OpinionNon-metro stars still Sydney’s support act

Sydney faces a massive challenge in trying to grow by 2 million over the next 20 years. Two thirds of this growth is to be housed in Western Sydney. The race is on to approve greenfields suburbs, erect multi-storey apartment blocks, generate suburban jobs and build transport infrastructure to link it together. The Greater Sydney Commission was formed last year to oversee the task and its plans are on display. It needs a lot of luck.

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CRAMMED: In 2036, NSW will have about 10 million residents, most of them in Sydney.

Not surprisingly the NSW government has become obsessive about Sydney.Meanwhile, the rest of NSWis expected to look after itself, save for the odd planning dibble and dabble here and there.

Sydney has bulldozers, giant cranes and a free-spending treasury to build a 21st century city.The rest of the state makes do with a spanner and an oil can to keep their last-century fitouts functioning.

What is surprising is the silence from the bush. Country folk seemed resigned to out-of-date infrastructure and a sliver of the planning and infrastructure pie.

Maybe the silence comes from a perception that non-metropolitan NSW is losing population and that Sydney deserves all the attention. Yet this is not the case. There were 2.2 million non-Sydneysiders in NSW in 1991, 2.4 million in 2001 and 2.6 million in 2011. Sure, there are some rural and remote regions in NSW where population is declining. But overall the population outside Sydney continues to grow steadily with rising numbers in Newcastle and Wollongong, in regional centres like Dubbo and Wagga Wagga, and in towns up and down the coast.

Yet there are two problems. The first is that jobs growth in non-metropolitan NSW is not keeping pace with population growth. The Bureau of Statistics predicts the non-Sydney portion of NSW will get only 23 per cent of the state’s total jobs growth over the next five years despite having nearly 40 per centof the state’s population. And non-metropolitan jobs growth will most likely be in health and personal services, education and training, and community services – good jobs sure, but not ones that drive economic growth.

Already in Newcastle this trend is unfolding. The Hunter Valley Research Foundation last week reported an upswing in jobs growth in the Hunter in late 2016 after a succession of poor figures since 2013. But the growth is occurring in population services, particularly health care and social assistance, and education and training.

Fortunately, there was also jobs growth in business services where economic multipliers are higher. Without these multipliers a region gets little from population growth, and when population growth stagnates jobs growth ends. The young leave. Cheap housing becomes attractive to low-income retirees and those not in the workforce.

Which leads to the second problem. The Bureau of Statistics says that ageing is becoming a feature of non-metropolitan NSW. Sydney’s growth in the next 20 years will see it maintain a relatively young adult profile with its median age rising only slightly from 36 to 38 years. Away from Sydney, however, the Bureau predicts the median age to rise from 41 to 46 years.

Is this sensible planning: a rising number of older people in jobs deficient non-metropolitan areas while a capital city bursts at the seams? And an endless list of expensive infrastructure projects thrown at the city’s hideous congestion problems?

In 2036 NSW will have almost 10 million residents. Does it make economic, social and environmental sense to have two thirds of them crammed into one city while the rest of the state stagnates?

Phillip O’Neill is professor of economic geography at Western Sydney University.