Covid-19 to spark exodus in Australia from cities to regions

Many are being lured away from cities like Sydney, where housing unaffordability and congestion are growing problems. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY - A new migration is under way in Australia from big cities to regional areas as the Covid-19 pandemic enables people to work from home and seek cheaper properties away from bustling central business districts.

In regional areas, such as in the Southern Highlands region near Sydney, real estate agents have already reported a dramatic increase in the number of people looking to find properties. Many are being lured away from big cities such as Sydney and Melbourne, where housing unaffordability and congestion are growing problems.

A former Sydney resident, Ms Nancia Guivarra, said she had moved with her 12-year-old daughter from their one-bedroom apartment to a temporary residence outside Adelaide. Ms Guivarra, who runs a marketing and communications business from home, told ABC News that Covid-19 prompted their move and they may buy a property in their current location if her home in Sydney sells.

"Having a massive mortgage as a single parent is ridiculous," she said.

"You downsize your mortgage when you move to a regional area - it's fantastic."

A new report, released this week by the Regional Australia Institute, showed that the trend had already begun before the pandemic. It found that 139,471 people moved from Sydney to regions between 2011 and 2016 and 74,715 moved the other way. A further 112,728 people moved from Melbourne to regional areas, while Melbourne received 91,119 people.

The chief executive of the Regional Australia Institute, Ms Liz Ritchie, said the exodus was expected to accelerate due to Covid-19 as people adapt to a post-pandemic existence in which working from home is the norm.

"Over the last few months, we've all had to change how we work and this has allowed staff and employers to see that location is no longer a barrier for where we choose to work," she said.

"Now is the time to work together with industry, government and regional communities to ensure regionalisation of the workforce."

More than 72 per cent of Australians were living in major cities last year. About 52 per cent of Australia's 25.5 million residents live in the three largest cities - Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

But younger families, in particular, have increasingly been moving to regional areas, attracted by the cheaper property prices, lack of congestion and the lifestyle. Improved broadband access has made it easier to work outside cities. Local economies have also been boosted by cheaper flights to popular tourist areas, which have led to an increase in domestic and Asian visitors.

The exodus is expected to increase as the Covid-19 restrictions end. But the long-term challenge will be for smaller towns to hold on to younger residents, who often move to cities to study or work and never return.

Australian governments have long tried to encourage population flows to regional areas, including by offering relocation grants and by basing government offices outside major cities.

Analysts say regional centres will need to boost local jobs and improve schooling and access to higher education.

A demographer, Mr Bernard Salt, said the pandemic is taking a heavy toll on some regional areas which were dependent on tourism or those with university campuses which have been affected by the reduced flow of international students. But he said regional areas have had less Covid-19 infections and have experienced relatively fewer job losses, probably because their economies are less dependent on entertainment, hospitality and sport.

"The job losses across regional Australia have been proportionately less than in the capital cities," he wrote in The Australian. "It just may mean that regional Australia is more business-ready to recover from the shutdowns."

Ms Sara Johnston, who moved to the town of Wagga Wagga from a "very cramped" two-bedroom apartment in Sydney with her husband and two children, said she appreciated the extra space.

"Now we've got our own house, backyard, sandpit, swings, which we never would have been able to have in Sydney," she told The Western Magazine, a regional publication.

"The community's been very welcoming… I think Sydney people have their own groups that they stick to, but here people are a lot more welcoming."

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