The term “sea change” describes the migration of people away from metropolitan areas and larger regional cities to high amenity coastal localities. For many it is a metaphorical change of life, rather than a literal movement to the sea. Although to date, much of the migration away from metropolitan centres has been focused on the coast. Some of those other population movements are known as a tree change. The move to the coast is not a recent phenomenon, with significant population flows to non-metropolitan coastal communities beginning in the late 1960s. In 2001 more than 85 per cent of Australians lived within 50 kilometres of the coastline. Approximately 20 per cent of Australians now live in coastal towns and cities other than capital cities. Much of the population growth along the coast has been within a three-kilometre strip, particularly in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia.

Coastal communities around Australia are struggling to plan for rapid population growth driven by internal migration from metropolitan cities and inland areas. Increased population movements can present threats to the sensitive coastal areas to the environments, the coastal waters, dunes, wetlands and distinctive landscapes. Many coastal communities are surrounded by environments of national and international heritage importance, such as national parks, world heritage areas and increasingly marine protected areas. Those places are particularly vulnerable to inappropriate development that threatens biodiversity, cultural heritage sites, recreational and tourism values.

The social implications of sea change migration are also profound. In spite of new population growth, many non-metropolitan coastal communities are characterised by high levels of unemployment, lower than average household incomes and greater levels of socio-economic disadvantage, along with higher numbers of seniors than other parts of Australia. Therefore, producing ongoing housing stress, high unemployment and increasing population growth and development activity in these areas is not translating to long-term economic gains usually associated with population expansion. Social divisions are occurring between existing residents and newcomers and between wealthier, usually retiree, sea changers and those lower income groups who have been pushed out of expensive metropolitan areas.

Commonwealth, State and local policy and planning instruments addressing the sea change phenomenon focus on biophysical aspects, particularly environmental protection, and to a lesser degree, settlement structure and urban design. Social issues—such as building community cohesion, catering to the needs of ageing populations, housing affordability and cultural heritage—are not well addressed within the scope of current policy or planning instruments. This failure to integrate social and economic objectives and strategies within coastal policies and the land-use plans applying to coastal areas reflects broader difficulties associated with achieving the spectrum of sustainability goals. Given the evidence of social and economic disadvantage in sea change localities, and the likelihood that such disadvantage will continue without effective interventions, broadening coastal policy and planning processes to properly include social and economic dimensions is a priority.

In 2004 the National Sea Change Taskforce was established to represent regional coastal local government areas. This group has committed to fund significant research undertaken by the University of Sydney, Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning research centre. The taskforce holds annual conferences that bring together representatives from coastal councils, academics and interested community representatives to discuss these important issues. The Sea Change Taskforce has been instrumental in making submission to the State and Federal government inquiries and looks forward to the opportunity to comment in the current inquiry into barriers to effective climate change adaption of the Productivity Commission. The work of the Sea Change Taskforce is thoroughly supported by local government. The Hon. Paul Green and I have attended many of its conferences. We are very supportive of, and enjoy membership of, that group.