3.3 Align social infrastructure with better service delivery
All Victorians need education and health services during their lives, and many will need social housing, hospitals and emergency services. Efficient justice services help keep the community safe and ensure people are treated fairly. Largely government funded, Victoria’s social services are especially important in helping to address disadvantage, and foster healthy, safe and inclusive communities. This includes helping achieve social policy goals, such as self-determination and Closing the Gap for Aboriginal Victorians. Social services require infrastructure: buildings, spaces and other assets that connect people to service providers, in person and increasingly online.1 This helps Victorians attain better education, health, social identity, inclusion and community cohesion, directly impacting people’s wellbeing.2
But insufficient, poorly targeted, or ageing facilities can hinder access to timely, quality services. Social infrastructure enables services that meet multiple community needs. Integrating these can help achieve better outcomes, although doing so can make planning and asset management more complex.3 The quality and accessibility of different types of social infrastructure varies, including in different places and for different groups of people. The Victorian Government has the lead responsibility for planning, regulating, funding and operating the state’s largest and most expensive social infrastructure assets, including schools, hospitals, social housing stock and correctional facilities. It shares funding responsibilities for social services and infrastructure with the Australian Government and local councils.
Victoria’s social services are especially important in helping to foster healthy, safe and inclusive communities and good, targeted social infrastructure enables services that meet multiple community needs
A growing and increasingly diverse Victoria needs more social infrastructure
Victoria’s social infrastructure needs to grow and change with its people. Drivers of demand differ across sectors,4 with the most significant long-term factors including population growth, changing demographics, and evolving community expectations.
Social infrastructure also needs to be able to meet fluctuating and sometimes large surges in demand from unexpected developments and emergencies, as clearly demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic.5
The way Victorians use infrastructure to deliver services itself will need to continually change and adapt, a fact underlined by the sweeping reforms recommended by Royal Commissions into the state mental health and national aged care systems. Appropriately located, well-designed and flexible social infrastructure can help meet spikes in demand, support the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, and promote fairness and opportunity for all Victorians.
Demand for infrastructure is growing across social services. Victoria will need many thousands of new social housing dwellings each year to meet demand.6
Demand for hospital inpatient services could grow by over 80% by 2042.7 More people are seeking mental health assistance, with mental illness disproportionately affecting young people, people experiencing disadvantage, residents of remote areas, Aboriginal Victorians, people from non-English speaking backgrounds, and people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ+).8 These groups have different and specifc needs, and social infrastructure needs to respond to these diverse needs. Managing demand on infrastructure and making the most from existing assets means building new infrastructure only when an identified need exists. The sheer scale of projected demand for many social services means more infrastructure will be needed, combined with innovations in service delivery and upgrades to existing assets. Access to social infrastructure is particularly challenging for fast-growing communities in outer suburbs of Melbourne as these usually have few or no existing facilities.9 The next section of this strategy (section 3.4) discusses priorities for these new growth areas in more detail.
Short-term, reactive approaches are inefficient and unsustainable
Best practice social services often focus on prevention and early intervention that strengthens individual and community resilience and pre-empts people reaching crisis.10,11,12 This is usually more equitable, effective and cheaper than allowing problems to get worse, requiring more complex and expensive services. Investing in infrastructure that supports early interventions can similarly reduce the complexity of new infrastructure or can delay the need for new facilities.
In health, outreach programs, primary services, rehabilitation and day services can divert patients from expensive specialist and acute care, while integrated health infrastructure can support earlier, consistent support for patients through the physical health, mental health and aged care systems. For example, community hospitals that provide ‘everyday’ services can meet some early intervention needs, reducing burdens on acute care.13
Similarly, early childhood services and schools can improve the life chances of students and help people to have productive, healthy lives.14 Social housing can reduce people’s reliance on more costly services in the long run.15 Total Victorian Government expenditure growth in social services has outpaced population growth, highlighting the pressure to keep spending sustainable and efficient. But social infrastructure planning and funding approaches are often reactive and short term. ‘Just in time’ approaches can generate a ‘lumpy’ investment profile, and make long-term infrastructure planning difficult. Service providers often respond by adopting short-term responses, focusing on crisis management and meeting acute need. This can result in a siloed approach that makes joint planning challenging and reactive, and which produces expensive infrastructure projects that struggle to meet long-term service needs.16
Aligning service planning and infrastructure supports early intervention
New infrastructure can take years to plan, design, pass regulatory approvals and be built. This renders it relatively slow to react to rapid changes in demand. It also means infrastructure planning and design is best when it is flexible, with the capacity to help manage spikes in demand, including from social or legislative changes or from natural disasters, economic recession or pandemics.
Decision-makers need to plan now for future needs, not just those experienced today, and be informed by evidence-based service planning. Identifying long-term service needs, and then aligning infrastructure planning – and funding – with those needs, can generate better value for taxpayers and better services.
Evidence-based service planning should inform priority investments, including projections of infrastructure demand, and aim to address people’s needs as early, quickly and inexpensively as possible.
Regular reviews of demand projections and service planning would allow these to reflect the best current data, including innovation and research, project evaluations and developments in best practice. Critically, service planning should be done before infrastructure planning. Social infrastructure usually has a long lifespan, meaning it can struggle to adapt to technological change and service delivery developments. Inflexible facilities risk becoming prematurely redundant, unable to provide modern, safe services. Victoria needs social infrastructure that can be easily maintained, upgraded and expanded over time. Delivering new buildings that are flexible and multipurpose where possible, and with technological foundations that are easily updated, will enable faster and less expensive upgrades. Planning and design can consider the potential for new infrastructure to be built to enable expansion and shared use by co-located or integrated services.
Effective social infrastructure is adaptable and targeted to communities
Successful new social infrastructure works for the people it supports, with few ‘one size fits all’ approaches working effectively in all of Victoria’s diverse communities. Infrastructure planning and delivery should account for local community needs, including its demographics, existing infrastructure capabilities, and the community’s capacity to use and operate new infrastructure. Local, collaborative approaches can help communities deliver local solutions to community needs by bringing government, service delivery organisations, local people, community organisations, and businesses together.22
Where appropriate, government agencies can benefit from working with each other, local government and service users to co-design and deliver adaptable infrastructure that delivers better outcomes for local residents.
Local knowledge, community engagement and cooperation with service users can also make infrastructure more fit for purpose and reduce risks of potential problems.23The National Agreement on Closing the Gap recognises the importance of local partnerships between government and Aboriginal representatives to improve the provision of essential services to Aboriginal communities.24 Aboriginal community ownership and control of social infrastructure delivers quality services, and demonstrates better outcomes are achieved when Aboriginal people have a genuine say in the design and delivery of services that affect them.25 Aboriginal self-determination should be embedded in service planning,26 with communities empowered to plan, own and operate infrastructure that delivers culturally appropriate services.27, 28
Transparent priorities reflect the best possible evidence
Clear priorities and targets can help drive long-term planning and funding beyond annual budget cycles. They can also promote innovative and more efficient approaches to service delivery, in some cases reducing the quantity of infrastructure required or deferring the need for new assets.
Using demand projections and best practice service delivery models to inform planning will help Victoria transition from a ‘just in time’ approach of one-off investments to a long-term social infrastructure program that provides required services in an appropriate, systematic and sustainable way. Priorities and targets are most useful when they are transparent and supported by detail on supporting infrastructure programs.
Transparency supports better planning, certainty and efficiency across Victoria’s social service systems. Better visibility across government agencies and with other stakeholders can identify opportunities to share infrastructure that delivers better outcomes for service users and promote more integrated land use and infrastructure planning. Public, long-term infrastructure planning would also promote more transparent, streamlined and effective procurement practices, saving taxpayers’ money and delivering projects with fewer disruptions to services. The needs of Victorians will continue to evolve, driven by changing demographics, social expectations, technology, and developments in best practice service and infrastructure delivery. Social infrastructure must continue to evolve too.
Recommendations to better support services with infrastructure
Infrastructure Victoria makes the following recommendations to support better long-term alignment between service and infrastructure planning. These reflect the need to adopt a more proactive, long term and transparent approach to new social infrastructure to support Victorians with timely, modern and high quality services. Publishing long-term infrastructure plans for priority sectors (see recommendation 32), embracing innovative ways to connect people to services (see section 1.4) and upgrading and renewing existing assets to meet changing needs (see section 2.4) will help to meet this goal. Infrastructure Victoria has recommended specific responses to the social infrastructure needs of new growth areas (see section 3.4) and Victoria’s regions (see sections 4.2 and 4.3).