Census data answering the coal, hard questions

Planners across the Hunter would have looked eagerly last week at the first release of census data for their patch. Their eyes would have been on population growth statistics. Since the 2011 census, total population in NSWhas grown by 8.1 per cent. In the Hunter population growth has varied a lot. The standout local government area is Maitland, which has grown by a massive 14.6 per cent. Then follow Cessnock at 9.3 per cent, the Upper Hunter and Dungog shires both at 7.9 per cent, and Port Stephens at 7.3 per cent. Intriguingly, Newcastle and Lake Macquarie LGAs lag the state average growing by only 4.6 per centand 4.4 per centrespectively. More retirees and fewer kids in the city?
Nanjing Night Net

The big population slow down, however, has been in Muswellbrook and Singleton shires with growth of only 1.9 per centand 1.3 per centrespectively. The census also tells us that us there are now significant numbers of unoccupied dwellings in both shires. One in six dwellings in Muswellbrook was found to be empty. For Singleton it is one in nine. Is this evidence that the mining boom is over for the mid-Hunter and it hasn’t left the area in good shape?

What’s going on?

The evidence points to economic stagnation. In Muswellbrook unemployment peaked at 12.4 per centin late 2015 following job shedding and a fall-off in new mines construction. By early 2017, however, Muswellbrook’s unemployment rate fell to 5.9 per cent, which looked like good news. But census data, capturing the state of the shire in August 2016, suggest that displaced workers and their families have left.

FIGURING IT OUT: What has the mining industry given to its Hunter hosts?

Housing data paints the same picture. House sales have been on the rise in both Muswellbrook and Singleton but not with good results. House prices in Singleton are flat while those in Muswellbrook are falling.

Muswellbrook and Singleton are test cases of the long-term impacts of coal mining. I have read dozens of impact statements over the past three decades with thick chapters arguing the economic benefits for districts in the Hunter when this or that mine is built and operating.The mines are now built and operating. Those who work in them are doing well as a consequence. The Australian Taxation Office tells us there were 5408 pay packets in postcode 2333, Muswellbrook, in 2014-15. They contained on average $81,237. The median Australian salary at the time was only $47,502. Local miners in work do well.

But where are the benefits for the rest of Muswellbrook? Where are the local supply chains that the reports said would be established? Where are flow-on effects for main street retailers? Where is the town’s fair share of the coal royalties that flow to the NSW government, estimated to be $1.67 billion over the coming year?

I’d prefer to be wrong on this. I’d like someone to tell me I’m misreading the numbers. I’d love to drive through Singleton and Muswellbrook – the great mid-Hunter towns – and see enduring investments that will take them to prosperous futures, where local kids get first class education and training, where local businesses thrive, where the spread effects from mining to the wider economy are bleedin’ obvious. I’d love it for the mining industry to stand before these towns proud for what it has given its hosts.

Instead are we seeing long-term decline? More census data will be released soon. We need to watch the Muswellbrook and Singleton stories very closely. A big question is being answered. Does the Hunter really benefit from coal mining? Watch this space.

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