News items before 2016

  • Delivering insights to move the Hunter forward – for 60 years!

    Thursday, 1 October, 2015

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    We’ve been raiding archives and probing memories to share some of HRF’s amazing achievements that have contributed to the resilience of our region over six decades.

    These photos are of a collaborative project, the Land Resources Research Project, which was initiated by the HRF (then Hunter Valley Research Foundation) and launched in Muswellbrook in 1959 (pictured at right: Leon Punch speaks at the launch).

    NSW Premier Joe Cahill unveiled a plaque to mark the beginning of the ambitious project researching the Hunter Valley’s natural resources. Carried out jointly by the CSIRO, State government departments and the HVRF, the project studied soils, vegetation and land formations of the Valley in detail.

    Dr Stewart Bastow, CEO of the fledgling CSIRO said at the launch that Sir Ian Clunies Ross had suggested the project before his death. The photo on the left shows (from left) HVRF’s first CEO, Professor Cyril Renwick briefs Ralph Basden, Leo Butler, Sir Clunies Ross and eminent scientist Sir Frederick White about HVRF’s plans.

    “It is essential today that people believe in science and help the scientist,” Dr Bastow said. “It is a very great tribute to the Research Foundation that it has been able to surmount all barriers and has gained the cooperation of the people of the Hunter Valley and the government departments.”

    Dr Bastow said the project would attempt to study the soil and vegetation of the Hunter Valley to give its people an idea of what resources are available to them if they wish to develop them.

    “This is the first time that the CSIRO has been able to work with its Land Resources team in an active, live community,” he said.

    The team of five researchers from Canberra (pictured with Prof. Renwick in the centre photo) was based at the Foundation’s Research Centre and worked with HVRF researchers for months to produce their report.

    Speaking at the 1961 HVRF annual dinner, Dr Bastow said it had not only been a great privilege for the CSIRO to work with the Foundation, but a ‘scientific education’.

    “Our job at the CSIRO, and yours in the Hunter Valley Research Foundation, is to carry out research for the future…”

    Dr Bastow said HVRF played a very important role – to convey scientific information to the people to help them make Australia as productive as possible.

    “I congratulate a city and a Valley for doing something which I believe no other city and Valley in the world has done. I wish you all the very best in the years to come and promise you all the collaboration we can give.”

    CSIRO published the General Report on the Lands of the Hunter Valley as part of their Land Research Series in 1963. The reason for the survey was outlined in the introduction:

    The survey was made at the request of the Hunter Valley Research Foundation, which has as its main object the conducting and fostering of research into all problems connected with the land and its use. The foundation was initiated by a group of private citizens after the heavy and destructive floods in the Hunter Valley in 1955.

    Contact Kim Britton on 4041 5516 or email Kim.Britton@hrf.com.au

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  • Hunter canary in Australia’s coal mine

    By Dr Brent Jenkins
    Wednesday, 16 September, 2015

    Canaries

    I have recently had the pleasure of spending three weeks in the Arctic region. I don’t think I could possibly have travelled further from Newcastle physically and the perspective I gained from afar was enlightening. It is clear that the Arctic region is a ‘canary in a coal mine’ for global climate change. It is hard to argue with the physical evidence that glaciers are receding. The potential impact on wildlife, particularly the polar bear, is also hard to refute. Having had the privilege to sight polar bears with cubs on three separate occasions on my trip, I am mindful that this very large ’canary‘ may be challenged by reductions in sea ice well before concerted global action is taken to address climate issues.

    The globe cannot continue “sleepwalking into a real mess” in relation to climate change.

    The former head of Treasury Martin Parkinson used this phrase to describe Australia’s path over the next decades unless fundamental and structural changes are made to ensure that the economy is more productive (SMH Aug 27). As the Hunter Research Foundation (HRF) has previously reported, the Hunter is a microcosm of Australia. I believe our region is the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for the Australian economy, with our young people being the most vulnerable indicators of its economic circumstance.

    We experienced the impact of a slow-down in mining investment, reduction in commodity prices and the resultant flow-on impacts through the manufacturing value chain well before the impacts were fully felt across Australia. We are also at the forefront of trying to rebalance our regional economy and increase diversification. Recent news that one of our long-standing coal-mining players, Rio Tinto, is considering exiting the region, as well as the Bloomfield Group seeking to expand its holdings, indicates that the future of coal mining, while assured in the short to medium term, is likely to have a different role in driving the Hunter economy in the future. The recent decision taken by the Newcastle City Council on fossil fuel investments also demonstrates the region’s relationship with coal is changing.

    The important question is: what industry or industries will emerge to create new jobs and new value in the region? Key to this, both within the Hunter and across Australia, will be to focus on innovative ways to add value to our abundant natural and built resources and to leverage our growing highly-educated young workforce.

    HRF’s recent economic indicators have shown a temporary slow-down in the rate of unemployment and an improved construction forecast, providing some evidence that our economy may be turning the corner. However, youth unemployment remains persistently high. Just as the world needs to begin planning a response to climate change, we need to maintain a concerted effort to drive new economic opportunities for our Region or this small improvement will be a speed bump on the road to an increasingly uncertain economic future. We also risk a generation of our young people taking their passion, skills and energy out of the region to find opportunities for employment elsewhere.

    We cannot continue to sleepwalk around the impacts of global climate change, and we must not sleepwalk into a future where the Hunter’s long-term economic sustainability hangs in the balance, driven by commodity cycles or hampered by the lack of a clear pathway to create new industries and new high-value jobs, particularly for our young people. The lack of real regional development policies, from all sides and levels of politics, and the lack of consensus on how best to take the region forward, will continue to inhibit the Hunter’s ability to reach its full potential.

    At HRF our sponsors and partners are helping us to conduct solutions-driven research and analysis of our key industry sectors to find ways to enable them to grow and become more globally-competitive. We are analysing our region’s strengths and advocating an evidence-driven approach to industry sector growth in manufacturing and professional services, youth engagement, and land-use conflict resolution. This research is vital to inform strategies and to support development and implementation of high-impact actions.

    Stop sleepwalking Australia and the Hunter or the canary could fall off its perch!

    This article was published in the Newcastle Herald on 7 September 2015.

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  • Upper Hunter businesses lag in ICT take-up

    Wednesday, 16 September, 2015

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    Upper Hunter businesses are lagging their counterparts in the rest of the Hunter Region and in NSW when it comes to engagement with the digital economy, risking missing out on the growing volume of online commerce that is sweeping Australia and the world.

    The Hunter Research Foundation (HRF) spoke to 300 Upper Hunter businesses for its June 2015 UPPER HUNTERPulse survey. In 2015, just 59 per cent of Upper Hunter businesses (Singleton, Muswellbrook and Upper Hunter Local Government Areas) have a dedicated website, compared to more than 70 per cent in the overall Hunter Region. And only 28 percent have a mobile responsive website, compared to 42 per cent in the Hunter.

    Upper Hunter businesses also lag Australia and the Hunter in the share advertising and taking orders online, despite Upper Hunter consumers being more likely than Hunter residents to use the internet to purchase goods or services, do their banking and for social networking.

    Author of the 2015 Upper Hunter Region Businesses and Digital Technology report, HRF Senior Researcher Anthea Bill, says the gap between the online take-up of Upper Hunter households and businesses poses a challenge for the region.

    “For an SME the absence of a digital presence and strategy is likely to impact on business growth and competitiveness,” she said. “The introduction of high-speed broadband via the National Broadband Network may provide a greater impetus for digital adoption by businesses, as it will allow them to save time, work faster and potentially access new markets. However it is unclear if the majority of Upper Hunter businesses will receive such benefits before 2020.”

    In other results in 2015:

    • Upper Hunter businesses are in line with their Hunter counterparts in their use of social media for marketing, rating above the national average for SMEs.
    • Commonly cited reasons for a business not having a dedicated website were not having enough time or staff resources and uncertainty over the benefits.
    • 45% of businesses felt that they did not need to improve their knowledge of ICT.

    View the info-graphic snapshot Upper Hunter Businesses and Digital Technology June 2015.

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  • Upper Hunter economy may be improving

    Tuesday, 15 September, 2015

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    HRF researchers have seen some early signs that the Upper Hunter economy may be weathering the storm but are cautious about how this will be sustained.

    HRF Senior Research Fellow Jenny Williams said there are early signs of improvement in the broader Hunter Balance labour market, although the Upper Hunter areas closest to mining (Singleton, Muswellbrook and Upper Hunter Shire Local Government Areas) may be lagging, and housing investment is not underpinning the transition as elsewhere.

    “After sustained falls from the mining-related peak of 2013, employment numbers in the Hunter Balance appear to have stabilised since mid-2014,” she said. “Since early this year, they have shown signs of increasing, consistent with the slow transition to non-mining investment evident elsewhere in the economy.”

    While cautiously optimistic that the Upper Hunter economy may have bottomed out, Jenny said that there is slower growth nationally than predicted and a weakening Chinese economy is likely to create economic headwinds for the Hunter and the nation.

    “The data suggest that Upper Hunter businesses that are weathering the economic storm are adapting to the ‘new normal’ of lower input costs in the mining sector rather than diversifying their customer base.”

    While the unemployment rate is showing signs of stabilising, it may rise again and youth unemployment in the Hunter Balance remains unacceptably high (more than 20%).

    “We need to continue ongoing efforts to support young people in acquiring job-related skills and there is a real need for diversification in the Upper Hunter economy to a post-mining future over the coming decades.”

    Jenny will present the full Upper Hunter Economic Indicators at HRF’s Upper Hunter Economic Breakfast to be held at Muswellbrook RSL from 7-9am tomorrow.

    The breakfast also includes a panel discussion on economic diversification and a presentation by Ross Lambie, General Manager of the Resources and Energy Economics Branch of the Department of Industry and Science.

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  • Jobs key to housing affordability

    By Anthea Bill
    Friday, 21 August, 2015

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    By a range of indicators, the cost of housing in Sydney is increasingly unaffordable, with the median house price now approaching $1 million. The recent rapid rate of growth in Sydney’s property values has made entering the market extremely difficult for first-home buyers. It’s hardly surprising that the rate of Sydney mortgages being taken out by first-home buyers has fallen to an historic low of 7 per cent.

    What does this mean for the Hunter? Are we likely to attract a spate of capital city refugees fleeing the high prices of Sydney?

    In June 2011 Sydney’s median house price was around $652,000; four years later it was around $943,000. With first-home buyers typically requiring a 20 per cent deposit to secure a loan, the minimum deposit needed rose more than two-fifths (from around $130,000 to over $190,000) between 2011 and 2015. This far outweighed the 12 per cent growth in average wages over this period, making it harder for potential buyers to save for their first home in Sydney. While first home-buyers’ grants were intended to help pay some of this deposit, their impact may have simply upped the asking price, contradicting their intent and making affordability harder for potential first-home buyers.

    But how affordable is housing in our own Region and how likely are we to attract people to the Hunter as a result of lower house prices?

    Over the past four years, the growth in Sydney house prices (45 per cent) has been more than double the Hunter’s house price growth (19 per cent). Even in the Hunter’s best performing LGAs – Newcastle and Lake Macquarie – house price growth remained below that of Sydney, suggesting that the Hunter is more affordable.

    However, housing affordability depends on more than just the price of a house – it also depends on the borrower’s income, which in turn depends on their employment status. Over the four years to June 2015, the Hunter’s unemployment rate almost doubled (from 4.3 per cent to 8.3 per cent), whereas Sydney’s stayed around 5 per cent. Some of the lower growth in Hunter house prices – relative to Sydney – reflects the weaker Hunter employment market. The fact that Hunter house prices have risen less than Sydney’s is little consolation for a person who has lost their job; in both markets, home ownership would be unaffordable.

    One indicator of housing affordability is a borrower’s weekly mortgage payment as a percentage of their weekly household income. If this is more than 30-35 per cent, housing is deemed to be ‘unaffordable’ for the borrower. In 2011, this measure indicated that home ownership was unaffordable for almost 40 per cent of Sydney’s mortgagees; in contrast, the share for Newcastle and Lake Macquarie mortgagees was just below one-quarter. Given the growing gap between Sydney and Hunter house prices since 2011, home ownership affordability may have worsened in Sydney, despite its relatively stronger employment market.

    But how big a drawcard for the Region is housing affordability? A recent survey by the Hunter Research Foundation (HRF) showed there was a combination of reasons motivating people who either migrate to or return to the Hunter. Only 2 per cent of them nominated the cost of housing as the main reason, similar to the proportion in 2010. The biggest change between 2010 and 2015 was that work is now significantly more common as the reason for returning to the Hunter (30% of returnees in 2015 compared with 10% in 2010), while family ties and returning ‘home’, although still the number one reason, has become relatively less common (38% in 2015 compared with 51% in 2010).

    It was largely family ties that brought me back to Newcastle after a number of years working and living in Brisbane. But this may not have been possible if I hadn’t been able to find meaningful work. It was a bonus that, with my partner, I could also afford to buy a house within a short distance of the city. While it may seem intuitive that the Hunter’s home ownership affordability – compared to that of Sydney – should be a drawcard, its other attractions, including its relaxed lifestyle, inner-city accessibility, and natural environment, may be more important to people.

    An improving labour market would undoubtedly add to the Hunter’s appeal to both those relocating and those returning. At the HRF, we hope to see continued improvement in the Region’s labour market, particularly in areas outside Newcastle and Lake Macquarie, in order to enable more potential home-buyers to take advantage of our relative levels of affordability and to bring their skills and talents to the Hunter.

    Anthea Bill is senior research fellow at Hunter Research Foundation. Find out more HRF research insights by visiting, and by subscribing to the #HRFInsights newsletter - see the bottom of the page for sign-up

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  • Hunter businesses ride digital wave

    Thursday, 30 July, 2015

    Computer-chip

    How are Hunter businesses doing at engaging with the digital economy? With evidence that digitally-engaged SMEs are more likely to be growing revenue and hiring staff, HRF researchers are excited to see the results of our latest Hunter Region Businesses and Digital Technology report.

    HRF have been investigating household and businesses’ use of information and communication technology since 1998 in the Hunter and 2003 in the Upper Hunter. We’ve seen local consumers follow the rest of Australia and the western world to join the online shopping revolution and have been encouraging local businesses to engage more fully with this burgeoning digital economy.

    Up to this year our annual survey has shown Hunter businesses lagging their national counterparts in doing business online. In 2014, just 57 per cent of Hunter businesses able to access the internet had a dedicated website, lower than the national figure for small businesses (64%).

    This year’s results are much better, with the June 2015 results showing a significant jump in the number of internet-connected regional businesses with a dedicated website – up to 71 per cent, which brings the Hunter into line with the national figures.

    More Hunter businesses are adopting smart phones, notebooks and laptops to engage their customers in 2015 and a higher proportion are now advertising and taking orders online.

    Half of the Hunter businesses surveyed this year were using social media to market their businesses, with this rate exceeding the national average for small to medium enterprises (SMEs).

    While the results are better in 2015, we need to see the figures continue to trend upward.

    The key barriers cited by Hunter business owners to engaging online were uncertainty over the business benefits and a shortage of time or resources. However, expenditure on ensuring that your business is digitally-engaged should be seen as an investment in your future success.

    The June 2015 Future of Australian Jobs report, published by the Australian Committee for Economic Development (CEDA) predicts that more than five million of Australia’s jobs could disappear within the next 15 years as technology revolutionises our working lives.

    The CEDA report cites US research showing that 65 per cent of primary school aged children in America will end up in jobs that haven’t been invented yet and 47 per cent of jobs in the US will be computerised within one or two decades.

    With the job loss rate is predicted by CEDA to potentially be much higher in rural and regional areas as technology makes labour-intensive work redundant.

    The take-out message from HRF’s latest Hunter Economic Breakfast speaker, social media guru and futurist Nick Bowditch, is that you don’t need to go it alone in getting digitally savvy with your business. A growing number of businesses and consultants are able to assist you to develop an achievable digital strategy.

    At HRF we would encourage Hunter businesses to address two regional issues by employing a digital ‘native’ – a young ‘Generation Y’ or ‘millennial’ – the under 30s who have grown up in a connected digital world.

    Anthea Bill is a Senior Researcher for HRF and author of 2015 Hunter Region Businesses and Digital Technology report. Visit www.hrf.com.au to subscribe to see the full results

    Keep an eye on our monthly news to keep your finger on our HUNTERpulse results.

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