You’ve heard the news. By 2050 Melbourne will have 8 million people and replaced Sydney as the largest city in Australia. That’s a fact, right?

Well, no. It’s a possible scenario only, produced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics based on current growth rates for fertility, overseas migration and life expectancy. Indeed, under the “low fertility, overseas migration and life expectancy” scenario, Melbourne’s population will be 7.353 million and Sydney’s 7.716 million. To expect that recent conditions will continue for the next 34 years is a big ask.

Besides, the ABS does not know what developments are being approved around the nation. Instead, we need to look to the states and local government to get to the source of population trends.

State and local government projections

The Victorian Government updates its population projections annually (although the latest release dates back to 2016). Victoria in Future is the official state government forecast, and includes summaries for each Local Government Area (i.e. councils). By comparing the projections for various councils, there is a dramatic difference between outer suburban growth areas (e.g. Hume) and the established inner suburbs (e.g. Darebin).

There are complications though, for Victorian Government demographers are fixated on land release announcements, whereby new towns are expected to rise from former farmland. Hume has several examples, including Kalkallo and Sunbury. Darebin has none.

But parts of Darebin are experiencing major urban renewal, as are the cities of Yarra and Moreland. One problem with the Victoria in Future data is the failure to drill down to small areas (i.e. suburbs). This means that the infrastructure needs of fast growing suburbs will be obscured by the lower growth rates of the council as a whole. Consequently, Northcote and Brunswick East don’t receive specific attention, no matter how many cranes appear on the skyline.

Another problem with Victoria in Future is the source data used. They don’t receive direct feeds from councils based on approved planning applications, so it’s something of a mystery how government demographers arrive at their projections. By contrast, virtually all Melbourne metropolitan councils subscribe to the .id consulting service. The .id approach to population projections is granular, building from small areas (e.g. Fitzroy North). In this way, the marked differences within council areas can be emphasised, unlike the Victorian Government data.

The .id methodology is far superior to the Victorian Government’s when it comes to infrastructure planning for older, established areas. Every few years Councils provide data from their own planning application systems, which .id transform into small and larger area long term projections. The result is a repository of rich data ideally suited for infrastructure planning.

School enrolment projections

An upswing in primary school enrolments began several years ago, particularly in the eastern seaboard states. Paul Weldon of the Australian Council for Educational Research predicted that Victoria (along with New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia) would see major increases in the number of students entering secondary schools from 2018.

Other experts have been warning of an impending school shortage for years. Professor Kevin O’Connor, Geoff Maslen and others have observed that inner city developments have proved attractive to families with children, and government planners have been caught out.

Victoria is probably worst placed to cope with the impact, as it closed so many schools in the 1990s. The Our Children Our Schools alliance was initiated by frustrated inner city parents, who have had to battle misguided or indifferent bureaucrats. It’s no consolation to be told that inner suburban Sydney parents have experienced something similar.