Regional Australia is changing, and with this transformation comes boundless opportunities to rethink what regional Australia will look like in the future and how we want to shape our country as a whole.
By 2056, Australia's population will grow by an estimated 19 million. But most of those people are predicted to set up their life in the outer suburban areas of Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth - while regional Australia will only see modest growth.
In Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, the outer suburban population is forecast to more than double. In Brisbane, the outer suburbs population level will nearly triple.
While many of our city counterparts lament over skyrocketing house prices, and commute times, our part of the world is crying out for people. Our regions need workers to come and take advantage of the thousands of trade and professional roles we currently have, with more than 44,000 jobs now available across regional Australia.
READ MORE: How attractive is your town to newcomers?
At the moment, if you are tradesperson for example, you could really take your pick about where you want to live in regional Australia. And that situation doesn't look like it will change anytime soon.
So, when our cities are starting to burst at the seams, and regional Australia has enormous opportunities for workers and their families, we need a better plan to rebalance where we live in the future.
The Regional Australia Institute, in its research paper Regional Population Growth - Are We Ready?, addresses issues fundamental to our future settlement patterns. It challenges decision-makers to prioritise regional Australia and divert future growth to connected regional cities. What this paper shows is that many families living in metro centres may be better off financially to set up a life in regional Australia. Many home-owners in our capitals are paying double the mortgage of their regional city counterparts but have a similar average wage.
The average outer suburban Sydney worker earns $80,088, whereas their regional city counterpart has a wage of slightly less at $71,281. Across the country, the difference between the two groups are small and generally less than 10 per cent. However, the stark contrast emerges when house prices are compared. In Melbourne, the average home in the suburbs costs $776,276, while in Victoria's regional centres the figure is less than half, at $344,365.
Victorian MP Jaclyn Symes launched the RAI paper in Melbourne. As Regional Development Minister, she said she loved living in country Victoria, and raising her children there.
Ms Symes knows the benefits that come with raising a family in the country. But it seems many Victorian voters don't. That's why the RAI has called for a national awareness campaign to promote the opportunities of living in regional Australia.
Policies which seek to encourage population movement to regional centres would be instrumental in the transformation of regional Australia.
We need to see supporting policies to maximise education and employment opportunities, as well as job creation initiatives to achieve a more widely distributed population growth outcome.
As stated in our latest report, if we continue with the business as usual approach, an area like Tamworth is set to grow from 61,400 to 83,308 by 2056. Wagga would grow from 65,850 to 93,901. In Victoria, Ballarat would more than double to 215,528 and Albury-Wodonga would hit 152,000.
But these are tiny shares of the overall growth of 19 million people. Our analysis looked into the implications if regional centres took a much greater share of that population growth. It challenges us to think about what we'd need to do, build and invest in if Tamworth and Wagga were heading for a population of 300,000 people by 2056, Albury-Wodonga over 400,000 and Ballarat over half a million.
As a country, we are quite good at planning around cities and there are good infrastructure projects in the pipeline. But we haven't thought ambitiously about regional centres. Over the next five to 10 years, there will be a succession of decisions made that will lay out a road map for where population growth happens in coming decades. That road map must have regional cities on it. But the liveability of regional towns must meet people's expectations - including access to education, health and cultural vitality. They need to be attractive to new residents.
Now is the time for regional Australia to sell what it has, and for governments to partner with these centres to allow them to grow. Business as usual isn't the right path for Australia, and we all need to be bold to create a more balanced, vibrant Australia.
- Dr Kim Houghton and Liz Ritchie are co-chief executives of the Regional Australia Institute.