Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Sydney Government's Coastal Planning Strategies

New England's neglected inland. Photo Gordon Smith

With the release of the draft Mid North Coast strategy (story), the Sydney Government has now released strategies for the entire current NSW coastal strip. You can access all the strategies here.

Having looked at the strategies, there is something almost obscene about the way the Sydney Government is ignoring NSW outside the coastal strip. The whole focus is on directly controlling anticipated population growth along the coast, nothing about building population elsewhere.

Some facts first.

At the moment, the NSW population is around 6.8 million. Of this:

  • 4.1 million live in Sydney
  • over 166,000 live on the South Coast
  • 280,000 live in Illawarra
  • 300,000 live on the Central Coast
  • 515,000 live in the Lower Hunter
  • 330,000 live on the Mid North Coast as now defined by the Sydney Government
  • 228,000 live on the Far North Coast
  • leaving around 800,00 in the rest of the state.

Let's track forward. According to the Government's projections, in twenty five years:

  • Sydney's population is projected at 5.3 million, up 1.2 million or 29 per cent
  • the Central Coast population is projected at 226,000, up 60,000 or 36 per cent
  • the Illawarra population is projected at 328,00, up 48,000 or 17 per cent
  • the Central Coast population is projected at 370,000, up 70,000 or 21 per cent
  • the Lower Hunter population is projected at 675,000, up 160,000 or 31 per cent
  • the Mid North Coast is projected at 424,000, up 91,000 or 31 per cent
  • the Far North Coast is projected at 289,000, up 61,000 or 26 per cent.

If we look at the totals, the Government is projecting a population increase in the coastal strip of 1.69 million, 1.2 million (71 per cent) in Sydney. If my maths is correct, this equates to an average annual increase in the coastal strip of 68,000, of which 48,000 will be in Sydney. The population increase in the New England coastal strip is projected at 312,000, around 13,000 per annum.

All the various strategies focus on controlling and accommodating the population growth as projected. The various commentaries on the strategies, positive and negative, focus on the adequacy of the proposed response to that population growth.

Having set the scene, let me go to my concerns.

To begin with, is this population growth in fact likely?

Last financial year the NSW population increased by 59,000. This means that the projected population growth in the coastal strip of 68,000 requires a significant increase in the current total state population growth. It also seems to imply a very low, even negative, population growth in the rest of the state.

Leaving aside the rest of the current state for the moment, NSW as an entity is presently losing people especially to Queensland through internal migration. These losses are offset by new overseas arrivals.

Taking 2005-2006 as an example, NSW gained 40,492 from natural increase (births minus deaths) , lost 23,970 through internal migration, but gained 42,231 from overseas migration for a net gain of 58,753.

On this simple maths, achievement of an average annual 68,000 population growth requires an extra 9,000 per annum to come from some combination of increased natural growth, increased overseas migration or reduced internal migration. This is possible but far from certain.

There is, however, another way the coastal strip population projections might be achieved in statistical terms, and that is through internal migration from inland NSW to the coastal strip. This appears to be implied in some of the wording in the strategy documents. There is no way of checking this because the Sydney Government does not have an equivalent strategy document for the rest of the state.

I think that this apparent implicit assumption is a real problem.

Despite discussions generated by the drought, inland NSW already has the infrastructure required for a larger population. As a simple example, Armidale's current water supply could support an urban population of 75,000, three times the city's current population. Yet we have nothing that looks seriously at inland development.

This links to a broader problem with the planning process, one that that I have already referred to in the context of the Mid-North Coast Strategy, the absence of any real focus in the strategies on economic development itself. There is no certainty that required jobs will be created in required areas as assumed.

This links to another issue, the way in which a strategy or planning process carried out in isolation from other critical variables can actually lead to distorted outcomes.

None of the planning documentation that I have seen actually discusses the various demographic drivers likely to affect population outcomes, nor are there any discussions of alternative scenarios. None of the documentation looks at issues associated with changing population composition that might flow from different combinations of outcomes from the demographic variables. There is little discussion about the flow on effects of the various planning assumptions.

The difficulty in all this is that specific investment decisions based on flawed planning then create new self-fulfilling but sub-optimal outcomes.

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