There is no vision for sustainable, fruitful life beyond Sydney

MACQUARIE STREET DEPOSIT: The Hunter is supplying billions to the state's coffers, but its people are going backwards. Photo: Rob Homer
MACQUARIE STREET DEPOSIT: The Hunter is supplying billions to the state's coffers, but its people are going backwards. Photo: Rob Homer

It won't surprise those who move around Newcastle and the Hunter that we are home to many neighbourhoods where people are struggling to make ends meet, and where prospects for the young aren't all that flash. Recent Australian Bureau of Statistics information confirms this embarrassing, unsettling state of affairs.

After each census the ABS publishes an index of disadvantage called SEIFA. To calculate the SEIFA the ABS rates every suburb and locality in Australia on a basket of measures that underpin an area's standard of living. This includes data on income, education, employment, occupation and housing. The ABS then divides suburbs and localities into SEIFA deciles. So areas that are home to the least number of disadvantaged households score a SEIFA decile of 10, while, at the rough end of the pineapple, suburbs and localities with the highest proportion of disadvantaged households score a SEIFA decile of 1.

I could name the places in Newcastle and the Hunter where life isn’t that pretty. But I won't. Too often the media sensationalises the issue of poverty with traffic-light coloured maps showing society's biggest losers. But naming only further stigmatises suburbs and localities where battlers already face enough hurdles. Suffice to say I found 28 suburbs and non-metropolitan localities in the Hunter which ABS scores at SEIFA decile 1. These places rank as the lowest of the low, no better than the depressed towns in the remote northwest of NSW or the public housing estates in Sydney's outer suburbs.

The Hunter’s SEIFA decile 1 neighbourhoods are in outer Newcastle, west Lake Macquarie, scattered across the coalfields, along the lower stretches of the New England Highway through Maitland, and, surprisingly, in the rural districts hosting the roll-out of open cut coal mining in the region's upper reaches.

These 28 suburbs and localities housed 76,186 people at the 2016 census. It is gobsmacking that within a couple of hours by car from one of the world's outstanding global cities that so many people live as poorly as anyone in Australia. Worse, the situation is deteriorating. Of the Hunter’s 28 decile 1 neighbourhoods in 2016, 12 were not in the cellar-dweller category in 2011.

Clearly the management of the spatial economy in NSW is way out of whack. Our nation has enjoyed continuous economic growth since 1991-2, a run of prosperity unmatched anywhere on the planet. Our region has had a decade-long minerals boom, supposedly. It annually trucks coal royalties in the order of a billion dollars into Macquarie Street vaults.

And yet our people are going backwards. There is no trickle down of wealth in our region. Macquarie Street is detached, aloof. Our state’s regional economic strategy is tokenistic. There is no vision for sustainable, fruitful life beyond Sydney’s boundaries. We shouldn’t be surprised that the federal budget gave nothing to our region, for the NSW government asks for nothing on our behalf. The Hunter’s job is to supply the cash that comes from coal, servantly.

Meanwhile, coal rolls westward. In its wake it leaves a 100-year old social and economic landscape of communities that have no wealth, no enduring assets to show for their hospitality. Sure, our 28 neighbourhoods are proud communities. But their future is impeded.

What do people do? Migrate to Sydney? There’s a laugh. Instead they live on, silently, in our backyard.   

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

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