AFR – Thursday, 1 Apr 2021 – Page 23
Population Growing numbers of the under-40 s are joining the grey nomads and young families seeking a better life out bush; they are reversing a century-long trend of Australians moving the other way – from sleepy country towns to buzzing coastal cities, writes Fiona Carruthers.
Moving to a non glamorous inland town located a gruelling seven hour drive northwest of Sydney (which doesn’t even boast a pretentious local coffee culture yet) hardly sounds like the rite of passage for a talented young professional fresh out of a leading university.
But 23-year-old civil engineer Richard Doering was happy to buck the traditional career trajectory in rejecting a capital city job on which to cut his graduate teeth.
Rather, he voted for an Akubra over a tie; turning down a major Sydney employer to head out bush to the vast alluvial plains of NSW’s North West Slopes.
“Sydney can really suck sometimes,” he says from his motel room in Moree, where Doering moved in early March to take up a graduate engineer role on the $14.5 billion Inland Rail Project, which involves building a 1700-kilometre freight line between Melbourne and Brisbane.
“I spent the past 11 years in Sydney at school and then at UNSW – and yes it’s great, I love the city – but it’s also a limiting bubble that’s crowded and expensive. You get trapped into thinking it’s the only place to be. When this job came up in Moree, I didn’t think about it for long.”
Doering is part of a new dawn of internal migration as increasing numbers of Gen Zers and Millennials join the grey nomads and young families seeking a better life out bush; finally reversing a century-long trend of Australians moving the other way – from sleepy country towns to buzzing coastal cities .
One in five Australians is now actively considering moving to a region, with half the respondents hoping to do so in the next 12 months, a February survey of 1000 city dwellers by the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) shows.
The main cohort keen to shift is aged 25 to 40. And one-third of those are considering a small inland town – not a Byron Bay, a Mornington Peninsula, or a Margaret River.
“That was the real surprise,” says Kim Houghton, RAI’s chief economist. “With younger people, you expect their regional destination of choice to be one of the flash regional coastal towns with strong retail, entertainment and tourism elements, and of course great beaches.
“The fact young people are willing to go to the lesser-known inland towns gives me hope for all the regions,” says Houghton, who grew up in Hobart and retains a passion for outlying areas. “Young people bring colour and life: if the regions are to thrive, that’s what they need.”
Independent economist Saul Eslake has tracked the rise of the regions over the past 20 years. A perfect storm has put regional Australia in its strongest position in decades, he says: “The combination of the safety and space of the regions during the pandemic plus drought breaking (for now at least), and increasing prices for export food crops, led by meat and grains, has really changed the way Australians view the bush.”
Still, Houghton says he’s not too excited just yet; there’s a long way to go. Over twothirds (69 per cent) of Australians still live in major cities. One in five (20 per cent) live in inner regional areas; one in 10 in outer regional areas, and about one in 40 live in remote or very remote areas, the Australian Institute of Family Studies says.
The population spread reflects Australia’s 20th-century urbanisation drive, when the number of people living in rural areas shrank to 14 per cent from 41.3 per cent. The proportion of citizens employed as “workers in agriculture” fell to 4.3 per cent in 1996 from 30.2 per cent in 1911, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) says.
Until recently, one of the biggest problems would-be treechangers faced was the fact that many, if not most, country towns were solely focused on the agricultural and mining industries, leaving little scope for people outside those areas.
Over the past 30 years that’s changed as rural economies have begun to diversify, often driven by state government departments relocating to towns such as Albury-Wodonga , Bathurst and Dubbo.
More joint federal and state-funded regional infrastructure projects, such as Queensland’s $8.5 billion Brisbane-Cairns Bruce Highway upgrade, have also created new opportunities, as has the green revolution , with a $13 billion renewable energy project under way in NSW’s New England region.
Then there’s the ballooning of regional tourism; supercharged by the closure of international borders, which has left rural areas in hot demand. And the break in the drought, which has greatly improved the outlook for farmers.
Established regional universities in areas like Wollongong, Newcastle and Armidale in NSW, as well as in South East Queensland , Geelong (Victoria), and Bunbury (WA) are also doing their bit to hero the rural lifestyle , with the added benefit of a cheaper cost of living for students.
“Regional Strength. National Success” is the catchy logo of the Regional Universities Network. Demand for regional university spots in 2020 rose 3.3 per cent from 2019, compared with a 0.8 per cent decline for the group of eight universities, a federal government report shows.
Suffice to say, a far more modern face of regional Australia is quietly emerging. All it needed was a global pandemic to showcase the gradual transformation.
That regional Australia now has about 56,000 vacant jobs, due in part to the absence of international migration, is yet more grist to the mill. As citysiders move out to take up the opportunities and also to nab weekenders, regional housing prices nationwide are soaring by as much as 40 per cent, creating a new dilemma about whether the bush is now as affordable as a cheaper city suburb. Real estate agents from Queensland’s Gladstone to Renmark on the Murray in South Australia are scratching their heads. Even premiers are telling people “Go bush!” to follow the jobs.
But as a population shift finally occurs in favour of regional Australia, taking the pressure off overcrowded cities (as many governments have long advocated), there’s a catch: whether it will stick.
The more even distribution of people across this vast land – not all clinging to the coastline – will only work as a long-term solution if serious resources and infrastructure are diverted from cities to match the rhetoric. It’s a cash-flow diversion that most governments have ultimately deemed a bridge too far given the greater voter clout in densely populated areas.
“This is a watershed moment for the regions,” says Houghton. “For all the talk for years now, there’s one question left on the table unanswered: Do governments have the guts to fund this?”
COVID-19 has basically turbocharged a population trend visible to demographers since 2011, when, for the first time in about a century, more people moved from city centres to regions than vice versa, census data shows.
Between 2011-2016 , regional Australia had a net inflow of 65,204 people, meaning outlying areas finally attracted more people than they lost to the capital cities. RAI’s recent report, Big Movers: Understanding population mobility in regional Australia, tracks this shift.
Even though COVID-19 killed overseas migration in the past year – the traditional driver of regional population increases – the trend has accelerated.
From June to December 2020, more than 22,000 people shifted to a regional area, provisional ABS data shows. In the last September quarter, a net 7782 people left the Greater Sydney region, three in five of them moving to a regional part of NSW. The pattern was repeated in Victoria, where Melbourne lost a net 7445 residents. This represents the biggest quarterly movement out of metropolitan Australia on record.
The number of 15 to 24-year-olds leaving Sydney in the September 2020 quarter soared almost tenfold year-on-year .
The RAI’s Big Movers report, drawing on Census data, also zeroes in on the Millennials as part of the great shift. Separating out those aged 20 to 34 years, more of them were still moving from regions to cities. But the gap is fast closing; as of 2016, the net outflow from the regions was just 31,999.
“Even for young people, the tide is turning , and that’s not just ‘returners’ – those who grew up in the country, only leaving briefly for education,” says Houghton.
Over that same 2011-2016 period, 207,510 Millennials moved between regional towns, supporting the theory they will stay regional if they can find work and services.
Call it the rise of the second- and third-tier regional towns.
“You’re seeing well-developed towns, such as those around the central west of NSW, virtually at capacity, meaning the next country towns can now come through,” says Houghton.
“The same thing is happening in Victoria, where the typical ‘seachange’ towns like Daylesford and Apollo Bay are really reaching capacity, pushing Melburnians to look at the new emerging districts.”
In Western Australia, attention has shifted from Margaret River to the likes of Denmark and Albany, he says, while in South Australia he tips Burra and Clare Valley as positioned for more growth given how big Mt Gambier has become.
“Things are so tight in a lot of regions in SA, I get calls along the lines of: ‘Please don’t talk about us as a good destination to move to; housing is at capacity, we can’t take any more people.’”
It’s not quite so in Moree, an old-style Aussie time-warp of a town, where the most expensive hotel room on the main street will set you back about $150 a night, and the local pubs still do a roaring trade in “surf & turf” meals, with a side of cold beer.
Unlike the boutique NSW country towns of Mudgee and Orange – awash with elegant vineyards, alpaca farms and art galleries – Moree is more down to earth, with a current median house price of $210,000, well below the NSW average of $735 000. But lack of regional posh didn’t deter Richard Doering.
He might not have lived in the region since he was 11, but the desire to get out bush was strong. Besides, the inland rail job he took with the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) was paying the same base wage as the Sydney-based grad role he’d also been offered with Johnstaff, the management and delivery service company.
“A few of my mates were surprised by my decision,” says Doering. “Everyone expects you to stick to the ‘Sydney’ plan. But I grew up out bush –and I missed it.”
Another bonus is he has the option to travel to Sydney once a month given he works 14-day straight shifts, earning him each third week off. “I’m not sure how much I’ll end up utilising that option,” Doering says, adding “there’s so much to do out here, I’ve been pleasantly surprised, and the town has lots of people aged under 25.”
There’s even some decent coffee if you know where to go.
Doering’s experience is borne out by the recent population history of the Moree Plains area, which recorded 13,350 residents on June 30, 2018. Given that represented growth of 1.5 per cent after the steady 2001-2016 population decline, it was a case of stop the local presses.
How did Moree achieve this? In one of many local newspaper interviews she did at the time, Moree Mayor Katrina Humphries pointed out it wasn’t rocket science.
The town has “good transport links to Sydney and the highways are being upgraded” she said, plus there is enough drinking water in Moree to support 20,000 people. The housing market is affordable, there are more “professional companies” moving into town, and 30-somethings who grew up in the area and appreciate the “delightful lifestyle” were moving back to raise their kids, resulting in a record number of preschool enrolments.
Adam Marshall, the member of state parliament for Northern Tablelands, which takes in Moree, said his entire region was growing, pushing the population past the 80,000 mark (in 2018) for the first time.
“In the past, growth has been inconsistent across our region, but now every single community firmly is on the move,” Marshall says.
Sitting in Canberra looking at the data and sifting through the anecdotal stories, Houghton points out while the pandemic has kicked along this migration back bush, how long it will last remains uncertain.
“It’s a good news story at the moment, but the point is many regions are still crying out for services and infrastructure. Will governments finally get real and fund regions to not only survive, but to thrive? Without young people, there’s no future, and without jobs and services, there’s no young people.”
Another Gen Z case study, 23-year-old nurse Ellen Vincent, who moved to Orange last year, exhausted by working for two years in Sydney’s St Vincent’s Emergency Department – is learning in real time what Houghton means.
“My move was motivated by the pandemic and sleep deprivation,” Vincent says. “I moved here not having ever lived in a region, nor did I know a soul. If COVID-19 has taught me anything, it’s to stop waiting around for ‘the perfect time’ to do something .”
Not even six months since her move, Vincent says she can see herself living in regional Australia for good: “I love how short my commute to work is. I love how there’s no traffic , or tolls, or road rage. I love how the cost of living is cheaper. I love how easily I can make plans with friends. And as cliched as it sounds, I love the wide, green spaces and being able to see so much sky.”
But like so many youngsters heading bush to establish their working lives, she’s alarmed by the lack of resources, from education to medical to business.
The federal government appears to be serious about closing the gap.
Of the $110 billion allocated in last year’s budget to infrastructure investment over the next 10 years, more than $36 billion will be spent in the regions.
Infrastructure Australia welcomed the budget, pointing out that more than 50 per cent of the investment opportunities on its 2021 Priority List benefit regional communities , versus 25 per cent in 2016.
Romilly Madew, CEO of Infrastructure Australia, points out priority lists need cash on the table to get up.
“All Australians should have access to affordable, high-quality infrastructure services .
“COVID-19 has seen a 200 per cent increase in regional migration. We desperately need to direct more funds to provide infrastructure to both the regions that are experiencing the growth, and to those that are primed to grow. We need to be targeted.”
A recently released report, Infrastructure beyond COVID-19 : A national study on the impacts of the pandemic on Australia says it ‘‘ has exposed deficiencies in the network for suburban and regional areas as more people work remotely.”
The looming population data is challenging , with Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth all set to double their populations by 2050.
“Sydney at 10 million will be a very different city to Sydney at 5 million,” Houghton points out. “Will you want to live there once that happens? I know I won’t .”
Doering agrees: Sydney and Melbourne are crowded enough. After making the shift out west, it’s hard to imagine now reversing it. “You just notice every day how much more relaxed you are,” he muses. “I’m intrigued by country towns. Sure we might not get as much funding and infrastructure as a big city, but when the community pulls together on something, we do more than alright.”
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