Thursday, February 25, 2010

The fragmentation of NSW

This piece is something of a thought piece, triggered by some recent trends. While I do refer to past posts, I am not giving links. I am simply getting ideas down.


When the NSW Government first released its State Plan, I gave it the credit to take it seriously. I first analysed social and economic trends within New England to create a framework for the analysis of the Plan itself. I then looked at the structure and detail of the Plan itself and compared this with my analysis of New England's needs.

While I gave the Government full credit for its efforts, I concluded that the plan was too bitsy, simply an aggregation of existing targets and performance indicators. Even if every target in the plan was achieved, my conclusion was that its practical effect in meeting New England's needs would be negligible. I note that the Plan is presently being updated. This may change my conclusions.

Subsequently, the NSW Government released a series of strategies focused on actions required to meet projected population growth in Sydney and along the NSW coastal strip. Again I analysed them. I concluded that they were mechanistic. I also doubted that that the population targets were achievable, given that the assumptions seemed to imply a continued drift in population from inland NSW that I thought was unlikely to eventuate. If anything, and taking inland NSW as a whole, I thought that pattern of decline was beginning to reverse itself.

Since I wrote, higher levels of overseas migration have changed the equation somewhat.

Population growth in Greater Sydney has always been heavily determined by the combination of overseas migration with emigration from the city. Sydney has always attracted migrants, although its share of the total Australian migrant intake is, I think, showing signs of structural decline.  At the same time, Sydney has been loosing population for many decades from out-migration to coastal NSW and to Queensland.

Sydney's overall growth depends on the balance between the two. An increase in the rate of natural population combined with very high overseas migration levels means that rate of population growth in Greater Sydney has increased quite noticeably.

Assuming no change to current high levels of overseas migration, no further change in Sydney's share of the total migrant intake and no increase in the rate of emigration from Sydney, the original population projections look more likely. However, I remain cautious.

  If you look at my comments to this point, I am obviously critical of the way the NSW Government approaches its role. However, in saying this I am also conscious of the way in which the progressive fragmentation of NSW, something unique to NSW, has progressively constrained the freedom of the NSW government. Sydney still tries to manage NSW as though it was a meaningful unit, whereas it is in fact a a political and statistical construct made up of increasingly disparate parts.

It is this issue of fragmentation that I want to address in this post.

The Marchland Concept

In looking at the geographic basis of support for the New England New State Movement, the geographer Eric Woolmington suggested that this was greatest where the relative spheres of influence of Sydney and Brisbane overlapped. Using catchment analysis based on population distributions, he defined a theoretical boundary. This placed much of the Northern Rivers and the Northern Tablelands within the Brisbane sphere.

He then used a variety of measures to identify the actual boundary of influence. This placed the boundary much further north, if south of the formal geographic boundary. He concluded that the strongest new state support lay in the geographic area between the theoretical boundary and the formal boundary, with support rising as the formal boundary was a approached.

Similar analysis can be applied to the Riverina, the other area of NSW with sustained support for home rule. In the case of the Riverina, there is a further rough measure that you can use, the sporting boundary between Australian Football and Rugby League.

With time, the spheres of influence of Melbourne and especially Brisbane have expanded, moving north and south respectively. Increasingly, NSW Government policy and service delivery has to take into account Victorian and Queensland needs and positions.

Rise of the ACT

The real kicker in all this is the rise of the ACT, a rise concealed in part by State based statistics.

The following map shows what is now called the Australian Capitol Territory region. This is the area now classified as falling under the influence of metropolitan Canberra where coordinated action is required between the NSW, ACT and local governments. To put numbers on it, around 351,000 people live in Canberra, a further 256,000 people live in NSW in local government areas classified as belonging to the Australian Capital Territory Region, 607,000 people in all.                 ACT Region

The ABS population projections based on various alternative assumptions suggest that by 2056 the ACT's population will be in the range 374,000 to 683,000.

The lower figure is simply not credible given a current estimated population of 351,000. Canberra will grow as the Commonwealth Government grows, even allowing for a spill-over of population into adjoining regions. If the ACT were to reach 683,000 and if the surrounding area were to grow at the same rate, we are looking at an ACT region population of around 1.2 million sitting just next door to the Sydney conurbation. 

Impact of Fragmenation

The overall impact of the processes that I have been talking about can be summarised in this way.

In the North, the Tweed and Richmond River valleys are increasingly affected by and to a degree integrated into the growing SE Queensland conurbation. You can actually see this in some of the language used by the NSW Government. The traditional term Northern Rivers has dropped from use, with the Clarence River Valley increasingly classified as Mid North Coast. For planning purposes, the NSW Government now classifies the Richmond and Tweed Valleys as Far North Coast, while the Clarence Valley is Mid North coast.

In the South East, Canberra has increasingly become the driver. However, there real oddities here:

  • Sometimes, the NSW portion of the ACT region - the South East - is called the South East and seems to be classified as coastal in NSW official material, when the coastal strip itself only has 29.5% of the NSW region's population. This actually distorts statistics and approach.
  • Then, for NSW planning purposes, the South Coast is defined as Bega and Eurobodalla LGAs (Capital Region) plus Shoalhaven to the North. This is pretty much the traditional definition of the South Coast equivalent to the old definition of the North Coast as the coast north of the Hunter Valley. Also for planning purposes, there is another regional classification called the Sydney-Canberra corridor which includes six of of the 15 or so LGAs in the Australian Capital Region plus an Alpine Strategy focused on the resorts. The missed country LGAs appear to fall outside the land use planning process.    

Then to the west of the ACT region we have the area along the Murray increasingly affected by Victoria. This is covered by a Murray Planning Strategy that does explicitly recognise the need for integration on both side of the river.

Even at this level of analysis you can see how confused, confusing and fragmented the whole thing has become.

If we look at the rest of the state land-use planning documents, there are strategies for the illawarra, Metropolitan Sydney, Central Coast and Hunter. This means that planning documents exist for the full coastal strip that generally follow traditional geographical boundaries except, as already noted, in the Northern Rivers area.

All of the state west of the Dividing Range is, with the exception of those areas actually covered by existing plans such as Murray and the Sydney-Canberra corridor simply lumped as Western with a plan to be developed. This makes no geographic sense at all.

This has become quite a long post and has taken a fair bit of time to write. I have a fair bit more material, but this can wait.   


Jacus said...

As a Novocastrian, in exile in Canberra, I agree with a lot of what you say, and would be interested in hearing more.
Especially in terms of how such a change could take place.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Janus

This is a difficult question to answer. In the best world, a key part of the answer lies in the creation of new states, the alteration of existing boundaries to better reflect geography. This is key for the North.

Assuming that this is not possible or at least not possible in the short term, then the immediate answer has to lie in better analysis and integration across boundaries.

Take the Canberra case. Instead of excluding Canberra from NSW analysis, it needs to be made central so far as the South-east is concerned. This includes looking at the impact of Canberra to the north and west, not just to the south and east.

Broadly, though, I need to think more about your question so that I can properly answer it.

Jim Belshaw said...

Oops, another typo. Jacus, not Janus. My apologies!