Is the tide still out on coastal growth?

Is the tide still out on coastal growth?

One of the more interesting demographic trends in recent years has been the slow down in population growth in coastal areas of Australia. Through our population forecasting work, .id’s forecasters have long suspected that the rate of coastal growth hasn’t bounced back to the heady heights of the 1980s and 1990s.

Five years ago I wrote a blog about this, and the results surprised a few people as the general perception was that these areas were still growing rapidly. The recent rebasing of the Estimated Resident Population (ERP) figures by the ABS, in addition to the Census data, has provided a whole new set of numbers with which to analyse more recent trends. So here’s the update on how have the trends changed.

Coastal growth in Australia

I’ve used Local Government Areas (LGAs) as the basis for analysis, basically defining LGAs that have a coastline as ‘coastal’. Using this measure, there are 146 coastal councils in Australia. It does present a few anomalies with regard to the size of some LGAs in the NT, QLD and WA, but overall it is a useful geography for identifying trends at a national level. This covers a diverse range of LGAs, not all of which are coastal LGAs of high amenity where people retire to. The capital city LGAs included in the analysis are those within a Greater Capital City Statistical Area, regardless of whether or not they are on the coast.

Slowing population growth?

Overall, the rate of population growth in coastal LGAs has slowed once again, standing at 1.2% for 2011-16 compared to 1.7% in 2006-11. This is also reflected in the volume of growth – whereas an additional 355,115 persons were added to coastal LGAs in 2006-11, the equivalent figure for 2011-16 was only 273,795. As a comparison, Australia’s capital cities recorded population growth of 2.0% between 2011-16, and inland areas 0.7% over the same time period. The table below shows annual average population growth rates for coastal councils by state for the Census periods 2006-11 and 2011-16.

Population change, coastal LGAs in Australia, 2006-11 and 2011-16

state Population growth (no.) Annual average population growth
  2006-11 2011-16 2006-11 2011-16
NSW 74,763 58,820 1.1% 0.8%
VIC 28,369 36,516 1.2% 1.5%
QLD 198,835 152,838 2.3% 1.6%
SA 7,933 8,160 0.8% 0.8%
WA 35,314 19,040 2.2% 1.1%
TAS 6,379 -1,719 0.7% -0.2%
NT 7,289 5,184 2.9% 1.8%
Australia 355,115 273,795 1.7% 1.2%

Source: ABS, Regional Population Growth (ABS Cat. no. 3218.0)

Fastest growing coastal councils

The fastest growing coastal council in Australia in 2011-16 was Lockhart River in far north Queensland. This is a small council with a 2016 population of just 747 people, but this increased from 520 people in 2011 – a 44% increase. Other fast growing councils include Ashburton in northern WA (30% growth between 2011-16) and Augusta-Margaret River in south western WA (20% growth between 2011-16). Unsurprisingly, larger councils recorded the highest volumes of growth, including the Gold Coast (61,716 persons between 2011-16), Sunshine Coast (36,148) and Greater Geelong (22,766).

Trends in coastal population growth

The rates and trends of coastal growth differ by state and much of this is tied to economic conditions. Let’s take a look at some of the state based trends around Australia.

Mining gloom hits harder in Western Australia

The population growth rate in WA coastal LGAs was much lower than NT and Queensland coastal LGAs in 2011-16, halving in 2011-16 compared to the earlier period. Much of the decline in WA can be attributed to the downturn in the mining sector, although this impacts some LGAs more than others. The low demand for labour has resulted in outwards migration from some LGAs. The City of Karratha, for instance, grew by 3.3% per annum between 2006 and 2011, representing an increase of almost 3,600 persons over the five years. Between 2011 and 2016 the population declined by -1.3% per annum, or 1,462 persons – In other words, around half the population growth of 2006-11 was lost between 2011 and 2016. The population was still higher in 2016 (22,172) compared to 2006 (20,054) so, it will be interesting to see if this holds steady or if there is further out migration as the mining sector adjusts to the structural shifts in the economy.

Tasmania – a mixed bag

Tasmania represents a different type of population shift – one that went from modest growth in 2006-11 (0.7% per annum) to a population loss of -0.2% per annum between 2011-16. Most of Tasmania’s LGAs are coastal and represent diverse economies, from the regional centres along the north coast to the more remote communities on the west coast. Population loss was recorded in most LGAs along the north coast, most notably in Burnie and Devonport which have been hit hard by manufacturing decline in recent years. However, there were coastal councils that grew – the one with the highest growth rate between 2011-16 was Flinders, recording an annual average growth rate of 2.7%. This also happens to be our smallest community profile client!

Sluggish growth along the coast in NSW

Of all the places in Australia with slower coastal growth, perhaps the most surprising is New South Wales. In the last decades of the 20th century, many coastal towns in NSW grew strongly on the back of retirement migration, but coastal growth has been sluggish in NSW coastal LGAs since 2006, with the rate and volume of growth lower in 2011-16.

All councils on the NSW South Coast recorded modest growth, with rates stronger in the Illawarra and Shoalhaven compared to the far south coast. When looking at individual LGAs on the north coast, we can see considerable variation. Clarence Valley recorded a modest growth rate of 0.9% per annum between 2006-11 but barely grew between 2011-16 (80 persons). Only Bellingen Shire lost population between 2011-16, amounting to just 30 persons. On the other hand, Byron Shire grew by 1.3% per annum between 2011-16, compared to just 0.4% between 2006-11. Byron Shire, as well as neighbouring Tweed Shire, recorded above-average growth. some of which may relate to their location within the wider Gold Coast labour market.

It’s all about proximity to Melbourne in Victoria

In contrast to other states, Victoria’s coastal councils recorded a higher rate of population growth between 2011-16 (1.5% per annum) compared with 2006-11 (1.2% per annum). Much of this was driven by higher than average growth in Greater Geelong, which grew by 2.0% per annum between 2011-16. There are several development fronts on the urban fringe of Geelong, most notably Armstrong Creek to the south, which also have significant capacity for growth out into the future. Geelong is former manufacturing centre that is diversifying beyond its traditional manufacturing base. Improved transport connections to Melbourne, as well as relatively affordable housing, also encourage economic growth and commuting.

Surf Coast and Bass Coast Shires continue to be Victoria’s fastest growing coastal councils, although the rates and volumes declined slightly in 2011-16. Surf Coast also benefits from its proximity to the Geelong job market, not to mention its traditional role as a holiday location. Bass Coast has also benefitted from stronger transport links to Melbourne and the growth of employment in the outer south eastern suburbs, which enables commuting from some of the smaller towns along the Bass Highway. On the other hand, Glenelg and Corangamite which are more distant from Melbourne and have a more rural based economy declined in population between 2011-16.

What does this all mean?

Coastal population growth is still occurring, but it is spatially concentrated and linked to other factors such as economic opportunity and distance to capital cities. There are “hot spots” of growth but the reality is that Australia’s coastal councils are diverse, with a variety of role and functions, and not the same drivers of growth and change.

The real story about population growth and change in Australia can be found in Australia’s cities, which grew faster than the coastal councils as a whole and contain the bulk of the population. Definitely sounds like material and conversation points for future blogs!


.id are population experts who analyse, enhance and present Census data through demographic web tools and consulting services. You can access our free community population profiles online to see how the results from 2016 Australian Census relate to your local area.

Simone - Myth Buster

Simone has a rich background in human geography, demography and urban planning – a background that was useful in her previous roles in the Commonwealth and State Governments, and now as part of the forecast team at .id. From the Queensland coast to the southern suburbs of Perth, Simone produces population and dwelling forecasts that help local governments make informed decisions about future service and planning needs. She is a regular contributor to .id’s blog and has spoken at several conferences on how our cities and regions are changing. She is a big advocate of evidence-based planning and how Census and other data can inform this. Outside of work Simone is a keen traveller and photographer – interests that tie in well with her professional life and help her to understand “place”.

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