Photo by Phillip Flores

With Covid providing more reason than ever to ditch the city and move rural, the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) asked how regional centres can not only cope with, but make the most of the shift. 

Lead author Nicole Gurran from University of Sydney said while the growing popularity of the regions could be the beginning of rebalancing Australia’s settlement, it needed to be carefully planned for.

Drawing on international and Australian examples, Gurran and her team concluded there was no one size fits all strategy for regional planning, development and governance and that different regional cities had unique approaches and attributes which enabled them to succeed.

However, there were binding factors and similarities between those that continued to thrive. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the major factors in the success of a regional city was location, with those closer to a larger state capital fairing better in terms of growth. One notable exception was Albury-Wodonga, which benefited from its location on the NSW and Victoria border as an important transport and logistics interchange.

Another shared factor among thriving regional centres was that many acted as administrative headquarters for local and sometimes state services such as health, education, commercial and retail.

The report pointed out that higher levels of government support through funding grants and investment in universities, hospitals and other major facilities had in many cases helped diversify local economies and create high quality local jobs.

In virtually all of the Aussie regional cities examined, the largest employment industries were health care and social assistance followed by either retail or education.

Jobs need to be backed up by infrastructure and transport, as well as telecommunications capabilities, which in the country are not always a given. 

Professor Gurran said an emerging housing squeeze was just one of a number of planning challenges that needed to be worked through to encourage “a more balanced urban and regional settlement pattern”.

“A clear message to emerge is that population and economic growth are not on their own sufficient to drive sustainable and balanced employment outcomes, and that ‘success’ should be measured more broadly, by also looking into liveability, environmental impacts and the social impacts of growth.”

International examples highlighted the importance of setting concrete, regional level targets for balanced housing and job development and the importance of — when identifying industries for economic specialisation and growth — selecting those that had long-term, high value potential. 

The authors suggested that in the current period this would not include those susceptible to automation, but rather jobs that could be outsourced from major cities to regional Australia, and bring the city slickers with them.