Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Problems with projections

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 19 August 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

I have been re-reading volume two, the commentaries, of the University of New England’s Geography Department’s 1977 Atlas of New England. In this case, New England covers the Tablelands, Western Slopes and part of the Plains.

Edited by David Lea, John Pigrim and Lesley Greenwood, the commentaries contain a series of generally short essays explaining the maps. These cover nearly every aspect of New England’s geography, physical, human and economic.

I thought that the Atlas was a remarkably interesting piece of work when I first looked at it all those years ago. Now, re-reading, the commentaries provide a fascinating if sometimes depressing snapshot of the area as it was in the 1970s.

Fascinating because the Atlas presents a slice of the past frozen in time. Depressing because now looking back we can see what has and has not come to pass.

Take a simple example.

In 1971 New England-North West had a population of 164,128. Tamworth with 24,092 people was the tenth largest town in NSW; Armidale with 18,156 was fourteenth largest.

Projections prepared by the NSW Department of Decentralisation (remember that word?) and Development in May 1974 suggested that the region’s population would grow to 238,708 in 2001. Tamworth would grow to 45,613, Armidale still faster to 47,301.

In fact, at the 2006 census the Northern Statistical Division had a population of just 172,395.

Well, what happened? Why did the wheels come off?

A number of factors intervened: the then still high regional birth rate slowed more than expected, while out-migration was higher. But beyond factors such as these, the single most important cause was Armidale’s failure to grow.

The problem with projections based on present and past is that, by definition, they cannot accommodate future changes. No one recognised that Armidale would lose so badly in subsequent restructuring of tertiary education.

A second problem with projections, and we can see this with economic forecasts, is that they affect attitudes.

In Armidale’s case, expectations about future growth led to resistance to new developments for fear that they would affect the city’s life style. This complacency and resistance occurred just at the time when, in retrospect, it is clear that the city and its institutions should have been pursuing new directions.

In fairness to the Atlas itself, the commentaries actually pointed to the risks facing the city as a consequence of potential changes in higher education. It’s just that too few took the risks seriously.

This lesson from the past has current implications.

Governments use projections all the time for planning purposes. They have to. Yet projections can be wrong. Perhaps worse, they can become self-fulfilling.

Government resources are short. Resources (schools, houses, playgrounds, roads etc) therefore flow to the areas of projected growth and away from low growth areas. In doing so, they strengthen one, weaken the other.

This may sound dry stuff, but it’s actually very important.

Take a look at the NSW Department of Planning web site - You will see there that NSW planning is based on population projections showing growth concentrated in certain areas.

Increasingly, NSW planning fragments into a greater Sydney from Newcastle to Wollongong plus the North Coast plus the SE corner where Canberra is dominant. The rest of the state is simply called Western and has no plan at all.

Consider, for example, the regional cities project. This is designed to boost job, housing and lifestyle opportunities in regional cities across NSW. It will also help these cities become drivers of the NSW economy.

And what are the cities so far selected to drive growth across NSW? - Wollongong, Gosford, Parramatta, Penrith, Liverpool and Newcastle!


No comments: