Renowned demographer Bernard Salt shares his thoughts on the Northern Rivers' future.
Renowned demographer Bernard Salt shares his thoughts on the Northern Rivers' future.

Bernard Salt's 'outrageous' vision for the Northern Rivers

I HAVE long regarded the Northern Rivers region, the five municipalities of Tweed, Byron, Ballina, Richmond Valley, Lismore and Kyogle as being a unique region within Australia.

Here is a collection of 250,000 residents or thereabouts that runs the full gamut of the Australian people. It's a patch of fertile well-watered agricultural land, positioned within and across the slopes of the Great Dividing Range, littered with cute lifestyle towns along the coast and in the hills, with established Treechange and agricultural service towns tending the needs of the farming and the general inland population.

And all located just beyond the commuting orbit of a capital city, which means that, generally, locals don't commute to Brisbane from this region. It is very much a region unto itself but is positioned sufficiently close to access all the necessary cultural accoutrement of a capital city.

The reason why this place - the Northern Rivers - is different is that there is no single city or town that dominates the region. Sure, Tweed's urban coast has critical mass, but it doesn't exert an influence over the region the way, say, Geelong dominates Victoria's Bellarine Peninsula and the Surf Coast.

In fact, the Northern Rivers region is a lot like Europe: it is comprised of states (okay, municipalities) of roughly equal size and impact. Lismore has its attributes and as does Byron Bay, Ballina and Tweed. In one sense this makes for an eclectic region: there's business and social and cultural opportunity in various scattered locations.

But in another sense, such a situation would make for a collection of self-confident and fiercely patriotic communities. Like Europe, there is no single place that dominates the Northern Rivers.

What is required is a plan for the region at 2030 and an aspiration for 2050. Here is a community of 251,000 today, spread across three big cities (Tweed, Byron and Ballina) plus 41 smaller towns and a densely populated rural community, heading towards 275,000 by 2030.

There is no region in Australia that is similarly configured; instead I'd be looking at the attributes and the infrastructure of a slightly bigger regional city like Geelong and maybe even Wollongong to measure what could be added to Northern Rivers over time.

Can this region support a national sporting team, research departments attached to the university or institutions like the CSIRO, a very fast train service to Brisbane, a range of military establishments (Toowoomba has helicopters at Oaky; Townsville has Lavarack Barracks); decentralised state government departments? What are the opportunities associated with agribusiness air freight?

Can the region support greater depth in the tertiary education sector and/or in vocational training, and especially in building and construction?

The fact that the Northern Rivers is a collection of roughly equal states may make for an exciting region in which to live - so much happening in every direction - but it also makes planning for the future a challenge. There is no single authority to conceptualise and prosecute a united vision for the future. What is required is a regional discussion, a full-on engagement with the community about what might be achieved in the future.

There needs to be something like a committee of the Northern Rivers established and supported by each of the region's "nation states" and with a governance structure enabling a vision to be developed and carried forward. A collection of five "states" acting independently will have less effect than a single body that speaks authoritatively in the interests of the region.

In some ways the Northern Rivers collective, for want of a better term, is better compared and benchmarked with similarly configured regions in America and maybe even with parts of Europe. This is not so as to slavishly copy other regions, but to be inspired by what can be achieved by a quarter of a million people who are committed to a regional (as opposed to a metropolitan) lifestyle.

The reality is that the people of the Northern Rivers can choose to simply respond to opportunities and issues that arise from time to time, extracting out of state and federal governments infrastructure and job concessions just prior to elections (and which seems to be the model of regional development in Australia), or they can think about the kind of society they want for the future for themselves and for their kids.

"The Future" shouldn't be solely about ribbon-cutting opportunities for politicians down the track, it should be about creating a better, stronger, more resilient, more sustainable, more creative, more prosperous community.

In fact, the single most important factor in creating stronger communities in my view isn't a simplistic tally of "infrastructure wins" it's whether or not the local community is galvanised behind a common view of the future. This requires having a conversation, such as the discussion The Northern Star and Southern Cross University are leading) with the local community and developing a plan of action that articulates a vision and which is then finessed going forward.

Northern Rivers residents can by all means continue along in a business-as-usual kinda way, or they can seize the moment, be outrageously ambitious for their region's future, and plan the very best way forward.

  • BERNARD SALT is managing director of The Demographics Group. Email bernard@tdgp.com.au. Mr Salt will be the guest presenter at The Northern Star's Future Northern Rivers event at SCU on June 11. Buy a ticket here.