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On why we should find ways to support the regions, not just urban areas

News from the front desk – Issue No 403: Regional and rural communities have a problem with silos – not the kind that store grain, but the policy kind.

The kind of thinking that sees the population projections that inform planning for Sydney and Melbourne confidently predicting a continuation of the rural-urban drift because it’s assumed the best jobs will always remain in a handful of capital cities, and so people will move there.

Meanwhile, a look at the projections for the regional areas of NSW reveals an assumption that many of those communities are expected to become smaller (on average) and have fewer young people.

In the other corner, the hand wringing continues over the challenges of squeezing the expected flood of eager workers into congested and overcrowded capital cities.

Again and again, experts in planning, regional development and economics have pointed out that creating economic opportunities beyond mining and conventional agriculture in rural and regional areas would address a host of urban issues.

And there’s another big global issue it could assist with – boosting the resilience of regional areas as the impacts of climate change escalate.

In all the talk about the current drought and how it is affecting farmers, it’s also important to recognise that regional and rural small businesses are also struggling.

The manager of a small IGA supermarket in a country town in south western NSW says that while she thinks it’s wonderful that people support food parcel drives for farming families and other grassroots initiatives like Buy a Bale, that form of assistance does not help the small businesses in those communities.

It potentially reduces the already shrinking spend at the local supermarket, chemist or other businesses.

The spend that really holds up the small businesses in a drought-affected town is the money still being earned by the local teachers, nurses, the town doctor, the police, public servants and council workers. Those are jobs that endure, in fair weather or foul.

There are also growing numbers of professionals such as accountants, researchers, analysts, on-line entrepreneurs and specialist contractors such as IT developers based in rural and regional towns working for organisations based anywhere and everywhere in the world.

These are also the incomes that help keep towns ticking over.

It has been said repeatedly, including in the recent Regions At The Ready report by the Select Committee for Regional Development, that decentralising public sector jobs could shake things up by encouraging the big private sector employers to consider a tree change as part of their labour force requirements. However, a silo-bound approach of all-or-nothing relocation has not been without its pitfalls.

When the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation was slated to relocate to Wagga Wagga, the majority of the Canberra-based staff raised enormous objections.

Many simply resigned. This was good news for the Riverina locals who picked up high value, long term executive-level roles, but it added to the growing negative rumble that is now associated with moving public sector departments and agencies out of capitals.

But what if the move had been more nuanced? What if policy stepped away from silos and took a lesson from new trends in urban working, such as supporting an open-hiring approach that puts remote or telecommuting workers on the same playing field as on-site applicants for roles where the work is not face-time or place-time dependent?

There are some global precedents. Basecamp founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson grew a top tier global IT company with a virtual workforce. They have also developed a blueprint for others to do the same in their best-selling business read, Remote – Office Not Required.

But while the principles and exemplars are positive, silos also come with rats. Like the danger of workplace health and safety standards slipping when public sector roles are being undertaken by remotely.

Insiders from public sector recruiting have told The Fifth Estate that an inspection of a proposed workplace is now a mandatory requirement for many roles, and that it would be unlikely that a home office would pass muster. It is also equally unlikely the effort would be made to send an inspector out to Canowindra, Hay, the Mallee or Coonabarabran, they said.

Here’s where the innovative thinking could come in.

What if there was targeted investment in creating co-working spaces that are WHS-compliant in rural and regional towns?

What if those spaces could act as co-located nodes for both service delivery and routine work by staff on behalf of local, state and federal governments?

And what if these co-working sites could also act as collaboration spaces for locals undertaking distance education, studying for the HSC or building a new digitally-enabled enterprise? And what if the remote workers hired by some of the big accounting firms and virtual companies could be flexibly based there too?

Co-working spaces are booming in cities, including outside the capitals in cities like Fremantle. There is no reason not to support them in far-flung locations, especially given they would also address other policy motherhood statements such as growing public-private sector engagement and collaboration, streamlining service delivery by public agencies and growing innovative knowledge-based industries.

These types of spaces could also showcase advances in the low-carbon transition – solar PV and batteries for energy, WELL-informed fitout design and materiality, digital connectivity, support for low-carbon transport options and exemplary solar passive design.

Growing the knowledge economy in rural and regional areas has also been identified as an equity issue by the Australian Local Government Association.

Co-author of the recent State of the Regions 2018-19: Trade, Jobs, Growth and Inequality report, economist Dr Peter Brain, noted that knowledge workers tend to concentrate in regions where there is a wide variety of cultural and lifestyle choices.

The Australian Local Government Association notes that this is part of the reason strategic investment is required in regional and rural communities – to create the conditions that attract, support and retain knowledge workers.

As it stands, the focus remainson funding the big resource-related infrastructure projects, as was highlighted by Nationals Member for Riverina and infrastructure minister, Michael McCormack, in a recent Q&A he did with the Institute of Public Works Engineers.

ALGA is suggesting there needs to be more focus on enabling infrastructure and social capital.

The three tiers of government must work together to address the infrastructure deficiencies that are making it difficult for the hinterlands to increase their productivity and grow their knowledge economies,ALGA, Mayor David OLoughlinsays.

Further infrastructure support, particularly telecommunications, transport, community and cultural infrastructure, will help attract knowledge workers and their families to rural and remote regions. This will help to create the conditions that will build new economic opportunities and resilient, intelligent communities.

As well as helping plug infrastructure gaps, local government also has an important role in facilitating low-key investment so that every town’s main street becomes the cultural and connectivitymagnet needed to attract and retain the knowledge economy.”

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