Tuesday, November 14, 2006

NSW Ten Year Plan - New England's needs

Graphic: New England Flag

This morning the NSW Premier announced a new ten year plan for the state. I have therefore put aside the Fossickers Way series to look in a preliminary way at the implications of the plan for New England.

This is the first of two posts. This post focuses on the needs to be met from a New England perspective. The second will look at the plan against those needs.

Background Data

The plan is weak on supporting statistical data. I thought therefore that I should provide a little of this first.

At June 2005 the population of NSW was 6.77 million. If we then look at the population of the main zones in New England we find:

  • Hunter Valley 611,000
  • North Coast 521,000
  • New England North West 179,000

This gives a total New England population of 1,311,000 or 19.4 per cent of the NSW population. New England's share of the total NSW has been in slow decline for a number of years. This decline has especially been concentrated in the inland areas.

If we look at other statistical data, the Australian Bureau of Statistics presents some data in its regional profiles. The New England regions for statistical purposes are Hunter, Mid North Coast, Richmond-Tweed, and Northern. For comparative purposes, we can also look at the Sydney and NSW statistical divisions.

The brief analysis that follows is only broad brush and does not pretend to be definitive. In addition to the ABS material I have also drawn some material from an earlier State of the Regions report.

The data suggests:

  • Taking NSW as a whole, between 1998 and 2003 the population of Greater Sydney grew by 256,000, the rest of the State by 105,000. Outside Sydney, the coastal strip dominated population growth, up 7 per cent as compared to 2.7 per cent inland.
  • Again taking NSW as a whole, between 1998 and 2003 the workforce of Greater Sydney grew by 205,000, the rest of NSW by just 18,000. In New England, the workforce increased by 0.7 per cent in the Hunter and Mid North Coast, 0.5 per cent in Richmond-Tweed, but actually declined in Northern (Northern Tablelands, North West) by 1.7 per cent. This low workforce growth has created a very real choke point for economic development. In simplest terms, it means that economic growth especially in inland regions will hit capacity constraints very quickly. There are already significant problems in filling skilled vacancies especially in high growth areas.
  • Population growth in New England as a whole has been greater than workforce growth. The difference is largely but not completely explained by the movement of retirees into in areas like the Mid North Coast. Northern has been losing young people, Richmond-Tweed and the Mid North Coast lost young but gained working age people and retirees. The Hunter gained young and working age, but experienced proportionately greater gains among seniors. Retention of young people is a key issue for much of New England.
  • The New England population is aging and aging faster than the Sydney population. In 1954, the proportion of over 55s ranged from 13 per cent in the Hunter to 15 per cent in other regions. In 2001, the proportion of over 55s ranged from 25 per cent in the Hunter to 30 per cent in the Mid North Coast. In 2021, the range is projected to be from 37 per cent in the Hunter to 47 per cent on the Mid North Coast.
  • Using another measure of aging, elderly (over 70) people living alone already constitute more than 6.1 per cent of households in Richmond-Tweed and Mid North Coast, 5.6 to 6.1 in Hunter and Northern. With aging, the proportion of elderly will continue to increase, with (in the absence of change) the highest impact in those areas already aging fastest. This has significant implications for local council operations in terms of the rate base (down) and the required scale of council support operations (up). Population aging is probably the greatest single public policy challenge facing New England over the next twenty years.
  • Average incomes in New England are lower than in Sydney, in part because of the higher number of retired people, in part because Sydney simply has higher proportion of higher paying jobs in industry, the professions and Government. Thus in 2003 the Sydney average annual taxable income was $46,834 as compare to $39,861 in Hunter, $35,115 in Northern, $33,285 in Mid North Coast and $32,981 in Richmond-Tweed.
  • Unemployment has been higher in New England than in Sydney, especially along the coastal strip, while the number of people on various income support programs is also much higher. In 2003 for example, that latest year for which figures are available, there were 174,648 people in the North Coast on some form of income support as compared to a total 2005 population of 521,000.

Other Issues

In addition to these broad patterns, there are also a number of other important issues. These include:

  • Cross-border issues. In the south Newcastle is being drawn into Greater Sydney and is now being treated as a satellite of Sydney for planning purposes. In the north, the Richmond and especially the Tweed Valley face significant cross-border issues with Queensland. There are also lower scale integration issues elsewhere along the New England-Queensland border.
  • Water. While parts of New England are presently badly affected by drought, New England is also the wettest part of NSW. Control over water is likely to become an increasingly important issue.
  • Tourism. There is presently no integrated approach to selling New England as a tourism destination. This is especially a problem for inland areas lacking major tourism centres.
  • Skilled labour shortages. Already mentioned in passing. Parts of New England are suffering significant shortages in skilled labour, shortages that are impeding development. Critical issues include extending skills training in New England combined with some program to attract skills to New England.
  • Coastal planning and conflict. Increased population and tourism numbers along the North Coast are creating conflict.
  • Higher Education. In higher education, New England's universities, especially New England and Southern Cross, face challenges in gaining student numbers because of the impact of demographic change combined with growing external competition. There is a real need to look at better cooperation among New England universities, at methods to sell those universities to students, at measures of integration so that the sector as a whole provides a complete portfolio of offerings.
  • Schools. Issues associated with New England schooling are complex because of the extent of variation across New England. The public-private divide is creating an increasing problem. Much could be done to improve the current position if cooperation between schools was facilitated, if schools and other community facilities were better integrated, if the New England school system as a whole were better promoted.
  • East-west linkages. The need to improve internal road communication within New England remains. Key priorities include the Kempsey-Armidale and Grafton- Armidale roads. There would also be real gains if the two main links between Scone and Nundle were improved to provide alternative tourist routes to the New England Highway.
  • Indigenous development. New England has a major Aboriginal population, in some cases much higher than the NSW average. This group faces very significant problems. We need to address the opportunities offered by our significant Aboriginal heritage as well as the problems.
  • Health. Particular parts of New England suffer problems in accessing adequate medical and dental services.
  • New England integration. The segmentation of New England into Government defined regions centred on Sydney continues to create problems for cross region cooperation within New England. In the absence of self-government, the NSW Government needs to provide and encourage measures that will facilitate integration.

Local Views

The plan itself provides some remarkably skimpy information on regional views within New England as collected during the consultation process.

Hunter needs were identified as:

Attracting new employment opportunities to the area was seen as a key challenge, particularly for youth; and preferably employment that diversifies the economic base beyond coal and power industries. The need to address skills shortages to enable local people to get local jobs was also stressed.

Other feedback highlighted the need to ensure access and provision to health services, better access to public transport with improved road maintenance and construction. The ongoing impact of drought in rural and remote areas may require a review of water management and it is important to ensure planning for the region achieves a balance between social, economic and environmental objectives.

North Coast needs were identified as:

One of the biggest challenges for the North Coast region as identified by the community is to provide education and employment options, especially for young people. In addition, continued population growth, urban expansion and the ageing of the population is creating demand for new social and physical infrastructure, including the need for better transport, water and sewerage, health, housing and education infrastructure. The continued upgrading of the Pacific Highway is of particular importance to the region. Balancing the demand of development with the protection of the coastal environment also remains a key concern.

The community welcomed the Government's commitment to the upgrading of hospitals, in particular the buyback of the Port Macquarie Base Hospital and the provision of the new facility in Coffs Harbour is seen as very positive. The rapid pace of growth in the region has seen poverty increase for many groups, particularly for Aboriginal communities and the community noted the need for more support services for families and disadvantaged groups generally.

Northern needs were identified as:

In particular, the growth of the mining industry brings with it increasing pressure to develop and maintain a physical infrastructure (roads, rail, telecommunications, transport) with capacity to support it. Balanced and sustainable management of our natural resources to protect the existing agricultural base while benefiting from a rich mineral base will be vital.
Attracting and retaining a skilled work force for the services required to support not just industry growth, but growing populations, will be vital.

Communities were also very clear in their determination to build strong and supportive families and communities, and to reduce the rates of child and substance abuse.

The community identified public education and health and aged care services as key strengths with recognition that we could improve the range of career focused opportunities on offer.

Key Priorities

This brief analysis provides some bench marks against which to judge the NSW Government Ten Year Plan. For example:

  • Economic development. Economic development is the single most important New England priority. Inland we need it to redress population decline. On the coast including the Hunter, we need it to better balance the aging population, to reduce unemployment and welfare dependence, to provide greater opportunities for our young people. Many other priorities follow from this.
  • People attraction. New England does not need more retirees. Our core people priority is to attract skilled labour to fill current vacancies, to lay a basis for future growth.
  • Industry development. We need programs at two levels. Internally, we need policies and programs that will facilitate business development based on what we already have. Externally, we need policies and programs that will facilitate the attraction of new investment and business activity to New England.
  • Tourism development. Tourism is already important for New England. Our problem lies in attracting people in competition with other parts of Australia and especially Sydney. We need to build both the average length of stay and the average spend. We also need to encourage New Englanders to take better advantage themselves of offerings within New England.
  • Education and training: We need programs that will widen educational opportunities, encourage more young people to continue their education, integrate educational offerings at all levels so that New England provides a total portfolio of offerings, build local skills development, sell New England educational opportunities to a broader marketplace.
  • Aging. Given that we already know that we face a major challenge in this area based on the current demographic profile, a challenge that is going to require a range of support facilities including associated professionals, we need a plan that scopes the problem and identifies what can and should be done in response.
  • Heath. Health is more complex in that some parts of New England have access to good facilities, others do not. We also need to plan for future health needs. We need a plan that takes this varied pattern of needs into account.
  • Indigenous development. How will the plan help us meet the needs of our Aboriginal community while also taking advantage of the opportunities they offer.
  • Integration. Will the plan assist the different regions within New England to cooperate with each other, to integrate activities for mutual benefit?

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