Rain has been an ongoing theme of 2022 for vast areas of NSW, and it continues to fall as communities around the state, devastated by a series of catastrophic flood events in the past 18 months, carry on with the task of rebuilding critical community infrastructure, businesses, homes and lives.
Our regions have borne the brunt of a series of natural disasters in recent times – drought, bushfires, floods, mouse plague – exposing vulnerabilities that need to be addressed for the sake of the populations who call these areas home, and also if they’re to become the state’s economic powerhouses of the future. As I have highlighted in previous columns, COVID-19 – yet another challenge we’ve all had to contend with – actually highlighted the virtues of our regions, as our cities endured the worst of restrictions and some of their citizens looked for an escape.
A significant percentage actually did pack their bags and make the move, and as dreaded restrictions seem – for now at least – to be a thing of the past it makes sense for governments and think tanks to work to capitalise on the high level of interest in regional living and put long-term strategies, plans and initiatives in place to encourage more potential sea- and tree-changers.
The Regional Australia Institute is currently calling for community input into its National Regionalisation Framework, which in part is designed to establish a set of critical targets and actions to strengthen regional Australia, and in turn make our nation ‘stronger and more prosperous’. There are some key questions the consultation poses though, that will indeed need some innovative solutions if our regions are to fulfill their potential.
Ensuring sustainable population growth in regional communities that may currently have limited infrastructure and resources; employment prospects; and maintaining the character of non-metropolitan communities in an era of rapid change are among the challenges, as is the best ways of mitigating the impacts of natural disasters on regional towns and cities.
When adversity strikes, smaller communities often lack the services and resources to deal with immediate issues, as well as the short-and long-term impacts of the recovery process. Alternative housing options are often non-existent; the services that can offer the immediate assistance needed may not have a footprint in the community; and businesses that service these smaller populations are often concentrated in just one area, meaning if that area is impacted, the population can have nowhere else to turn for the likes of food, household goods, clothing and the like. Lismore is unfortunately an example of this scenario. Power and communications can also be harder to restore in regional and remote areas of the state – again, as has been the case for the Lismore area.
These are complex issues, for which there are no easy solutions, but we need to get serious if we are to grow our economy into the future and remain a significant player on the global stage. From just a planning perspective, too, taking some pressure off our cities with a more even population spread makes a lot of sense. NSW encompasses an enormous area, and it’s time we stopped concentrating the majority of our efforts on a relatively small part of it, and started focusing on the most effective ways to capitalise on the many opportunities that exist in even the most far-flung corners of our state.