“Population growth does not equal economic growth”

A quote from the SUNSHINE COAST ENVIRONMENT COUNCIL.

The recent tourist season on the Sunshine Coast provides a snapshot of what a resident population of over 500,000 people may look and feel like. The influx of hundreds of thousands of tourists vividly demonstrates the impacts on the liveability and natural values of the Sunshine Coast region already under acute stress from rapidly expanding urbanisation.

In this special HT feature, Narelle McCarthy, Manager of the Sunshine Coast Environment Council looks at the practicalities and the politics of uncontrolled growth.

THE SUNSHINE Coast region is experiencing declining health in its waterways and biodiversity, traffic congestion due to lack of public transport and car dependency, loss of open space, high visitation of our coastal and hinterland recreational areas, depletion of natural resources and shortfalls in health and social services.

Tipping points have been reached with cracks in our social, economic and environmental foundations. As a region identified as being particularly vulnerable to climate change, these compounding impacts

are set to irrevocably destroy the quality of life and essential ecological integrity so valued by the Sunshine Coast community.

The population figures cited in the South-east Queensland Regional Plan predict a 2.1% annual population growth rate – a plan blindly seeking to accommodate growth greater than any third world country, and one that is currently the highest in the developed world. It directs an additional 98,500 homes for about 250, 000 people in the next 20-30 years on the Sunshine Coast.

The projections include up to 37 000 homes to be provided by ‘infill’. While higher density through infill has the potential to reduce car dependence, improve access to public transport, and restrict urban sprawl, this concept only goes so far.

Densification will alter the current feel to one of a more urbanised, high rise aesthetic, eroding essential backyard biodiversity and habitat.

The SE Queensland Regional Plan ignores carrying capacity which recognises the economic ability of the region to support the maintenance of our human, social, built and natural capital. Nor does it address the risks of climate change, such as sea level rise, which is likely to be 1.2m or higher by 2100.

A recurring community sentiment has been borne out time and again – “We do not want to be another Gold Coast”

Such a future is clearly at odds with the sustainability platform which gave Mayor Bob Abbot his landslide electoral victory in March 2008. That community mandate translated into the vision now embodied in our Corporate Plan – “To become Australia’s most sustainable region, vibrant, green and diverse.”

Alarmingly, the core elements of Council’s plan to restrain overpopulation with its associated excessive development, and to protect environmental and liveability values, are rejected in the SEQ Regional Plan and subsequent legislation in favour of short-sighted, vested interests.

Research reveals that more than 60% of Queenslanders want government to take steps to limit south-east Queensland’s population growth – a growth that has been aided and abetted by the lack of federal and state action on a sustainable population policy.

It was in their submission to the Draft SEQ Regional Plan in April 2009 that the Council conveyed to the state government that the Sunshine Coast community opposed

arbitrary dwelling and population targets. Indeed, its planning scheme requires significant community consultation at the local level to co-create and define future communities.

The clear nexus between the development lobby and the state government has revealed pro development and pro growth is at odds with the Sunshine Coast council vision. But as a creature of the state, how would the council resist such regulatory directives?

The greenfield developments of Caloundra South and Palmview were fast tracked under the guise of addressing housing affordability for around 65, 000 people. With the addition of the Maroochydore town centre, 80,000 people are to be accommodated without any analysis of sustainable carrying capacity in these developments alone. At 50,000 residents, Caloundra South represents a city the size of Gladstone. Other slated developments take the region on a population trajectory exceeding half a million people by 2031. Initiatives undertaken to reduce the ecological footprint will be negated by this burgeoning population.

The new urban sites mentioned have now been declared master-planned areas by the Minister for Infrastructure and Planning, Stirling Hinchliffe. Such declarations lock in development rights over a 20-30 year planning horizon, denying future generations the choice in how the region

should or shouldn’t develop. Despite council’s development brinkmanship with the

state, an unprecedented level of population growth will proceed, and council’s intent on retaining its rather tenuous planning powers through its structure plans for these sites is really only a salve on a somewhat angry wound.

Nevertheless, it is critical that council’s sustainability principles and development constraints are upheld. These constraints recognise emerging global challenges, notably climate change, peak oil, emissions trading, water and food security and ecological rehabilitation.

Closer to home, water and sewerage systems, affordable housing, public transport including CAMCOS, open space recreation opportunities , renewable energy and efficiencies, community services and facilities, diversified employment supporting a ‘green economy’ and enhanced biodiversity are significant local constraints.

Bob Abbot’s reassuring position in promoting the region’s values and triple bottom line, and publicly promising to

“draw a line in the sand”, must continue to be supported and driven by the community at all levels.

Excessive population will impact on the entire region, not just the areas of infill and greenfield development. What level of change is acceptable? High rise, more motorways, crowded beaches, reduced access to expensive water? Are desalination plants and a region stripped of its biodiversity an acceptable result of continually trying to absorb more and more people?

The platform on which the council was elected remains no less valid today than it was in March 2008, so we need state and federal governments that fully examine the carrying capacity of our region and its inherent community values. Meaningful sustainability indicators must be incorporated to determine an ecologically sustainable future together with the political will to implement them.

A suite of data now demonstrates a region under extreme pressure. Currently, all the indicators defined in the Queensland Government’s own State of the Region report are in decline. The science and

the practicalities of inadequate infrastructure alone dictate a much more conservative approach. The growth rate must be slowed and strenuously addressed as a fundamental cause of ecological and sustainability collapse.

The Sunshine Coast Environment Council calls for a sustainable population strategy that stabilises population, works with federal and other state jurisdictions on national policy and ensures all urban centres can provide a clean, healthy and sustainable lifestyle.

Population growth does not equal economic growth. Statistically, those societies which adopt population policies and family planning are economically better off. Wealthier nations, in economic and social terms, are generally those with stable populations.

To live sustainably we must reduce our consumption patterns and our trajectory of exponential growth. We cannot continue with unfettered population growth without dramatic consequences to the ecological services on which we rely.

A constantly increasing population is NOT sustainable and is avoidable. Population growth is for the benefit of few people, but reduces the liveability of most.

As a passionate, engaged community concerned for the survival of the natural world, this message must be actively communicated to those who continue to shape our future.

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