children are riding their bikes around the streets because there are less cars on the road. Do we need to drive into an office every day and work the same hours, in the same way?

In our post-COVID considerations, we have a unique opportunity to reshape, reframe, plan and build a region that is connected in ways we have not seen previously. In doing so, let us not be constrained by how we have “always done it”, rather, let’s challenge conventional wisdom and enable innovation.

Gekko Systems builds mining equipment and yet, in just a few short weeks, it is building a ventilator for use in medical emergencies. Haymes Paint is now producing hand sanitiser to meet demand. Deutscher Mowers, another Ballarat family institution, is applying its skills to manufacture hospital beds. These are just a few examples of the many that have emerged through the COVID crisis and demonstrate what is possible when innovation meets enterprise.

At this time of change, Committee for Ballarat is advocating for a more connected region. Connectivity has for some years been a pillar of the Committee’s work and most recently, we have been strong on connectivity to Melbourne via fast, high-frequency and reliable regional rail.

This will not change and, despite the current significant shift away from mass transport, commuters will again in time turn to the train as an alternative to the car, and we will continue to push for investment in rail infrastructure.
Connectivity is also about how we move around our city and our region.

The City of Ballarat’s Integrated Transport Plan continues to be developed, so let’s fast track this as an innovative community building project.

Designated cycle lanes must feature in our planning if we are going to enable people’s desire for active transport and reduce the traffic congestion. New housing developments must include provision for walking tracks, open space and localised neighbourhood hubs that act as a catalyst for small business and communities.

In the longer term, our city can embrace innovative technologies such as the next-generation trams, electric powered without the expense and clutter of overhead lines.
Such technology is available now and we only need to look as far as Newcastle to see how it has helped reshape that regional city.

We must start planning now for the establishment of an intercity regional rail network. Resuming passenger services to Geelong and Horsham, and more frequent services to Beaufort, Creswick, Maryborough and so on, must be part of how we see a connected region.

All this, of course, requires planning and investment. Investment in new infrastructure, that leaves the car as the preferred mode of transport resigned to the history of the 20th century.
Our state and federal governments have spoken much about infrastructure spending as a stimulus for recovery from COVID-19. We urge government, developers and investors, to look to the regions and the potential they have when considering immediate and longer-term infrastructure projects.

Population growth in Melbourne is not sustainable at its pre-COVID rates and the regions can be part of the solution.
Regional development enabled by investment in new infrastructure, will energise and connect regional cities and towns including Ballarat and take enormous pressure off our major cities, including Melbourne.

We need to make the most of the post-COVID environment to plan and build the infrastructure that will sustain the unique features of Ballarat and enhance connectivity into the 21st century. We will not do this if we think the answers lie in the ways we have done it in the 20th century.

Let us embrace the innovation and new technology and challenge ourselves to plan for a future that sees a connected city and region, with transport offerings that make it easy to leave the car at home.

Thought Leaders is a core piece of Committee’s strategy, you can see more about our work here

Michael Poulton