Country towns prepare for city-dweller influx

MOVEMENT AT MOREE: Moree Plains Shire is the fastest growing destination for tree changers and mayor Katrina Humphries (fourth from left) says the area is already preparing itself for a population surge.
MOVEMENT AT MOREE: Moree Plains Shire is the fastest growing destination for tree changers and mayor Katrina Humphries (fourth from left) says the area is already preparing itself for a population surge.

The northern NSW municipality of Moree Plains has plenty of lessons for regional areas right around Australia experiencing an influx of new residents from capital cities.

It's fast becoming the destination of choice for city dwellers flocking to the regions, according to Regional Movers Index data released today.

The index published by the Regional Australia Institute, which uses Commonwealth Bank data, showed there's no slowing of the tree-changer effect.

The number of capital city people moving to the regions crept another 2 per cent higher in the September 2021 quarter.

Not surprisingly, big centres like the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and Geelong remain Australia's most common places to resettle outside the capital cities, with Wollongong and Lake Macquarie the top destinations in New South Wales.

But growing fastest is Moree Plains Shire Council. As a tree-changer destination, it grew 55pc in the 12 months to September and a staggering 87pc in the last quarter.

Moree Plains Shire mayor Katrina Humphries said Moree had become incredibly attractive thanks to an 18-month stretch without a confirmed COVID case.

The 1700km Inland Rail would pass through Moree, too, and had already brought jobs to the shire.

Its ample and high-quality artesian water supply was the region's "jewel in the crown", she said, and Moree's direct flights to Sydney meant it was easy to visit city-based friends and family.

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The planned Moree Special Activation Precinct (SAP) would offer a new business hub, specialising in agribusiness, logistics and food processing.

It all added up to plenty of job opportunities for newcomers and locals, as well as new and stronger services to support the region's rural communities, Cr Humphries said.

"An increasing population in the township of Moree obviously deepens the pool of seasonal workers and farm workers, whether they be physical farm workers or office farm workers," she said.

The RAI is working on a new report investigating how a move from the capital cities to the regions affected incomes.

Dr Houghton said a lot of people were moving to regional centres for career advancement and there was a real possibility tree-changers would be better off.

Just as more city dwellers are coming to the regions, fewer regional people are leaving for the city, creating a population surge that RAI chief economist Dr Kim Houghton said could cause real difficulty for regions that were unprepared.

"There's been a handful of places that have sort of been planning for this scale of growth, but for the majority, it's been mostly around business as usual," Dr Houghton said.

"I think it's called a lot of us by surprise and so there will be a bit of a lag and catch up in terms of some of that housing infrastructure as well as some of that social infrastructure, which hasn't really been set up to have a pipeline of this at this scale of growth."

On the Moree Plains, the shire was already planning for a population surge. An $80 million rebuild of the hospital was announced this month and Cr Humphries said the shire had a sophisticated housing plan.

Indeed, Dr Houghton said, the stereotypical picture of the well-heeled swapping small city pads for luxurious lifestyle properties might not be the answer, even in some of Australia's most remote areas.

"We're not just looking at the $2m, five-acre properties on the outskirts of town," he said.

"Funnily enough, we need medium densities of two-three-storey walk-ups in some of our regional centres as well."

Dr Houghton said the changing demographics could bring a renaissance for smaller communities.

Larger towns had long acted like sponges, with their added services drawing people from smaller places. As real estate prices rose, however, people who were able to work from home were increasingly settling in small towns near larger regional centres, forming a new "hub and spoke" population pattern.

This story When the tree-changers come to town first appeared on Farm Online.