When I started the Spring Series reflecting on regional growth, I did not anticipate how quickly growth would appear on the horizon. Yet now that summer has arrived, it is clear that many rural regions in Australia are setting out on a growth path. Observing the sudden influx of population into our rural regions from our cities. I admit to being reminded of the phrase, Be careful what you wish for.
In much of our region, housing demand and house prices have skyrocketed as new residents arrive. I have spoken recently with several families who simply cannot find a rental property. Locals are starting to be squeezed out of the housing market. Friends and colleagues in other regions report similar situations. Housing shortages in regional areas are starting to make the news, as cashed-up city refugees head bush, seeking to alter their people-to-tree ratio.
Clearly for many rural regions, longstanding aspirations for population growth are quickly becoming a reality. Other kinds of growth – such as regional investment in property assets – are booming too. If growth is really a must-have for rural regions, then Christmas has come early. But what does this growth actually mean for your region?
In this series, we have identified 9 kinds of growth; 3 myths about growth; and some important questions to ask when seeking to grow your region. In this final post, I’d like to step back and reflect on what this all means when suddenly, everyone wants to Be Regional.
9 Kinds of Growth
One of the most important questions to ask about regional growth is, What kind of growth are we talking about? We’ve discussed 9 kinds: from population growth, to jobs growth, to growth in community capacity.
Having one kind of growth doesn’t necessarily mean you have the others. Population growth doesn’t necessarily grow jobs, or businesses, or community capacity. It depends on how the growth is managed. And that “management” is not necessarily done by managers. Households and communities play an important role in steering growth in positive directions.
A sudden influx of people from cities to rural regions can do many things, good and bad. It can grow human capital and community capacity, if the newcomers use their skills locally; it can diminish both, if engaged and knowledgeable locals are displaced. Rapid population growth can destroy amenity, or bolster it; it can infuse new life into local businesses, or bypass them.
Much depends on the extent to which newcomers are willing and enabled to engage in the social and economic life of their new region; and the extent to which the region is able to incorporate and accommodate newcomers.
If the region’s new residents ensconce themselves in home offices and spend their talents and salaries in other places, there will be few benefits for our rural regions. If locals don’t spot the business opportunities, and newcomers don’t buy local… if locals aren’t welcoming, and newcomers don’t get involved… then population growth will have few benefits.
The post-COVID digital landscape brings additional complexities. With remote working and online shopping, it is easier than ever to live in one place and create value elsewhere. If newcomers work and spend elsewhere, and locals are crowded out, this risks creating fragmented communities and a new kind of “two-speed” economy. Long-distance jobs can generate wealth in rural regions, but only if there are connections back into local economies and communities. The same goes for other resources that newcomers bring: such as their skills, networks, and ideas.
Population growth doesn’t necessarily grow everything else. What kind of growth does your region need?
In the Spring Series we have also discussed three myths about growth:
- Myth #1: Population Growth will Solve All Problems
- Myth #2: Economic Growth will Grow Everything Else
- Myth #3: Regions NEED to grow (the ‘If you don’t grow, you die’ myth)
Each of these myths highlighted that growth isn’t always positive; and even when it is, it doesn’t necessarily benefit everyone. These three myths lead us to the second important question to ask about regional growth: Who Benefits?
It is possible for regional incomes to grow, while some people in the region get poorer. It is possible for the number of jobs to grow, but many people still be unemployed. Importantly, not only does growth not necessarily benefit everyone equitably, but growth may displace resources from some people to others. For instance, an investment in the region by foreign businesses can displace local businesses. An overall growth in income may drive local prices higher, to the point where some people can no longer afford to buy what they need.
As regions start to grow – in some cases quickly – it is more important than ever to ask Who benefits? And the flip side is at least as important: Who is bearing the costs of growth? When local people start saying they cannot find housing, or they cannot afford the housing they find, this is a warning flag. Growth is displacing resources and making some people worse off than they were before.
Towards the Future
Conversations about growth in rural regions are often about the future: growth is a goal, a set of targets, something positive to work and hope for. When growth starts to happen and we get what we wish for, then it’s time to unwrap the rhetoric and look at what we really have.
In our region…
- What are we growing… and what are we failing to grow?
- Who is benefiting from growth… and who is bearing the costs?
Growth has both benefits and costs; these look different depending on who you are. Sustainable regions recognise this. They harness the benefits to mitigate the costs.
How does your region grow? Not just how quickly… but how equitably? How sustainably?