Over the past 10 weeks on Race to the Regions we've explored the impact of COVID on regional and rural Australia. What started as a trickle of interest 18 months ago has turned into a wholesale movement and it's been a pleasure to document just some of the stories of those who've made the transition from city to regional living.
It's not all idyllic, some of those we've spoken to have highlighted the difficulties faced as a single person trying to make friends and build a new life during a pandemic. Others have flagged the shock that comes with the change of pace. For the most part however, it's been one of relief and joy.
Of course for those who were already living in newly popular regional areas, the influx of new residents, particularly some coastal regions and the larger regional cities is not a thing of joy. There can't be a discussion about the impact of COVID on regional migration without talking about housing.
Unfortunately for a number of communities it is now the single biggest issue facing residents who rent or can't afford to purchase a home. There is no easy answer to this situation. Early on in the series I interviewed Jason Purvis who spoke of the delight he and his partner Matt found in being able to relocate from a small one bedroom workers cottage in the inner west of Sydney to a spacious home on 5 acres in the Hunter region.
When I discussed the matter with him he said that they felt fortunate to have made the move when they did. Not just because they finally realised a long held dream of finding a place with space for a veggie garden and the dog, but because if they were looking now they wouldn't be able to make the move. There was simply no property left for sale in the area of the Hunter where they'd bought.
This is one story writ large across many regional areas. ACM journalists have written about the issue from many different angles and none of the solutions are simple or easy. The influx of new residents brings many benefits but there have also been challenges.
The benefits aren't just to the new residents. Sure, Jason and his partner not only have some land, they also have the space to work from home and have friends and family to stay. But there is also the opportunities new residents can bring for businesses and services.
Simple things, that for anyone living in Newcastle or Geelong might seem unremarkable, have gradually become more commonplace in smaller regional areas with the influx of new residents and new tastes. For some communities it's as simple as finally having a grocery store or supermarket instead of having to travel over to the next town.
For others it's the joy of being able to go out for a meal or a coffee. Or perhaps it's having the population to support a library or medical centre. The question has to be, not how do we stop new people coming, but how do we ensure an influx of people who work from home and may also impact the demand for certain services or business doesn't result in an exodus of long term residents?
New housing is one obvious answer. Some popular tourist destinations are pushing for local restrictions on AirBnBs to help ease the pressure. Whilst there isn't one answer to this widespread issue, there needs to be action. Not just to keep residents in place, but to ensure local businesses can hire staff.
Employment was another big picture item covered on Race to the Regions. It was fascinating hearing the different reasons for the move. For some, it was the opportunity COVID presented to work from home. For others it was a job opportunity and promotion too good to pass up.
For more established businesses, particularly those relying on seasonal or casual workers the reality has been more stark. Many businesses have reduced their opening hours due to staff shortages.
It's hard to talk about these issues without considering health. With regional healthcare and the difficulties of attracting specialist doctors and nurses to remote areas ongoing the rise of telehealth has been a boon. The current guidelines allowing telehealth consults to be bulkbilled to Medicare expires at the end of the year. It's not just specialists who want to see the COVID-response to providing medical care remotely kept. Telehealth allows patients to engage with their doctors from home, saving hours travelling to major centres for what can be a short consult.
The answers aren't simple, nor are they the same for every part of the country. What is obvious though is that Race to the Regions isn't a slogan and it's not about to taper off. With the rise in remote education, health and work and the numerous benefits offered by belonging to a smaller community the ongoing move of metropolitan Australians to regional areas is likely to continue.
Read all the past articles in the Race to the Regions series.
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