AN ARARAT forum on combating rural and regional population decline has heard western Victoria has great opportunities to market itself.
However, attendees were also told there were great challenges when trying to grab a slice of Victoria’s nation-leading population boom that is flowing to Melbourne.
Ripon MP Lousie Staley and Kew MP Tim Smith, chair of the Coalition’s Victorian Population Policy taskforce, hosted the forum at Ararat Bowling Club on Thursday morning.
Ararat Mayor Paul Hooper and interim chief executive Colleen White, representatives from Ararat Regional Business Association and East Grampians Health Services Nick Bush were among the attendees.
Mr Smith told the forum that Victoria had Australia’s fastest growing population but that it was being concentrated in Melbourne.
“Our population growth is like nothing we’ve seen since the gold rush,” he said
“Victoria’s population increased seven-fold between 1853 and 1861 and we have done that easily in the last decade.
“I don’t think anyone has quite understood how much of a challenge this is. 90 per cent of our annual growth every year comes to Melbourne.”
Mr Smith said between 10,000 and 15,000 people moved to regional areas compared with hundreds of thousands in Melbourne.
“That is just crackers. We have to rebalance that growth,” Mr Smith said.
“I don’t want to live in state that doesn’t have vibrant rural and regional communities.”
Mr Smith said areas like Ararat had an advantage in housing affordability, as first home buyers were facing “a two-bedroom terrace house for $2 million” in Melbourne.
Numerous forum attendees pointed out that Ararat not only had to attract new people but retain its young residents after they finished secondary college.
The state government’s Victoria in Future report projected Ararat Rural City’s population to decline by 0.6 per cent per year to 2021.
By 2031, Ararat Rural City was projected to decline from 11,300 people to 10,600.
In the same period, the proportion of people aged under 20 would decrease from 23.4 per cent to 19.4 and people aged 65 and older would increase from 20 per cent to 28.5.
Mr Smith, said Ararat needed fast and reliable rail transport in order to be a competitive migration option.
“V/Line is under enormous pressure. Over the past 12 moths I have traveled on V/Line across Victoria and, quite frankly, I was shocked,” he said.
“Lines have not been upgraded with new rolling stock.
“We can’t possibly decentralise Victoria without a fast, reliable rail network.”
Mr Smith said regional Victoria’s GDP figures were showing ‘recessional conditions’ due to a lack of population growth.
“It’s not acceptable to have a two-speed economy in a jurisdiction as geographically small as Victoria,” he said.
Ms Staley said that there was a push to restore passenger rail service to Stawell and Horsham, but that would take time and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
“This is a hard policy area. If it was easy, it would have been done,” she said.
Ms Staley said the Ararat could focus on intermediate projects.
“How do we get the faster rail happening? Do We upgrade the signalling or the level crossings? It is more services?” she said.
“Is it making Ararat the transport hub for the western region? I could be that because this is where the different gauges meet.”
Attendees from the hospital, health services and paramedic sectors said they were able to attract new staff, both at the entry and executive level.
However, many of those new staff chose to move to Ballarat instead of Ararat and commute every day.
Concerns were raised that these new hires, many earning good money, were mainly spending their salaries outside of Ararat and not forming connections with the community.
Another attendee said her 17 and 19-year-old children would likely leave the area soon as there were no options for further education.
Others pointed out that the region could no longer count on its young people returning to live permanently after moving away to complete studies.