Bold pitch to grow the bush

13th March 2015

MIKE FOLEY

'The Land'

SEEDS of growth are being planted in regional NSW but a drought of strategic policy is holding back the push to re-grow the bush.

The Foundation of Regional Development is a not-for-profit organisation, run by regional residents, dedicated to stemming the tide of population decline.

Chairman Anthony Fox said the government was moving in the right direction with its Decade of Decentralisation plan, but big picture thinking would be needed to create a fertile environment for bush towns to grow.

Foundation chief executive Peter Bailey (pictured below) said political representation for the bush had dwindled over time in the bush - such as NSW's loss of the seats of Burrinjuck and Lachlan to the city - meaning there are "less voices in parliament to push the case for fairness" in regional development. 

He said big ideas could generate big results.

"I moved to Canberra in 1961 and the population was about 40,000. Now it's more than 400,000, so don't tell me decentralisation doesn't work."

Mr Fox welcomed policies such as the Regional Relocation Grant and Skilled Relocation Allowance but lamented the short-term goals set out in such schemes.

He said state government should create a dedicated ministry for regional development.

"Neither of the major parties have an overarching regional development policy," Mr Fox said.

"If we don't do something in the long term, regional NSW will just go into decline, setting aside a couple of major cities."

NSW Planning has forecast the state's population to grow by 2 million to hit 9.2m by 2031 - but towns west of the divide aren't tipped to share in the spoils.

Regional NSW's population stands at about 1.8m, not including Newcastle and Wollongong.

Planning predicts large centres such as Wagga Wagga and Armidale will grow by 18 per cent and 25pc, respectively, smaller towns outside the north-south corridor that runs through Canberra will be hit with significant falls - Broken Hill and Moree, for example, are tipped to shrink about 15pc.

The foundation's main activity is the annual CountryNSW Expo, where local councils woo prospective residents who are thinking of making a tree change.

However, Mr Bailey said a similar scheme in Victoria was more generously funded.

"We get $150,000 from state government to put on our expo," he said.

"Our counterpart in Victoria gets $1m."

The state needs to boost its pitch to lure urban residents away from Sydney and job creation and the Regional Industries Investment fund is a good place to start, he said.

The Land reported on February 26 that two government policies to attract private capital investment into jobs and investment had been underspent between 2011 and 2014 by $158 million.

Mr Bailey said it was great government was looking for solutions and pumping cash into such schemes, which had received $91m in funding, generated $4 billion of private investment and created 125,000 jobs (although an additional 16,000 jobless individuals had emerged since 2011).

"The Coalition has done a remarkable job - with more money into roads, hospitals and so on - more than any government I can remember," he said.

"But we are not seeing people movement into regional areas.

"Government has got to be prepared to make strategic decisions."

Citing another Victorian example, Mr Bailey said a study showed the cost of accommodating an additional 100,000 people in Melbourne was estimated at $6.2b - while the same scenario would cost just $2b in regional Victoria.

"Think about the cost of just widening a road in the city - just the cost of real estate is astronomical," he said.

Many country towns had under-used infrastructure that would help relive costs, he said.

He admitted government would need to increase spending to boost regional growth - but argued the long term rewards were worth it.

"We should be spending millions selling the regions," he said.

But funding notwithstanding, the real drive for growth had to come from communities and regions themselves.

The northern Riverina town of Temora - population 4000 - has had 10 families or individuals relocate from Sydney since August.

Temora Shire Council community, arts and cultural events manager Amanda Gay developed an advertising campaign that tugs heartstrings and appeals to the hip pocket.

One advert places two houses side-by side - one in priced in the millions in Sydney, the other $170,000 in Temora.

"Picture yourself a mortgagee in Sydney, or mortgage free in Temora," it says.

Flyers for the town have seeds attached, "so you can plant your dreams of moving to the country".

Click for larger photo