By Jess Baker
The Southern Downs has recorded the second-largest growth in capital to regional migration of all local government areas in Australia, signifying to some an urgent need for development and innovation.
In partnership with the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, the Regional Australia Institute used banking data to produce an analysis of domestic migration – compiling its findings in a ‘regional movers index’.
Released on Monday 28 June, the index identified migration from capital cities to regional areas was at its highest level since 2018.
In the March 2021 quarter, Noosa and Southern Downs were identified as the top two local government areas experiencing inward migration from capitals – Noosa recording 49 percent growth and Southern Downs 44 percent.
Stanthorpe and Granite Belt Chamber of Commerce Secretary Amanda Harrold said the new research reiterated the need for strong local infrastructure to handle growth.
“A silver lining of the Covid-19 pandemic is Australians’ newfound appreciation for the lifestyle offered in the regions, and Stanthorpe is well placed to benefit from that realisation,” Amanda said.
“To ensure this population growth is sustainable and ongoing it is essential we start thinking about how our infrastructure will support this influx of people, especially in terms of water infrastructure.”
Amanda said the consideration of water supply was “critical”, given Stanthorpe was required to truck in water for more than 16 months – at a cost of $10 million – just last year.
“Our water supply is no longer adequate to support the growing community and we cannot put off building new water storage facilities,” she said.
She referred to Granite Belt Water’s Emu Swamp Dam project, of which she is a vocal supporter, calling it the “best opportunity” for Southern Downs Regional Council to secure water quickly.
“This population growth is happening now, and Emu Swamp Dam is on the verge of construction. It is the best option to provide the community with water security,” Amanda said.
“Council’s net cost for the (Granite Belt Irrigation Project) will be $2.5 million, as they will receive revenue through the Project’s purchasing of the land in the inundation area and water allocations.
“Any alternative option the council is considering is at least 10 years away, and would require both securing funding and the many approvals associated with any sizeable infrastructure project.”
Warwick Chamber of Commerce President Julia Keogh said she too was pleased to know the Southern Downs had seen such significant growth, as it proved the region was an ideal place to live and work.
“Our region welcomes population diversity and with our enviable rural lifestyle, connection to services and facilities, the current trend for population growth will see a range of regional benefits including a wider range of services, industry and business opportunities,” Julia said.
The recent population surge has significantly impacted the local housing and rental market, with Stanthorpe real estate agent Logan Steele this week telling Warwick and Stanthorpe Today the amount of stock he had available was the lowest it had been in “donkeys’ years”.
“I’ve been in the industry for 37 and a half years and I have never, ever experienced such a display of buying, of a frenzy, in all those years,” Logan said.
“We’re getting a lot of people from Brisbane, the Gold Coast and northern New South Wales.”
Logan said the Covid-19 pandemic had shown people that being in the city was “not so nice” when stay-at-home orders were enforced.
Tori DeMamiel of First National Warwick said city dwellers were also snapping up “weekender” homes, for if and when things go “pear-shaped” in the city.
“They’re looking at farms, residential houses, anything that they can get their lands on,” Tori said.
She said people are chasing the lifestyle Warwick offers, and new working-from-home arrangements make the prospect of moving quite attractive.
A Southern Downs Regional Council spokeswoman said attracting skilled workers, such as professionals working from home, provides for a larger employment base to support investments within the region.
“As a result of Covid-19, Australia appears to be entering a new era of “regionalism”, in which residents are relocating from capital and larger cities to regional centres, boosting economic development,” said the spokeswoman.
“The Southern Downs has already had some instances of this move by business people and ‘work from home’ workers and looks to capitalise on as much as possible.”
The SDRC spokeswoman said that the biggest risk for the Southern Downs region in the next two to three years is that there may not be enough “reliable and motivated” workers to fill new jobs as they become available.
“In 2020, the region saw a decline in the number of agricultural workers employed, which can be attributed to the effects of drought and Covid-19,” she said.
“On average, 5000 to 7000 workers (made up of mainly overseas workers) are employed over the annual harvest season. 2020/21 saw only a portion of these usual numbers, with approximately 2000 workers employed for the picking season.”
The spokeswoman said a large number of jobs in a range of sectors, including construction and trade, aged care, retail, agriculture and food processing, will become available in the coming years.