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4.3 Foster regional Victorians’ health, wellbeing and inclusion

Health, education and community services need supporting infrastructure, such as suitable facilities, to enable effective service delivery.

Transport and digital services can improve access to services in regional areas, but many services also require personal interaction and face-to-face care and support, and often need to be locally delivered.

Fit for purpose infrastructure can also help foster local participation and improve community amenities. This includes infrastructure to help communities connect – from community facilities to parks, volunteer emergency services or civic infrastructure.1 Affordable, appropriate and well located housing supports social inclusion by improving access and proximity to services, facilities, jobs and transport.2

Diverse regional communities have complex needs

Every Victorian community includes some people experiencing poverty and socio-economic disadvantage.3 But regional Victoria has higher levels of disadvantage, exacerbated by many complex factors including industry restructuring, an older population, and greater exposure to climate change impacts.4 Eight of the top 10 most disadvantaged local government areas are in regional Victoria.5

People with complex needs require multiple and often overlapping services, such as health care, mental health services, disability support, homelessness services and early intervention and support for children and young people. The higher proportion of regional Victorians experiencing disadvantage translates into a higher potential demand for health and social services, compared with Melbourne.6

For example:
\19% of regional Victorians are aged over 64 years compared with 14% in Melbourne7
\15% of regional Victorians have asthma compared with 11% in Melbourne8
\19% of regional Victorian adults smoke tobacco compared with 14% in Melbourne9
\ An estimated 19% of regional Victorian adults have potentially harmful levels of alcohol consumption compared with 13% in Melbourne.10

Regional Victoria’s diverse and changing
demographic mix is likely to alter future
service demand. Ageing populations, most
notably in small rural communities, will
affect the scope and mix of services
needed.11 Conversely, some regional cities and peri-urban areas are experiencing rapid population growth, placing pressure on services and facilities.12 Strong Aboriginal population growth across regional Victoria will need to be matched by provision of culturally safe Aboriginal community-controlled services.13 The COVID-19 pandemic has further stimulated population growth in the regions, although it remains to be seen whether this is a long-term trend.14

Climate change is forecast to bring higher temperatures, more days of extreme heat, declining rainfall and more frequent catastrophic bushfires conditions to regional Victoria,15 further complicating the challenges facing local communities. Extreme heat, heatwaves and prolonged bushfire smoke exposure can have significant health impacts. For example, heatwaves cause more deaths each year than any other natural disaster.16 Risks are higher for regional Victoria’s older, more disadvantaged population.17

For these reasons, ‘cookie cutter’ infrastructure approaches will not work in regional Victoria.

Solutions must account for local differences and adjust to changing circumstances, such as changes in climate and community needs, over time.

Local, collaborative approaches tailor investment to different places, coordinate effectively across different levels of government and create opportunities for meaningful engagement with local communities — making them more successful in helping to address disadvantage.18

Infrastructure solutions and investment in regional Victoria must take into account the local and unique differences and be able to adjust to changing circumstances to promote thriving communities in our regions.

Delivering and accessing regional services is challenging

Local governments deliver many social and community services to regional communities, including child and family services, aged care, health care services and programs to foster social inclusion and improve wellbeing.19 But many regional councils, particularly in rural areas, have budgets constrained by small numbers of ratepayers with lower average incomes.20 They also need to fund multiple services to geographically dispersed towns with small, often high need populations.21

Victoria’s councils manage assets worth over $115 billion.22 They spend about $2 billion on infrastructure each year.23 Regional councils can struggle to afford the facility upgrades for accessible, safe infrastructure to support the many services their communities need. Selling assets can be difficult because they have few potential purchasers, and communities often feel strongly attached to facilities.24 Relatively dispersed populations and infrastructure can lead to higher service delivery and asset maintenance costs,25 often unattractive for private sector providers.26

Gelong and Wodonga have higher population growth and may be more financially sustainable than the smaller rural shires, but also have high and growing numbers of residents

experiencing disadvantage, and consequent service demand.27

Growth pressures in parts of regional Victoria are being made worse by a population shift triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.28 Regional Victoria recorded its highest quarterly net population gain on record during the pandemic, a majority coming from Melbourne.29 However, longer-term population trends, and the implications for regional Victorian communities, are not yet clear.

Access barriers can compound service delivery challenges. Limited public or community transport options constrain service access in many places.30 Inadequate communications infrastructure and limited transport options make it harder for regional Victorians to reach employment, education, health and community services that help to address disadvantage.31

To respond to these pressures, local governments must innovate and flexibly manage service provision facilities. Despite each local area’s different challenges, all councils will need to better use and adapt their infrastructure to match the changing needs of their communities.

Well-located, affordable housing improves job and service access

As house prices have risen, fewer Victorians own their homes, especially those with lower incomes.32 Rents have also increased.33 The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a further increase in median rents in regional Victoria combined with a decline in vacancy rates, as more people have moved to the regions.34 Average weekly rents in regional Victoria are now closer to those in Melbourne, meaning very few properties are affordable and appropriate for most households on income support, with single people faring the worst.35 Well-located social housing, with good transport access, allows people to live close to jobs and services,36 and can provide access to housing where private local rental markets are unaffordable for very low income households. Existing social housing supply does not meet current demand, let alone future growth. More than 16,000 regional Victorian households are waiting for social housing, and the majority (59%) require urgent assistance.37 Demand for social housing, compared with the number of existing social housing dwellings, is higher in regional Victoria than in Melbourne,38 and yet regional Victorians more commonly face many of the difficulties which drive social housing demand.

The most frequent reasons Victorians seek homelessness support are financial difficulties, family violence, and experiencing a housing crisis.39

Regional Victorians are more likely to experience rental stress and are overrepresented in instances of family violence.

For example, 30% of regional Victoria’s renting households experience rental stress, compared with 26% in Melbourne,40 while 19 out of the top 20 local government areas for rates of family violence are in regional Victoria.41 Homelessness is increasing in the regions, rising by 4% from 2011 to 2016. Barwon and the Great South Coast have seen homelessness increase by 23% and 24% respectively over the same period.42

The type and size of social housing dwellings do not match either the current or future tenant need. For example, one-bedroom homes would have to nearly double to meet demand.43 Social housing is also inadequately adapted to help tenants cope with the impacts of climate change. Social housing tenants, many with multiple and complex needs, are particularly exposed and vulnerable to extreme heat.44

Recommendations to improve health, wellbeing and inclusion

Infrastructure Victoria considers the following recommendations would improve regional Victoria’s health, wellbeing and inclusion. These link with recommendations to better connect Victoria’s regions (see section 4.2) and align social infrastructure with service delivery more generally (see section 3.3).

Recommendation 88: Deliver multipurpose shared social service facilities in the regions

In the next year, start regional planning for social services to identify opportunities for multipurpose shared services facilities, then deliver them where appropriate over the next five years, in partnership with local governments and community organisations

Victoria’s regions are geographically and demographically diverse. Some towns and places are highly disadvantaged, showing lower health and education outcomes relative to others,45 and 15% of regional Victorians live below the poverty line.46 A broader group is vulnerable to more severe disadvantage because of their distance from and reduced access to services.47

Regional social service sites are often smaller in scale than in metropolitan areas, while on average, regional Victorians have higher levels of disadvantage, and often require multiple and inter-linked services.48 Co-locating services such as the Victorian Government’s GovHubs49 in a shared facility benefits individuals and groups with complex needs, because they support smoother transitions between services and create opportunities for access to a wider range of services.50 Alternatively, fully integrated models may be required, such as The Orange Door51 family violence support hub networks currently being established. Shared facilities improve access to a range of services including primary and allied health, education, child and family, housing, mental health, aged care, sport and recreation, libraries, legal and financial support services. When services are located together it can also improve service quality,52 by bringing together diverse skills and staff capabilities, reducing the professional isolation of practising in rural areas,53 and providing opportunities for collaboration and innovation. Shared service facilities can be easier to access in the regions because people need only travel to a single place, especially if transport planning aligns with these locations (see recommendation 83).

Planning, delivering and managing shared facilities is more complex than for single purpose facilities. For example, the asset ownership, accountabilities and risk can be more complicated. Shared facilities will not work in all circumstances and must incorporate an appropriate mix of complementary services. Firstly, the Victorian Government should undertake shared service planning to identify service need, the facilities and services suitable for shared use, the location and facility design for infrastructure delivery. This requires a substantial change from usual governance arrangements and will require the Victorian Government to facilitate shared planning and decision-making across its agencies and partners such as local government and community organisations.54 The Framework for Place-Based Approaches55 provides a starting point for departments and agencies to proceed.

The Queensland Government has developed a new approach to whole-of-government social infrastructure planning which could be applied in the Victorian context (see Box). Upfront building costs of shared facilities can be more expensive than single purpose facilities but can generate efficiencies through scale and shared maintenance. With flexible design, shared facilities can adapt more readily to changing needs compared with single purpose facilities.

Across regional Victoria, there is support for shared facilities to improve service delivery for disadvantaged Victorians. Stakeholders support delivering shared service facilities and suggested locations for integrated health, community and wellbeing hubs and precincts in regional Victoria.56

Case study. Queensland Social Infrastructure Strategy

The Queensland Government has a new approach to whole-of-government social infrastructure planning which could be applied in the Victorian context. The strategy assumes that human services planning has already occurred before local infrastructure responses are developed.57

The strategy provides a framework for the planning, design, location and use of Queensland’s social infrastructure. It aims to achieve more integrated, accessible, well-located, multi-functional and cost-effective social infrastructure. It requires departments and agencies to:

  • Make better use of existing infrastructure to deliver broader services and community benefits
  • Use every new infrastructure investment as an opportunity to deliver more integrated outcomes for inclusive communities. 

Effective cross-government systems and governance are essential to support the strategy and to achieve broader outcomes. The main components of the strategy include:

Enhanced cross-agency collaboration

The Queensland Government is adopting a place-specific approach to social infrastructure in identified priority areas. These are areas where multiple agencies have identified infrastructure needs that may realise improved social infrastructure outcomes through strategies such as co-location, sharing facilities, or coordinating delivery.

Flexible land management

The Queensland Government is investigating a more flexible whole-of-government approach to land acquisition and management to help maximise capital investment and foster innovative partnerships to achieve better outcomes.

Overarching governance

The strategy establishes a place-specific social infrastructure champion in the Infrastructure Minister and a Social Infrastructure Ministerial Committee to prioritise place-specific social infrastructure investment. A champion drives a partnership-first approach to the provision of social infrastructure, responsible for rallying for changes to business-as-usual approaches across government and calling for what might otherwise be lost opportunities. Establishing a champion at the most senior level of government will help drive the understanding that change is required to drive even better social infrastructure outcomes for Queensland communities.

Early engagement in strategic planning

A place-specific approach to social infrastructure planning improves existing processes. Through early coordination of strategic planning across providers, services are more likely to be well located in relation to transport and aligned services, or co-located in flexible, future-focused buildings that provide a range of human services.

Recommendation 89: Update community infrastructure

Fund regional councils in the next five years to update, repurpose or retire outdated community infrastructure for better service delivery.

Victoria’s councils spend about $2 billion on infrastructure annually to manage a sprawling asset base.58 Services for children, youth, families and the elderly are delivered from these facilities. They are important in Victoria’s regions because regional areas are over-represented in statistical rankings of socio-economic disadvantage,59 and their smaller populations mean viable private sector alternatives are limited.60

Many regional council facilities are no longer fit for purpose, limiting service quality. Councils face complex challenges in managing these facilities well. Often, communities have strong attachments to old assets, and some have heritage value, even when they are no longer meeting wider community needs.61 This can result in resistance to selling old assets, particularly where sale proceeds are not reinvested in the area, even when it can help fund higher quality services. Many regional councils struggle to afford the facility upgrades required for efficient service delivery. They spend more on facilities per person than Melbourne councils, having smaller populations, larger land areas, and their costs are growing faster than inflation.62 Short of revenue, regional councils rely on grants,63 but few can be used for maintenance and renewal of ageing assets.

The Victorian Government should establish a new fund to provide support for regional councils to update, repurpose and retire community infrastructure. After undertaking service planning demonstrating their facilities are no longer fit for purpose and inhibit quality service delivery, regional councils could apply for up to $2 million. Grants could reflect a council’s ability to sustainably fund, promote co-investment, leverage other grants and encourage shared facilities where possible. Separately, the fund would allow smaller contributions of up to $50,000 for smaller rural councils to develop service plans that inform infrastructure requirements. Funding guidelines should recognise the importance and time needed to engage with the community to gain their support for updating community facilities.

The Victorian Auditor General suggested regional grant funding can be allocated based on measurable indicators of disadvantage.64 Funding applications should prioritise facility upgrades in, or serving, disadvantaged communities. Other priority criteria should include: evidence that facilities limit service quality, asset maintenance cost reductions, climate resilience,65 energy efficiency,66 and consolidation of updated, multipurpose shared facilities (see recommendation 88) that meet contemporary accessibility standards.67 In some instances, the selected infrastructure could be repurposed as a climate-adapted facility (see recommendation 90). Councils will need to show their communities have the skills to manage, staff and deliver services from the facilities, and evaluate investment outcomes. Revenue from any asset sales should be directed back to the community by upgrading local facilities.

The fund should be established as soon as possible, with a budget of $100 million for the next five years. Representing $20 million a year, these funds would allow up to 10 successful applications for the $2 million maximum, or a larger number of smaller grants – enough for the most disadvantaged councils. This type of expenditure is also stimulatory, helping create and maintain jobs in the regions. The fund should be evaluated at the end of the five years.

Recommendation 90: Create climate-adapted facilities for rural communities

In the next five years, fund local governments to plan and help deliver a network of designated, accessible climate-adapted community facilities, to manage the health impacts of extreme heat and bushfire smoke.

Extreme heat can have serious impacts on communities, including increasing illness and death, particularly for the most vulnerable. Without adaptation efforts, more days of extreme heat could cause 400 deaths each year in Victoria by 2050.68 Extended bushfire smoke events can severely impact the health of many vulnerable regional Victorians. An estimated 11 million Australians were exposed to bushfire smoke during the 2019–20 bushfires,69 leading to health costs of approximately $1.95 billion.70

Regional Victorians are more at risk to extreme weather.71 They are, on average, older,72 less healthy,73 more disadvantaged,74 more exposed to the impacts of extreme heat,75 and more sensitive to smoke.76 Unlike cities, in many rural areas there are relatively few privately provided places to escape the heat on hot days, such as shopping centres or cinemas. Projected changes in temperature are also expected to be higher in rural inland areas, magnifying the impacts of climate change.77

Many vulnerable regional Victorians live in low quality private and public housing. Upgrading all rural housing to become more energy efficient and resilient during extreme heat would help people live more comfortably,78 but will take considerable time and investment. During these events, people need to remain indoors to stay cool and have cleaner filtered air. The Victorian Government should ensure that regional social housing is suitable for the climate (see recommendation 94). As a complementary response, climate-adapted community facilities can provide a safe place to avoid exposure.

The Victorian Government should help establish a network of accessible climate-adapted community facilities to reduce the health impacts of exposure to heat, and prolonged smoke from bushfires. These would not duplicate emergency relief centres,79 but instead provide safe places for temporary respite for people whose homes are without cooling or air filtration during the worst parts of hot days and bushfire smoke events.80

The Victorian Government should allocate funds and determine criteria for local governments and other eligible community facility owners to plan and deliver these facilities within the next five years.81 Facilities should at least be in safe locations, have suitable air conditioning and filtration, back-up power, and comfortable amenities like cooking facilities and internet access. Existing community facilities can be retrofitted to be climate-adapted and fit for purpose. In most instances, these are likely to be existing local government facilities in town, such as libraries, community centres, neighbourhood houses, and town halls. Suitable facilities owned by others, such as bush nursing hospitals, not-for-profit facilities, or community health centres, should also be considered.

Funds to retrofit infrastructure could be as small as a few thousand dollars to major refurbishments over $500,000,82 requiring approximately $50 million over five years. It is not feasible for every town in rural Victoria to be included, so local governments should lead the identification of priority places with their communities. Areas already identifying as vulnerable and in need of these facilities – such as Macedon Ranges, Central Goldfields, Mount Alexander and Gippsland shires – are candidates for early funding.83

Recommendation 91: Build regional residential alcohol and drug rehabilitation facilities

Within five years, build residential detoxification and rehabilitation facilities in regional Victoria to provide equitable access to alcohol and other drug treatment.

Problem alcohol and other drug use continues to affect the health, productivity and wellbeing of individuals and communities in Victoria. Regional areas face particular challenges, as drug and alcohol abuse is growing faster than in Melbourne,84 and people in regional areas are more likely to have used an illicit drug85 or consumed alcohol at dangerous quantities.86 The rate of unintentional drug-induced deaths per capita in rural and regional Victoria was more than 50% higher than Melbourne in 2018.87

Some people can be treated with regular appointments with doctors or detoxification at home. These options do not work for everyone, including those who need longer-term or more structured care, or who face poverty or domestic violence.88 In these circumstances, residential rehabilitation and detoxification facilities providing 24-hour staffing and treatment programs are more likely to be effective – especially in the long term.89 New South Wales research has found residential rehabilitation facilities are vital to treating the highest severity cases90 and are particularly effective in addressing methamphetamine addiction,91 for which there is currently no pharmacological treatment.92

The Victorian Government is expanding the number of residential rehabilitation beds,93 but regional residents face barriers to accessing treatment.94 The regions have too few facilities to meet demand, and services are unevenly distributed and often scarce.95 While private facilities have filled some of the gap, they can be prohibitively expensive.96 Regional services also struggle to treat people in a timely manner, with waiting lists commonly over six months.97 Travelling to Melbourne is the only option for many,98 but the distances and costs involved can be a barrier to seeking treatment, partly because many areas have no public transport.99 Without affordable and accessible services, more people can end up in emergency departments, hospitalised, or in prison,100 contributing to entrenched social disadvantage in some areas.101

Within five years, the Victorian Government should build new residential rehabilitation and detoxification facilities in regions where they are not currently available or planned – including the Great South Coast, Mallee, Goulburn and Wimmera Southern Mallee.102 Communities in the Great South Coast and Mallee regions have particularly urgent needs,103 given their distance from other centres. Facilities should have no fewer than 30 beds, to support a suitable model of care and allow for economies of scale.104

New facilities should be designed and delivered in consultation with local communities, service providers, and people with lived experience of addiction and mental illness.105 Treatment and rehabilitation services must be culturally safe and appropriate for Aboriginal Victorians. The Victorian Government should consider Aboriginal-specific residential detoxification and rehabilitation facilities, co-designed with Aboriginal communities and based on the principles of self-determination106 (see recommendation 67).

Every $1 invested in alcohol or drug treatment can return $7 in benefits.107

Recommendation 92: Fund more Youth Foyers in regional Victoria

Fund at least six new Youth Foyers in regional Victoria by 2026, to better use existing education infrastructure and support vulnerable young people.

Many young regional Victorians experience disadvantage.108 While vulnerable young people need support in every part of Victoria, pockets of regional cities are some of the most disadvantaged in the nation, and have become more disadvantaged over time.109 Regional Victoria’s smaller job market can also make it extremely difficult for young people to gain employment without experience.110 The Victorian Government can better support vulnerable people in regional areas to navigate crucial life transitions and help break cycles111 of disadvantage.112 Interventions to help a successful transition from school into work or further study help vulnerable young Victorians thrive in later life.113

Youth Foyers provide young people aged 16–24 years with stable accommodation for up to three years while they undertake education or training. They offer supported medium-term accommodation, usually co-located with an educational institution like a TAFE campus, acting as a nexus between homelessness and independent or semi-independent living.114 Youth Foyers provide the time, personalised attention, mentoring, coaching and access to opportunities needed to assist young Victorians to lead fulfilling, independent and productive lives. Youth Foyers provide a practical strategy for dealing with homelessness among young people in regional areas,115 and can contribute to Closing the Gap outcomes by supporting education and employment opportunities for young Aboriginal Victorians.116 A Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry found that Youth Foyers are beneficial for many disadvantaged young people at risk of, or experiencing, homelessness.117 An evaluation into program outcomes found that Year 12 or equivalent completion rates increased from 42% at entry to 67% at exit and 75% a year later.118 Delivering more Youth Foyers aligns with the education-focused direction of Victoria’s existing youth reforms, like the Home Stretch119 and Raising Expectations120 programs.

Youth Foyers demonstrate some cost efficiencies by centralising social workers and services and avoid significant costs to government in employment welfare, housing, health and policing.121 One economic assessment estimated higher benefit-to-cost ratios over a 20-year period, compared with transitional housing services,122 and determined that program benefits far outweighed capital and operational costs.123 Compared with other models, 40-bed Youth Foyers appear to have the lowest service delivery costs.124 Youth Foyers require enough funding to deliver a high quality service to vulnerable young people. Partnerships with local community services, businesses and local government are important components of their success.

The Victorian Government should fund at least six new 40-bed Youth Foyers in regional Victoria in the next five years. This can reduce young people’s experience of homelessness and increase those achieving a qualification and becoming productively employed. We have identified Bendigo, Geelong, Mildura, Morwell, Wangaratta and Wodonga as possible locations for Youth Foyers in regional Victoria, due to high levels of school disengagement and youth unemployment, good public transport links, and easy access to community services and tertiary education opportunities.125 Expansion need not be limited to these locations if demand and opportunity are demonstrated elsewhere. These sites can be evaluated, potentially supporting further locations in the future.

Recommendation 93: Expand social housing in regional centres, in locations with good access

Focus social housing investments in regional centres, near transport and services, for better access to health, social and economic support.

Regional Victoria is experiencing deteriorating housing affordability, with the proportion of new rentals affordable to lower income households falling from around 60% to 35% in five years.126 Social housing infrastructure is central to the Victorian Government’s response. It provides a safety net for people on low incomes, or those experiencing other challenges that prevent them accessing appropriate housing via the private market.127 Living in social housing can reduce subsequent homelessness128 and health service use.129

Far more people need social housing in regional Victoria than the current supply can accommodate. Over 16,000 regional Victorian households were on the waiting list for social housing in December 2020, with 10,000 requiring urgent assistance.130 In contrast, just 4780 new social housing allocations were made for the entire state in 2018–19.131 Social housing demand, compared with the number of social housing dwellings, is higher in regional Victoria than in Melbourne.132 This reflects, in part, the higher proportion of people experiencing disadvantage in regional areas.133 The Victorian Government should expand the supply of social housing in the regions to better assist disadvantaged and vulnerable Victorians. Infrastructure Victoria recommends a statewide target of at least 4.5 social housing dwellings for every 100 households by 2031 to improve access to social housing in Victoria (see recommendation 68). However, the statewide target should not be evenly applied in every region or local area. Instead, greater numbers of homes should be provided in accessible locations which can give residents ready access to the health, social and economic support they need.134

Outside Melbourne, the Victorian Government should primarily construct new regional social housing stock in regional centres. These places are best situated to provide access to the transport, services, and jobs which are increasingly concentrated in regional hubs. The Victorian Government should prioritise centres according to unmet demand and forecast population growth, with priority for growing cities such as Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo.135,136 It should select specific social housing development sites to maximise good access to services by walking, cycling and public transport, and collaborate with local governments and housing providers so available housing better meets local demand.137

The Victorian Government should address Aboriginal Victorians’ housing needs in partnership with Aboriginal community-controlled organisations (see recommendation 67), informed by Mana-na woorn-tyeen maar-taarkoort, the Victorian Aboriginal Housing and Homelessness Framework.138 The Victorian Government is investing $1.25 billion of its ‘Big Housing Build’ in regional Victoria, to construct an estimated 2300 social housing dwellings in four years.139 It should carefully target this investment so housing is made available in the right locations, accessible to transport and services. Beyond this timeframe, regional Victoria will require more social housing construction to meet the needs of regional communities.

Recommendation 94: Make social housing suitable for changing local climates

Continue to deliver a long-term program of modifying social housing to be climate-resilient by improving the energy efficiency and energy affordability of residences.

Climate change is projected to cause temperature increases of 0.8°C to 1.9°C across Victoria by 2030.140 Northern Victoria already experiences frequent extreme heat events, and their frequency is likely to double by 2050.141

Exposure to extreme heat can increase health risks, especially for older people, pregnant women, young children, people with a disability and chronic health conditions, people on low incomes or who are socially isolated.142

Children may experience disrupted sleep in hot conditions, affecting their learning and health.143 The standard of housing in which low income households live can also increase heat-related health risks.144

In current conditions, many homes are unable to maintain a comfortable, healthy temperature during summer without air conditioning. In particular, social housing is often older and less energy efficient, meaning homes heat up faster and stay hot for a prolonged time.145 For some tenants, heat-related discomfort can be worse inside than outdoors.146 Social housing tenants are often unable to modify their homes. They often cannot afford improvements, or the higher energy bills and extra maintenance costs, and must navigate a cumbersome approval process to make any changes to their home.147 Energy hardship – a lack of affordable, renewable and reliable energy services – affects an estimated 40% of rental households. Low income renters, Aboriginal households, and culturally and linguistically diverse groups are among those most affected.148 The Victorian Government’s Social Housing Energy Efficiency program provides $112 million for targeted energy efficiency upgrades for 35,000 social housing properties, which includes installing air conditioning in the north and west of the state.149

The Victorian Government should continue these efforts in a long-term statewide program150 to retrofit social housing to be energy efficient, maintain thermal comfort and reduce energy costs. The program should include installing reverse cycle air conditioning, energy efficiency improvements and photovoltaic solar panels. This should improve energy affordability and help offset any extra costs of increased electricity use, such as from air conditioners.

Not all modifications will be necessary or possible in all homes, but they should be selected for best value after an energy assessment, such as the Victorian Government’s Residential Efficiency Scorecard.151 Some improvements take as little as three years to pay back their costs in energy savings.152 Infrastructure Victoria estimates an upgrade could cost on average $10,000 for each home, but newer homes or more limited modifications would be cheaper. We estimate the cost to be around $23 million each year for 30 years, but broader renewal of ageing stock (see recommendation 55) would reduce this estimate.

The program should prioritise areas and upgrades which have not been covered within the Social Housing Energy Efficiency program,153 focusing on the hotter areas of Victoria and expanding statewide over time. More energy efficient social housing contributes towards Closing the Gap for Aboriginal Victorians by improving access to appropriate and affordable housing,154 and helps achieve Victoria’s 2050 zero emissions target155 by reducing residential energy consumption.

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