City congestion and rural population decline

To seriously address Australia's city congestion, the deficits in regional and rural medical, education, training and aged care services need attention.

Australia's major cities continue to grow while rural areas face population decline. City infrastructure and housing is facing unprecedented pressure. Meanwhile, some rural areas are struggling to attract workers to fill well-paying positions and infrastructure is underutilised. These issues are not new.

The latest population data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, released on 27 March, reveals that these trends are only intensifying.

Many rural areas are experiencing population decline. How long can this continue?

In just one year (2017 to 2018), the number of people living in Australian capital cities increased by 2%. Melbourne grew by a staggering 2.5%. That is 2.5% added to an already very large population.

However, non-capital city growth was only 1% on average. Much of this 1% growth was concentrated within areas close to capital cities, such as parts of the Gold Coast.

Many rural areas are experiencing population decline. How long can this continue?

In March, the Morrison government announced two new visas for skilled workers, requiring them to live and work in regional areas for three years before being eligible to access permanent residency. There will be just over 20,000 available each year.

However, requiring skilled migrants to live in regional areas for a few years has been an approach used many times. Yet, people still leave regional and rural areas.

The reasons why people leave regional and rural areas are not complex: lack of appropriate medical care, aged care, education and training. These are the same reasons many people choose not to leave major cities. These reasons can be addressed with well-targeted government investment.

While it takes some searching, there are some measures in Budget 2019 that might stimulate population re-distribution to regional cities and some rural areas.

One of these measures is Destination Australia program. This program, costed at $93.7 million over four years, will provide support for tertiary students to study at regional campuses.

Students can apply for a $15,000 scholarship to help with the costs of studying at a regional campus for part of their study.

Half of the scholarships will be allocated to international students and half to domestic students. This program could encourage 1000 students, who otherwise might not move to regional Australia, to study and live in regional Australia. These students will be able to gain insight into the range of employment and lifestyle opportunities available in regional areas.

The scholarships are a good first step, but how can this investment be capitalised on? What measures could be taken to encourage these students to stay in the regional area?

The Budget papers revealed the Government's commitment to continue several existing initiatives to distribute resourcing to regional and rural areas.

There is the continuation of the so called "common sense" decentralisation of some Australian Government positions. A suite of "partnership" programs - the City Deals, Building Better Regions Fund, Regional Growth Fund and Stronger Communities Program, which all deliver funding for infrastructure or community resources in partnership with state and local governments, private businesses and local community organisations will also be continued. This is good news for regional and rural areas.

However, to encourage a more even population distribution, it is the "bread and butter issues" that need addressing.

If a more even population distribution is a priority, then future budgets will need to do more to provide appropriate medical care, aged care, education and training in rural and regional areas.

Associate Professor Amanda Davies, School of Design and the Built Environment, Curtin University