Does Adelaide really need to jump on the growth bandwagon?

by Marion Terrill and James Ha

Published by The Adelaide Advertiser, Tuesday 2 October

Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently described Adelaide as a city “crying out” for more migration.

And it’s true – the population has grown much more slowly than the bigger capitals in recent years.

But does Adelaide really need to jump on the growth bandwagon? Is it ready for what that might entail?

With Melbourne and Sydney racing ahead at about 2 per cent growth a year since 2011, it might seem like Adelaide is getting left behind. But the city’s current growth is not unusual compared with other cities in the developed world.

Census figures show Adelaide grew at 1.1 per cent a year between 2011 and 2016 – on par with the average US or British city. Adelaide’s population is growing normally – it’s Sydney and Melbourne that are the outliers.

Slow and steady growth has its benefits – by making smart decisions now, Adelaide can be better prepared for future expansion.

Growth is good for a city. New people bring fresh ideas, add to the tax base and expand our culinary horizons. Nearly 10,000 net new migrants called Adelaide home in 2017.

And why wouldn’t they? It’s got a lot going for it: convenience, job opportunities. The vibe. Spherical, ferrous pieces of public art. But there are also forces that push people apart: congestion, crowding and competition. Rent, in particular, is higher in the city.

A growing population means more competition – for homes, jobs, schools. With four out of every five people driving to work, congestion is one of the biggest downsides of city living. But before you pack up the car and head for Port Augusta, hold up! It’s not as bad as you think.

New Grattan Institute research shows most Adelaide residents get to work within 24 minutes, and this has not changed during the past decade. Getting to work in Adelaide is even faster than in Canberra, a city with only a third as many people.

Most of us work within 10km of home. How can this be? It’s a common misconception that most work in the CBD. Only one in five jobs is in town, and this is declining. You’re more likely to work in your own suburb or the next one over.

The majority of jobs are dispersed across Adelaide, in shops, offices, schools, clinics and construction sites. And they’re becoming more dispersed – outer areas tend to gain jobs faster than inner areas. Port Adelaide, for example, has shown impressive growth. At the last Census, it accounted for 2.1 per cent of the city’s jobs, up from 1.8 per cent in 2011. Norwood, by contrast, has had the largest decline in employment, shedding around a thousand jobs.

One reason cities tend to cope well with population growth is because jobs are so spread out.

Given that this is the case in Adelaide, some policy and planning experts, including Infrastructure Aust-ralia, are keen to speed up the city’s population growth. Politicians love the idea of encouraging migrants away from the east coast to alleviate pressure on the major capitals.

From a congestion standpoint, Adelaide is an adaptive city and would probably cope with a boost in migration. But we should be level-headed about this – there’s no need to make hasty decisions.

Adelaide has high liveability, and it’s only a matter of time before the burgeoning populations of Sydney and Melbourne naturally spill over.

Some politicians are impatient for growth, and see a need to invest big in new infrastructure projects. They want to use hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to do this on the basis that if you build it, they will come.

But there’s little evidence to support this claim. Managing a growing city is about picking the right projects. Governments need to do due diligence to see if a project stacks up before announcing it.

Adelaide’s average population growth has been easier to manage than the bigger cities. Sensible growth creates space for sensible planning, which will minimise future growing pains while allowing us to enjoy the benefits that new people bring.