6 January 2023

ACT population forecast to hit half a million by 2030, and there could be growing pains

| James Coleman
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View over Canberra

Walter Burley Griffin originally planned for a population of 25,000 in Canberra, but those days are long gone. Photo: James Coleman.

The ACT Government will need to act fast on urban planning to stay ahead of exploding population growth, with new data from the Federal Government’s Centre for Population predicting Canberra will grow by almost 100,000 within the next decade, reaching 550,000 by 2033.

It might not sound like much compared with other cities, but it’s still the equivalent of another Gungahlin and a near-70,000-person jump on the centre’s estimate from 12 months ago.

The 2022 Population Statement, released yesterday (6 January), puts it down to not only a 20,000-person undercount of the ACT’s population in the 2021 Census, but also a recent spike in migration as international students return after two years of COVID-induced border closures.

Natural increase is also expected to be a strong contributor, despite families in the ACT having the fewest children compared to those in the other states and territories.

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But with more people comes the challenge of accommodating them. And it’s no news the ACT’s schools, health systems and housing market are already under pressure with a population of more than 454,000.

Expert in urban and regional planning at the Australian National University (ANU) Dr Ed Wensing says the latest predictions will push the ACT’s capacity to the brink.

“The initial strategic planning for the ACT arrived at a threshold of about 500,000 people,” he says.

“The latest population predictions indicate we will reach that figure a little sooner than we thought, so it poses some really important questions for the planners, starting with, ‘Where do we put them?’ And then if you’re going to plan for that sort of increase, you also need to plan for the longer term and the next 500,000 people.”

Dr Wensing says any plan to extend the suburban footprint of the ACT through land-release programs has to be accompanied by substantial upgrades to existing sewerage, water and transport systems.

“There are already limitations on this infrastructure, and if it hasn’t reached capacity already – it certainly will by the time we get to 2030.”

traffic on Parkes Way

Roads? Where we’re going, we’re going to need a lot more. Photo: ACT Government.

Twice in the space of two months in 2022, Icon Water’s sewerage treatment network struggled to cope with heavy rain and light rail between Gungahlin and Civic is standing-room only during the morning peak.

“These things just aren’t big enough, and with the predictions for climate change and the increasing population, we have to take a serious look at them, and I don’t really see any evidence that we are,” Dr Wensing says.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr says, “there are extensive plans in place for a bigger Canberra” across the areas of housing, transport, education and health and emergency services, despite faster-than-anticipated growth.

“The increase in population will drive further demand for housing – this will need to be met through a combination of planning rezoning and land release – to provide increased social housing and through numerous large-scale build-to-rent projects,” he says.

“There will also be a need for increased transport investment – principally through the purchase of new electric buses, the extension of light rail and increased investment in cycling and walking infrastructure. Some roads will also need duplicating.”

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Mr Barr also flags more community healthcare centres will work with the expansion of the Canberra Hospital and the construction of a new northside hospital to share the extra healthcare load.

“New schools and TAFE facilities will need to be built, especially in growth areas like Molonglo, Ginninderry and Gungahlin,” he says.

Mr Barr expects a boon for business in the ACT.

“The increased population will result in increased demand in the Territory economy,” he says.

“This will support strong business and employment growth. It will contribute to higher GST revenue. It will also reduce diseconomies of scale the ACT has historically experienced.”

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National capitals should reflect their nations. Australia is growing, and Canberra is basically paddocks surrounded by a few satellite towns. Its the most underpopulated city in our country.

A ‘big’ Australia is not a good thing, and it is a shame what has happened to Canberra. Canberra used to be a great city, about 20 years ago. Now the road standards are very poor (potholes everywhere), transportation is terrible, nightlife is awful, the hospital system is one of the worst in Australia, plus the education system has deteriorated rapidly (Canberra used to have high Naplan rates, now it is near the bottom). Also, the highest land taxes, highest rents in Australia and longest hospital waiting times is not something to be proud of (and by 2030 it will be so much worse). Shame on this terrible ACT government for ruining a once great city.

And during drought years where will the water come from? We are already seeing worsening contention between agricultural, urban and natural environments.

Why can’t we pipe desalinated water from the coast? Oil is much heavier and piped across continents so surely water security for Canberra is achievable within some vision and drive. Would certainly be better use of public funds than the light rail extensions.

Capital Retro2:53 pm 09 Jan 23

All large cities in Australia will need more water. Bob Carr should have never scuttled the proposed Welcome Reef dam on the Shoalhaven. Now it is in a National Park and NSW is being run by green Liberals there is no hope.

The cost of desalinating water is prohibitive.

Capital Retro,
You didn’t understand the point though.

During drought years, the yield from dams is reducing and the trend is only worsening due to climate change. You know, that reality that you don’t “believe” in?

Desalination is an important source because it isn’t subject to the vagaries of the climate.

All major coastal Australian cities will begin to rely on desalination more heavily in coming decades.

Capital Retro10:58 pm 10 Jan 23

In times of streamflow dams will store water from atmospheric precipitation. The same dams will be necessary to store desalinated water in times of drought (vagaries of climate if you wish).

The point is that wherever the extra water we are going to need comes from we will need more dams to store it.

Common sense doesn’t need to be qualified by science.

Capital Retro,
Storages need to be far smaller when they are supplied with desal water compared to surface water sources because of the predictable inflows not dependent on rainfall.

You know they can model this stuff right?

Which means existing dams will be far more efficient and new storages needed far less often.

Common sense doesn’t substitute for science and engineering.

Capital Retro4:30 pm 08 Jan 23

I have said before the ACT needs a period of rationalization and consolidation. If this means sacking the government and installing an administrator so be it.

All ponzi schemes which is what the ACT financial situation is must come to end and we will all have to take it on the chin.

Growing pains? The ACT government can’t manage what it has now. They are so busy focussing on their wish lists and personal preferences, that they neglect the needs of so many residents. Instead they focus only on their preferred demographic and ignore the rest. I can’t see that changing with more residents, unless we change the government.

Your comment doesn’t make sense psycho. A government neglecting the needs of Canberrans? I have been watching with interest the ACT government’s significant investment in Health. Their response to COVID and the building of the surge centre in Garran during the crisis (the only city to build such a facility despite the whingeing from the Liberal opposition). Not to mention the current and significant expansion of the Canberra Hospital. All this while broadening our transport and light rail network. Also building a new and expanded CIT in Woden (again with significant criticisms from the Canberra Liberals). Yes I do have my criticisms and there is always room for improvements but what has the Canberra Liberals got to offer us except criticism and puting the city down.

I’ve finally figured it out, Jack D. Your a comedian

Good call Future, his line about broadening transport will prove hilarious and make any Woden or Tuggeranong resident who lost their local bus stop and had their bus commute time double, laugh uncontrollably.

There is no where else I would rather be, and clearly many more think the same.

For the whingers, be happy, the assorted issues which arise will give you plenty to grumble about!

michael quirk7:09 am 08 Jan 23

If past performance is the best indicator of future performance, then god help us. The Barr government has failed in its management of growth relying on rhetoric rather than analysis in determining development priorities. His government is tired and arrogant failing to justify its land supply, housing or transport priorities and blind/ignoring the preferences of many. An independent and comprehensive review of planning and transport strategies is needed.

HiddenDragon7:11 pm 07 Jan 23

The Big Australia idiocy which is driving these population projections relies on unsustainable levels of debt-funded spending by Australian governments and households, with much of that spending being in the form of domestic consumption which does nothing for productivity or sustainable economic growth.

This cannot go on forever and when it comes to an end the dimwit politicians and bureaucrats who have cheered this on as some sort of world-beating economic model won’t just have the problem of providing housing and government services for a bloated population, they will also have to find new jobs for many of them.

It’s probably just as well that much of the housing which is being whacked up around this town looks like it has a fairly short use by date on it.

Stephen Saunders5:10 pm 07 Jan 23

James, it’s not a passive “prediction” or “forecast”. It’s the radical and aggressive immigration plan of Albanese Labor, not at all supported by voters, but fine with LiberalGreenTeal.

Looks like, there could be a role here, for independent media. So where are you, Riotact?

This doesn’t make any sense. The natural growth due to births is less than the repopulation rate. national everage is less than 2 kids per woman are we are less than that. How does that mean an increase?

Our population is increasing due to immigration from overseas and other states. Our limiting factor has and always will be water security. In drought conditions ACT can maintain a population of about 500k.

The government likes you to believe we’ll keep growing as they need the land sales and rates funding to keep act afloat. Eventually the growth will run out. We don’t really have a long term plan other than to get bigger, like bacterial, we’ll just consume all the natural resources until we starve ourselves.

No worries – plenty of prison cell sized, expensive apartments to house people

SigmaOctantis5:36 pm 07 Jan 23

Well we know with this govt that people won’t ever be in real prison cells even if they commit murder.

At least those in prison have access to a yard.

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