Monday, 18 November, 2019

Newcastle-Ocean-Baths From-Above

Australia is on track for substantial population growth in the coming decades. How much of that growth will be seen by Greater Newcastle and the Hunter region?

The country will add 19 million people by 2056, a 75 per cent increase in the population forecast by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Current trends and current policy will turn the major capital cities into megacities, says the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) in their recently released, National Population Plan for Regional Australia.

There are options, though, according to the RAI’s co-CEO Liz Ritchie. She will be the guest speaker sharing results of RAI’s research at the HRF Centre’s Hunter Economic breakfast on 15 November.

Under the ‘business as usual’ scenario, the RAI estimates that an additional 270,000 people will call Greater Newcastle home by 2056. This figure is in line with the growth forecast seen in the NSW government’s Greater Newcastle Metropolitan Plan.

What is the ideal size for the city and the region? What if Greater Newcastle became home to two-million people - one scenario modelled in the RAI’s report?

The RAI’s national study examined alternative patterns of population growth in Sydney and NSW in terms of three scenarios:

    1. ‘Business as usual’ – a continuation of current policies and trends;
    2. Growth concentrated not just in Sydney but also in Greater Newcastle, Shoalhaven and Wollongong; and
    3. Growth dispersed across the regional centres of Greater Newcastle, Wollongong, Shoalhaven, Canberra, Port Macquarie-Hastings, Tamworth Regional, and Wagga Wagga.

Under the RAI’s business-as-usual base case, commute distances in outer Sydney – a proxy measure for urban congestion – will increase by about 60 per cent by 2056.

Those figures would rise by just 15 per cent under the ‘alternative distributed’ population scenario (option 2 above), where growth was distributed to Greater Newcastle, Wollongong and the Shoalhaven.

A compelling vision for a single economic powerhouse region – incorporating Wollongong, Sydney and Newcastle – is offered in the Committee for Sydney’s 2018 Sandstone Megaregion report. The report recommends a network of rail connections coupled with a coherent strategy that promotes complementary economic roles for each of the centres.

There is no significant economic penalty for such strategies that distribute population growth, according to the RAI analysis. Only small differences are forecast in the unemployment rate, income and house prices across the two alternative scenarios. However, policies to maximise education and employment opportunities in regions would be needed, the report explains.

That is due to a chicken-and-egg question in relation to population growth in a city or region. Which comes first, the higher population – which can provide a skilled workforce - or the jobs to attract people? Either way, education and training must assure that employees are suited to future market needs and modes of working.

Population growth was addressed in the recent Smaller & Smarter Cities: International Symposium, held in Newcastle in October. This second annual symposium was organisedby the HRF Centre with lead partners - the City of Newcastle, Hunter and Central Coast Development Corporation, Hunter Water and AECOM.

Regional development expert, the University of South Australia’s Professor Andrew Beer, shed light on the drivers of economic growth, based on research for the RAI. He found that economic diversification succeeded where it occurred within a region’s general areas of specialisation. For example, underlying strengths in steelmaking have enabled growth in Whyalla, South Australia, he noted. This success in specialisation was also highlighted in examples provided by Dr Stefan Hajkowicz, a specialist in megatrends and Director of CSIRO’s Data61.

In a symposium keynote, Hajkowicz described megatrends related to health, business, technology, and climate. He related a tale of two US cities – Pittsburgh and Detroit – that had very different outcomes in transitioning their economies from heavy industry bases.

Pittsburgh made what is recognised as a successful transition. Pittsburgh was supported by government programs and internal initiatives to shift from manufacturing and selling steel to selling steel know-how. Over a 20-year period, the city attracted two academic and eight corporate centres for steel-related research.

Detroit appeared to have no coherent Plan B beyond car manufacturing. Changing markets and international competition led to huge job losses. The City of Detroit filed for bankruptcy with a $US24 billion debt. Recovery of Detroit’s economy, now beginning, will be based in reinvention, Hajkowicz argued.

Areas of strength for the Hunter were identified by symposium participants. The list includes the natural environment, infrastructure, energy, technology, medical and health research, education and advanced manufacturing. In these areas, job clusters could stimulate and support the population growth that the RAI says is possible. Steps toward such growth or to pursue alternatives,the experts and international examples suggest, can be realised through collaboration and vision - the HRF Centre’s theme for 2019.

This opinion piece was published in the Newcastle Herald on 9 November, 2019.

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