Could COVID-19 have a silver lining for South Australia?

Labour & demography

By Peter Gill

South Australia’s long-standing loss of people and talent interstate could, potentially, be reversed with net population growth as the State offers attractive health and lifestyle options post COVID-19, according to the Chair of the State Planning Commission, Michael Lennon.

Mr Lennon told the SACES Economic Policy Forum that society would not be returning to the ‘normal’ state of old with land use, technology, and workplace practices all shaping a different approach to city and regional development. But, at this stage of the pandemic, it was still an open question as to what the ‘new normal’ will look like.

In turn, the future development of the city and State would also require further evolution of the State’s planning regime with Mr Lennon saying the new Planning and Design Code, currently being implemented, provides “a platform for much better strategic planning and policy-making”.

“During the COVID-19 period there are obvious things that have manifested themselves really quickly. Australia’s dependence on immigration for population growth has obviously now stalled; we have seen significant changes in intrastate and interstate movements, and the impacts of that alone for regional economies that have been dependent on growth is there for all to see - and Victoria is an outstanding example of that,” Mr Lennon said.

“I think the optimistic view is that South Australia’s position might strengthen in a strange and perverse way.

“Firstly, the management of the public health crisis has been so positively handled that it will become a competitive feature and characteristic of the State in contrast to other States.

“At some point we are going to resume travel and we are going to encourage some level of immigration back into the country because Australia needs population growth. Historically, settlement patterns have related to where there are jobs and/or where there are family links. It’s unlikely that Victoria and New South Wales will be able to sustain or resume the levels of population growth that they have had in recent times.

“Therefore, I think three things may well happen. One is that the rate of interstate migration will slow and may actually turn in our favour, that is that we would have a positive interstate migration to South Australia. It is already the case that we have had significant numbers of people coming back during the crisis and most people, anecdotally, know that.

“Secondly, for people coming from overseas, the fact that our economy has not been dependent upon population growth and global movements of people through hospitality, events, tourism and the like, means that we have a more diversified base.

“And thirdly, quality of life has a greater meaning when you can translate it into lower death rates and greater safety.

“We have thought of quality of life, historically, in terms of weather and urban amenity but I think public health standards and health infrastructure start to assume a different profile.”

The geo-political instability in the Asia-Pacific region, in part due to the current deteriorating relationship between the United States and China, also offers potential gains for South Australia.

“It’s entirely possible that we may see movements of people and capital from those locations looking for safe destinations, so maybe South Australia might be one of those,” Mr Lennon said.

He said South Australia could see a turnaround to a net migration inflow to the State over the next “two to three years”.

So how do planners respond to such a scenario?

“We have been turning our minds as to how we do that and we have been evolving what we’re calling a ‘metropolitan growth management program’ which tries to reconcile four things. Firstly, the projected development demand, that is the balance between outer metropolitan greenfield sites, general infill and strategic infill sites and employment land. Secondly, the development supply options in terms of geography and location. Thirdly, the infrastructure capacity of regions and subregions, and fourthly, the need for new growth precincts to be established and supported by policy.

“Essentially, it’s a method of attempting to align monitoring of population, market trends and human behaviour with the use of land, the provision of infrastructure and the zoning of land for required purposes.”

The widespread response to COVID-19 of employees working from home – with a recent survey revealing that 40% of Adelaide’s employees continue to do so eight months into the pandemic – has also prompted new thinking.

“The land uses in cities are historically divided between residential and commercial and other non-residential uses. But what we have just shown the entire world is that down every street, and in every home, there is an office and a worker. They are not using that place just for residential purposes, they’re using it for a mixed purpose and it works.

“It’s not disruptive and doesn’t have ‘negative externalities’ which is the basis on which planning systems are organised. We try and judge all the positive and negative external impacts of land being used in a particular way and what we are finding, of course, is that many of these uses don’t have negative external or environmental impacts and can be co-located much more easily.

“I suspect we are going to see a resurgence of neighbourhoods in the traditional sense. These will be neighbourhoods not only where you live but also where you work, where you recreate, and places where you get much of your social contact which might previously have been in central locations. We are already seeing evidence of that in the resurgence of places like Prospect Road and Henley Square. More recently, King William Road is showing how main streets can be refreshed and given new life.”

Mr Lennon said the new Planning and Design Code positions South Australia well for the next phase of the State’s growth, including any stimulus it may receive from a net inflow of population post the pandemic.

“Some people mistakenly think that the new planning system, when it finally comes into effect, will be the end of the story. But of course, it’s not – it’s the start. What it does is reform and consolidate, and professionalise and digitise, a whole clunky apparatus that had been built over decades, and brings us into the digital era. And, on the back of that, we have a platform for much better strategic planning and for policy-making of different kinds.

“Planning policy is not an alternative or replacement for an economic strategy for the State. But planning policy has to be informed by what we are trying to do and where we are trying to go in terms of the use of land and the way in which our land assets are used. The new planning system provides an outstanding basis for that.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is reaching in to all aspects of society. Planning for a post-COVID future will bring both challenges and novel solutions.

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Tagged in Commentary, COVID-19