Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Decentralisation, development & government failure

Just following up on Monday's post, State fragmentation & the meaning of NSW economic statistics. I finished that post with these words:

Now when we look at the workforce data, and this is impressionistic because I have only scanned the numbers, we find:

  • The participation rate (the proportion of the working age population seeking work) is lower in the rest of NSW than Sydney, especially for women.
  • The proportion of unemployed seeking work is higher than in Sydney.
  • The proportion of employed seeking full time work is higher than in Sydney.

So if you look at it this way, the rest of the state appears something of a basket case dragging Sydney down.

Is this true? Well, it's not quite as easy as that. In my next post I will look at the reasons why, focused on New England.

  I now want to do that, also picking up further points flowing from my rather annoyed and crabby post, Tony Burke's bullshit.

Nimbin domes 1973 In 1972, scouts from the Australian Union of Students came to the village and persuaded the Nimbin Progress Association to allow a festival to be held there. The result in 1973 was a ten day festival -  a celebration of the dawning of the `Consciousness' and `Protest' movements in the heady days of the Vietnam war, free love and marijuana - a festival of discovery. The photo shows domes at the Festival.

This may sound an odd way to begin my analysis, but in many ways the 1973 Aquarius Festival marks an important dividing  the symbolic height of the 1970s' change process.

Today, when the ever extending rush to the seaboard seems so entrenched, it is hard to believe that that wasn't always the case. It's modern form is quite recent.

Prior to the start of the 1970s, New England's North Coast - the coastal strip from the Hunter to the Queensland Border - seemed quite remote to those living in Sydney. It was a place that some went to for holidays, but that was about the full scope. In those distant days, Coffs Harbour was a significant centre, but it was much smaller than Armidale or Tamworth.

Nimbin plus the simple fact of the completion of the final bridge over the Clarence changed all that.

Nimbin and the surrounding cultural changes popularised the idea of alternative life styles, while promoting the North Coast as a sub-tropical paradise.  House and land prices were relatively low by Sydney standards.

The replacement of the river punts by bridges diverted traffic from the New England to the Pacific Highway, making it the major route to Brisbane.

The people who now came to to the North Coast broke into a number of groups: there were those who simply wanted an alternative life style; there were a growing number of retirees beginning a rush that extended from the Central Coast to the Queensland border; and there were also many unemployed people - if you can't get work, you may as well live in an area that both offers life style advantages and is cheaper. Tourists came too.

The 1970s marked the start of a period of fundamental economic change. Across Australia, unemployment increased. Many of those with secure super - and this is a little discussed cost of change - decided to take early retirement. In the Hunter, industries began to close including the BHP. On the North Coast, traditional industries such as dairying and timber contracted. Across New England,middle level jobs disappeared as functions were centralised.

The jobs that came to replace them on the North Coast were lower paid service level jobs - tourism, retailing, health and aged care, certain public service positions directly linked to human services. By the 2000s, parts of the North Coast had become some of the poorest areas in Australia measured by the conventional statistics. The Federal electorate of Lynne is Australia's poorest electorate.

The position in the Hunter is a little different. The Hunter too was affected by economic restructuring and by retiree moves. However, the Hunter had coal. Growth in mining created jobs and skills shortages in particular areas. A variegated pattern was created of growth and contraction, of growing poverty and boom.

In inland New England, the position was different again. Economic restructuring removed jobs, as did policy changes and instability.

In 1981 and 1982, meatwork closures stripped 1,200 jobs from the Northern Tablelands. In the early 1970s, official projections showed Armidale exceeding Tamworth in population by 2000. Changes to tertiary education policy in the 1980s and 1990s stripped 1,300 direct and indirect jobs from Armidale. The city went into a decline that has really just been reversed.

Problems were compounded by official policies designed to meet state wide problems that had profound negative effects at local level. Changes to building requirements designed to protect consumers and maintain standards led to a progressive withdrawal of builders from smaller centres, to a decline in available land that met the mandated standards for housing. Communities with lots of land around them could not attract people because they could not offer housing.

By 2009, the problem had got so bad that that the Housing NSW could and would not build social housing in certain communities because they could get neither the land nor the builders. The problems were further compounded by the idea that those living in social housing must have access to a defined range of local services of an acceptable standard; this held regardless of where people actually wanted to live. Even places like Bellingen were classified as too far away.

Problems were further compounded by changes in people's attitudes, just getting people to move to the country to take jobs became an issue. In discussion on sea change, tree change, the focus is just on attitudes. In fact, attitudes combines with officially created structural impediments.

Just a simple example.

To save costs, the NSW Government abolished certain emergency positions in NSW hospitals. These positions were especially located outside Sydney. By 2004, NSW was training far fewer of certain types of physicians than New Zealand. As a result, there were fewer specialist available, fewer prepared to go to country areas.

Let me take another example.

If you increase the length of medical training, if you locate much of that training in metro areas, you then can't get doctors for regional areas for a simple human fact. By the time you are 33, most people have partners. If your partner comes from Sydney and has his or her own career, then the chances of you moving away from Sydney are very low.

If you can't get doctors in a community, then you won't get the receptionist, nurse and other support positions that go with it. If you can't get builders, then you won't get the unskilled and semi-skilled positions that go with those builders. And so the story goes on.

The problem in inland New England is not lack of potential jobs, but the inability to actually do anything to meet potential demand because Governments have built in so many structural impediments that you can't do it.

I may seem to have come a long way from my starting point. I have not. But this is quite a long post now, so I will leave it there for the moment..                    

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