During the past 12 months there has been one issue, almost above all others, that has dominated discussion. Whether it be in the hallowed halls of Parliament House in Canberra, standing on the sidelines of kids’ weekend sporting matches, or making its way onto agendas in business meetings, everyone has been talking about housing. Specifically, the lack of it in Australia right now.
It was no different at the Regional Australia Institute’s National Summit six weeks ago when we called it out as one our most important lagging target in the Year 1 Progress report for the Regionalisation Ambition. Over two days, the more than 300 attendees heard time and time again about housing and how it is affecting our regions’ ability to thrive.
Housing is one of the 20 issues identified in the Regionalisation Ambition 2032 as needing to be addressed for regional Australia to realise its immense potential, and it is so very interlinked with the other 19 targets in that Ambition. If we don’t have houses, we can’t attract more people to live in the regions. If we don’t have more people living in the regions, who will fill the 91,400 jobs that are currently on offer in country Australia?
The RAI welcomed the Federal Parliament’s passing of the enabling legislation for the Housing Australia Future Fund, to direct more than $10 billion towards the development of social and affordable housing. And, while we know there will be support for cash-constrained local governments to bring vacant land forward for development, we’re yet to see sufficient detail on the carve outs for regional Australia. Housing – like health and education – is typically the domain of state governments and to this end, a condition of the Federal Government’s investment is that each state and territory also invest significantly in addressing the complex and wicked problem of housing supply and affordability.
In the RAI’s Regionalisation Ambition, the target is to increase regional rental vacancy rates to above 3% and ensure building approvals keep pace with population growth, by 2032. A year into work on realising the Ambition and regional vacancy rates have increased nominally from 1% to 1.5%, but monthly building approvals have been decreasing since August 2021. This data paints a stark picture and highlights how important collaboration between government, industry, business, and community will be over the coming years to turn the dial on that measure.
Whilst it is an uphill challenge, solutions are being developed. Housing is a key priority for governments at federal, state, and local levels as demonstrated through the Commonwealth’s National Housing Accord, the South Australian Government’s Regional Housing Office, and the development of local housing plans by regional councils right across the country.
This was most evident at our Summit last month – where the brightest minds across the country converged to unpack life at all levels across rural, regional and remote Australia. It’s why we at RAI are so thrilled to host the National Summit annually. Through our collective power and research, we are convening, translating, and unearthing the answers to our regions’ most pressing but critical challenges.
So, what are some of those solutions?
In her keynote speech, The Hon. Catherine King Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, spoke about the Rockhampton Ring Road project in central Queensland. The $1b project involves the construction of a new 18-kilometre section of the Bruce Highway. There will be the need to bring in a workforce to help build the road, but instead of setting up a temporary workers camp, houses will be built to accommodate workers and their families which will become future housing stock once the project is complete.
A similar initiative is underway in Gilgandra in the Orana region in western New South Wales. Inland Rail is working with the local shire council on building permanent tenement style accommodation to again house workers and their families on the $30b Inland Rail project. The plan is for recruited workers to have long-term work in the region, so families are willing to relocate. Then, if, and when, they move on, the tenements can be used for other professionals like doctors and teachers.
It's a simple solution, but one that offers long-term benefits to those regions. Gone are the days of accommodation camps, now we need to be thinking long-term. Add to that, the initial investment and economic stimulus building these new houses in Rockhampton and Gilgandra, and it’s easy to see why collaborative, place-based initiatives are the way of the future.
While in western Queensland, 22 councils have combined forces to tackle the housing issue in their part of Australia. The region has been hamstrung by ageing stock, a lack of a real-estate market and limits on borrowing with market failure as evidenced in the RAI’s Building the Good Life report, released in 2022. When the Birdsville Shire Council investigated building two townhouses to accommodate staff, it was quoted $940,000 for each. Unperturbed, the group is working on developing an organisation that would not only build the hundreds of houses the region needs, but also undertake maintenance works on existing council stock creating a pipeline of work for years to come. In the process, the organisation creates ongoing employment, education, and training opportunities.
On NSW’s south coast in Eden, Anglicare is looking into how a former aged care home could find a new life, providing social housing. While still in its infancy, it’s a project that could be used as a model in many communities across regional Australia, notwithstanding the growing need for aged care accommodation as well.
The RAI will continue to be a champion of driving change in our housing sector. Just this month, the Institute ran a session on regional housing at the National Housing Conference in Brisbane. The panel shared their experiences in developing new models for building social and affordable housing in regional communities.
In pockets all over our nation, solutions like the above are being developed. They’re the product of innovation, creativity and brokering – between governments, community, and big business - and of finding the right fit for the community in question. A place-based lens which encompasses the systems approach of relevant actors and factors of five pillars of intersection within our Regionalisation Ambition 2032.
Regional Australia still has a long way to go when it comes to managing the ongoing housing issues it’s facing, but when so many innovative solutions are coming from the regions themselves, I have faith we will tackle this.
The future of our nation depends on regional Australia – it is where people are moving to, where jobs are growing, and where the renewable energy transition will occur, all while we grapple with the looming challenges of climate change and sustainability. We are the future and it’s time for our regions to shine, one new house at a time.
Liz Ritchie – CEO