22/02/2012 - 11:03

Population planning essential

22/02/2012 - 11:03


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Sustained rapid population growth in Perth should be manageable, but the cost will depend on how we allow the city to develop.

Sustained rapid population growth in Perth should be manageable, but the cost will depend on how we allow the city to develop.

NEW population forecasts released last week by the WA Planning Commission have, quite rightly, prompted some healthy debate about the state’s future development.

Western Australia’s population is projected to reach 3.06 million by the year 2026. That is 400,000 higher than the last projections completed five years ago.

Most of the growth is expected to occur in the existing population centres, meaning Perth and the Peel region, which are expected to reach about 2.3 million people.

To put some perspective on the state’s growth, the commission said it took 35 years (from 1971 to 2006) for WA’s population to grow by one million. The next million will take only 20 years.

Underpinning these projections are some key assumptions; that the state will continue to experience strong economic growth, higher birth rates experienced in recent years will be sustained, and overseas immigration will continue.

Using alternative assumptions, the commission estimated the state’s population could be as low as 2.93 million and as high as 3.20 million.

Commenting on the new projections, Planning Minister John Day said Directions 2031 would remain the key planning strategy for the Perth and Peel region.

Mr Day also used the opportunity to plug the state government’s three big inner-city redevelopment projects.

“The new projections illustrated the need for projects like the Perth Waterfront, Perth City Link, and Riverside, which would create more places for people to live and work in the city, as well as the importance of further urban consolidation across the metropolitan area,” he said last week.

“There is no doubt that we need these projects to help meet the needs of our growing city just as we need to continue to encourage the provision of a diversity of housing options and choices across Perth.”

It’s hard to argue with Mr Day’s broad statements, though the detail is questionable. The Waterfront and Riverside projects, for instance, may have merit, but they are not a precondition for getting more people living in the inner city.

Premier Colin Barnett took a different tack, commenting last week that the state needed to do more to encourage the development of regional population centres.

“We need to have a broader distribution of population in WA to cope with the population growth but also to take pressure off transport congestion and those sorts of things,” Mr Barnett said.

New Labor leader Mark McGowan evidently agrees with this objective, and has put forward a couple of specific proposals.

He has announced that the Department of Local Government (with 103 staff) will be relocated to Albany if Labor is elected at the next state election, and that the Department of Regional Development and Lands (with 242 staff) will be relocated to Bunbury.

“This is a major commitment to devolution and decentralisation,” Mr McGowan said. 

It also looks like a very costly and cumbersome exercise, throwing up all sorts of logistical challenges for those departments, which would be denied ready access to other agencies and to the convenient transport links between Perth and the rest of the state.

And would the benefits of having extra government workers in those cities really justify the cost and inconvenience?

Advocates of decentralisation point to Queensland, which has 11 centres with populations of more than 50,000. WA has just one – Bunbury.

However that is no panacea for city planning issues; Queensland’s population is still concentrated in the state’s south-east around Brisbane and the Gold Coast, which face similar growth challenges to Perth.

The Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA believes the new population projections support its calls for an over-arching strategy that brings together WA’s energy, water, economic and social infrastructure, as well as the workforce needs of the state.

Chief executive James Pearson said this would build on documents such as Directions 2031 and Skilling WA. 

“What is missing is a single, well-coordinated approach to planning for the future of the state,” Mr Pearson said.

His comments echo repeated calls by business leaders for a clear long-term vision for the state.

That is a commendable goal, but what is also needed is some hard-headed thinking about Perth’s continued sprawling expansion. More freeways, more trains, new schools, extra power lines, sewerage and water … the list goes on.

The people of Perth need to understand the high costs entailed in this type of development, and weigh that up against the costs (and benefits) of urban infill.

It’s a debate that’s rarely tackled head on.


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