26 Aug 2020

Pre COVID-19, there was increasing dialogue and evidence around the growing attractiveness of regional Australia and its role in distributing the benefits of immigration-led population growth.

Australia should be planning for an additional 13 million migrants by 2060, according to the Productivity Commission’s forecasts in 2016 – that may still be the case.

However, half-way through 2020 and we are dealing with a different dynamic. Our national borders are closed and will undoubtedly look different once they reopen and net overseas migration is expected to fall to the same level as it did in the early 1990s. The role of regional Australia is now more important than ever, but for different reasons.

The role of regional Australia is now more important than ever, but for different reasons.

Australia’s economy is pivoting to more self-sufficient means, one that will emphasise our focus on regional tourism products and require government support and flexibility to encourage high quality development. Now is the time for regional areas to take advantage of constrained overseas travel and increased worker and workplace mobility. Physical distancing restrictions have spurred rapid investment and uptake of new work-from-home technologies and has ignited a long-term behavioural and workplace shift towards greater flexibility.

This is not a death knell for CBD locations. But it does expand the locational choice for those wanting to access to a wider variety of employment options. The dynamic and turbulent experience of COVID is also forcing many Australian’s to reimagine the type of lifestyle they seek, with many enjoying increased time with family and use of public open space.

These characteristics align well with the offer and potential of many of Australia’s most popular regional cities. Cities that have already been growing and changing because of their attractiveness. As we build focus for an Australia that is faced with a series of considerable economic challenges, we need to strive for a country that is stronger and more equitable on the other side.

Unlocking investment in Australia’s key regional cities has the potential to support this recovery and requires a focused and proactive response. The following are mostly recommendations drawn from Urbis’ submission to the Inquiry into Regional Australia by Urbis Director Nathan Stribley. Although, penned pre COVID-19 in November last year, these measures still carry weight as a means to elevate the role of regional Australia for the nation’s economy in the short and long-term.

As Australia continues to strengthen its economic base as a knowledge-intensive, services driven economy, the amplifying benefits of people living and working in proximity are likely to remain. These benefits – known as agglomeration economies – are one of the principal drivers of urbanisation both here in Australia and globally.

While the attraction of agglomeration economies has typically been strongest in Australia’s largest cities, there has also been a trend of urban consolidation from smaller towns into larger regional centres.

These larger regional centres play an important role in Australia’s national context, they provide a diverse range of employment opportunities; act as major trade access points; provide important health care, education and government services; and, supply general amenities to a wider rural catchment.

While Australia’s regional-level planning is considered of a high standard, it is fragmented and there is no coherent guidance on how regional and local plans should respond to population and employment changes.

Commonwealth should consider a more rigorous and transparent approach to understanding current growth trends. We also support the Commonwealth taking a more active role facilitating and providing guidance on how these major regional centres should respond to growth and other emerging trends in a way that builds on their inherent characteristics and strengths.

The largest centres such as Gold Coast, Newcastle, Sunshine Coast, Wollongong and Geelong all have larger populations than Australia’s smallest capital city. These large regional centres are also all located close, and are well connected to Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and – perhaps unsurprisingly – like these major capital cities, have been among the fastest growing regions in Australia.

Attraction to regional centres has traditionally been driven by job opportunities in the cities themselves, along with access to other services and amenities. Post COVID-19 enhanced quality of life in combination with continued work-from-home patterns and access to CBD jobs will be a powerful drawcard.

Proximity and connectivity to major capital cities will continue to be an important factor in facilitating economic conditions, including through providing access to larger markets and high-quality human capital, and higher quality infrastructure that facilitates economic growth.

Commonwealth should focus on developing policies that support the growth of these fast-growing larger regional centres that are already of capital city size and are proximate and well connected to Australia’s major capitals. These policies should build on the individual strengths and characteristics of these locations.

The big knowledge and tech hubs which once had such a stranglehold on attracting talent seem to be losing their allure. Many places around the country now have bundles of amenities – renovated old buildings, coffee shops and good restaurants, music venues, and not least of all, more affordable homes – that can compete with the biggest cities. In other words, the amenity gap between superstar cities and other places has closed, while the housing-price gap has widened.

(Richard Florida, The New Urban Crises, 2017)

A further boost to regional development to contribute to the reduction in regional disparities and attract the new work-from-home population, requires a coordinated approach which links planning policies and investment with the delivery of improved rail services. This includes strategies such as improved and coordinated local public transport, station redevelopment, and other complimentary regional development policies – e.g. the application of Regional (City) Deals which could be used to drive diverse place-based policy outcomes within a specific location.

Well-resourced, small-scale resettlement programs that provide events and activities, buddy programs and other resources have helped to support regional settlement. These can be driven by community volunteering efforts or local organisations.

For further information on the above recommendations, click here to view Urbis’ submission to the Inquiry into Regional Australia by Urbis Director Nathan Stribley.

Nathan Stribley View Profile