Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sunday Snippets - community development, soil sequestration, remote eye care

At the risk of upsetting KVD, I am not going to write my normal Sunday Essay. I am all written out, and have to focus on other things. Instead, a few Sunday Snippets.

At my request, Kanani kindly posted something that she had originally written as a Facebook note. Now in Newcastle, Armidale and the process of community renewal I have written a localised companion post.

The process of community change does fascinate me. Generally this is dealt with in terms of specific communities. I am also interested in the way change in related communities interacts to create new patterns. This, I think, a neglected topic in both urban and country areas.

Both industry and governments necessarily rely on trend analysis for planning purposes. But what happens if the relationships underlying the trends change? To use the community change example, if interaction between communities creates new patterns, then all the statistics such as population trends may change.

The higher the level of aggregation in the statistics, the more muted become this type of effect. At the same time, the less useful the statistics become for specific planning purposes.

To illustrate all this with a very simple, parochial example.

The population of the New England Tablelands has been stagnant for many years, part of the decline in inland NSW. Between 201 and 2006, the population of the Armidale-Dumaresq local government area, the biggest local government unit on the Tablelands (the bigger Tamworth lies on the Western Slopes) actually declined from 23,920 to 23,368 people.

This type of trend affects Government planning decisions, with resources concentrating in higher growth areas where projected needs are expected to grow. This actually reinforces the existing trend process.

Guyra Shire is 24 miles north of Armidale. Between 2001 and 2006 its population increased marginally. from 4,201 t0 4,220.  Again, this affects allocation of services.

Things change.

In 2005, a major tomato farm opened in Guyra, adding 250 jobs. This created great pressure. The houses weren't there. Now with State Government assistance, the Guyra Council is developing a housing estate to create 50 new blocks intended for mid-price housing. This will free up the pool of lower price existing houses for rental and first home buyers.

In Armidale to the south, the population declines that had been associated with structural change in the city's core industries of education and agriculture bottomed. Job creation began again, if on a smaller scale, Now this and an increase in the birth rate has translated into an an increase in school enrolments. Teachers, one of Armidale's largest occupational groups, had been falling in numbers, adding to stagnation.  More teachers will now be required.

In large part because of its educational base, Armidale did remarkably well out of the Rudd Government's stimulus packages, growing the construction industry and adding to the city's recovery.

Now factor in Guyra. Armidale is the major service centre for Guyra, so a small part of every extra dollar going to Guyra flows on to Armidale, helping growth. In turn, Armidale's growth adds to Guyra's revival, if only because it opens new job opportunities for those living in Guyra.

I accept that these are very micro trends, although in the days when I had money I did pretty well out of Armidale real estate simply because I understood the micro trends. However, my point is that when we come to look at community development the micro and the interactions between the micro is central.

Turning to other matters, the apparent Departmental response from Canberra to Opposition leader Abbot's climate change position struck me as remarkably city-centric. I quote from the Melbourne Age report:        

The Government has moved to torpedo the Coalition's alternative climate change policy, alleging that it would require tens of millions of hectares of trees to be planted, costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

A departmental document estimates 30 million hectares of trees would need to be planted for the Coalition to meet the minimum greenhouse gas reduction target of 5 per cent by 2020.

Abbott talks to Cam McKellar Trees are city thinking. Trees capture carbon in the wood. Soil sequestration aims to capture carbon in the soil, a very different concept.

The photo shows opposition leader Abbott talking to Liverpool Plains farmer Cam McKellar about soil sequestration. Now, unless I am much mistaken, Cam is very much a blast from my past.

I still don't pretend to any expertise on soil sequestration. However, I note from The Land that an FAO report points to the huge gains to be made from better management of the world's grasslands. Grasslands, not tree lands.

Finally, and still on rural issues, I see from the The Land that the continued decline in rural air services in NSW is placing further strain on the delivery of country services.

However, I was struck by one part of the story. I quote:  

Joanna Barton, the manager of Outback Eye Service, which provides ophthalmology services to remote areas in NSW from Prince of Wales Hospital in Randwick, said her organisation made at least 52 field trips a year and travelling by car had dramatically increased their workload.

The six eye surgeons she managed now had to fly to Dubbo, then drive several hours, work until 9pm, and leave at noon the next day to return to Dubbo for an afternoon flight to Sydney.

Now as it happens, I dealt with this very specific issue  back in July 2007 in Mr Howard, Mr Brough and Australia's Aborigines - 5: Policy and Administrative Issues. I was reasonably discrete in that post. However, I will be a little franker now.

As then CEO of the Royal Australian College of Ophthalmologists, I thought that the idea that we could meet eye care needs in remote Western NSW from Prince of Wales in Sydney  was absurd and unsustainable in the longer term.

My alternative was to build ophthalmic capacity in Dubbo, a major city with very poor ophthalmic services. This never got off the ground. One key argument was that we would never get the specialists to go to Dubbo. Other problems lay in the importance of Dubbo as a marketplace for services from Orange, as well as a proposal from the University of New South Wales to set up a service to supply Western NSW remote needs from Sydney.

I regret that I did not push this one harder at the time, but I was involved in other fights aconnected with the restructuring of College services. Ten years later, Dubbo is to my knowledge still poorly serviced, I stand to be corrected here, while the UNSW service is hitting the problems I expected.

I still think that we could have got the specialists to go to Dubbo so long as we designed an attractive enough package.       

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