Why Aussies are fleeing for the regions

It’s nice to have made it out of my village (Arrowtown) and into the metropolis of Sydney for a few days. I’m enjoying people watching and the rhythmic clomping of well-heeled shoes on a city street. I love urban amenity, but at the same time, I’m quick to realise that the congestion and perpetual busyness are not for me – I feel grateful for my life in the mountains.

And it turns out that I am not alone with these thoughts – hordes of Sydney residents are upping sticks and heading for the good life in the regions. In fact, data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that for the first time in more than 40 years, population growth in regional Australia has outstripped growth in the big cities. In 2021, the population of regional Australia grew by 70,900 people, in contrast to a decline of 26,000 for the capital cities.

Looking more deeply at the situation shows that Sydney lost 5,200 residents last year, while regional New South Wales gained 26,800 people.

The flight from the big smoke is even starker in Victoria, where Melbourne lost a whopping 60,500 people, while regional Victoria gained 15,700 people.

It’s interesting to see that the same trend is also happening on this side of the Tasman – you may recall hearing that Auckland’s population declined last year for the first time on record. At the same time, New Zealand’s provincial centres and small communities are gaining a windfall of regional migrants.

Late last year, I researched New Zealand’s flight to the regions. I found that the trend of people moving into regions beyond the periphery of Auckland seems to have accelerated. The trend is also apparent around some of New Zealand’s other major cities – including Christchurch, Wellington, Tauranga and Hamilton.

What is driving the flight to the regions in Australia and New Zealand?

The exodus of people out of Australia’s and New Zealand’s big cities and into the regions is being driven by a combination of ‘push’, ‘pull’, and ‘enabling’ factors.

On the push side – a key factor is house prices. A rising unaffordability of housing has hit most places, but the pressures have generally been most acute in the big cities. The socio-economic consequence of these extreme house prices has been a pattern of migration out of the cities and into neighbouring regions and beyond. Prices have also risen in the regions, but are generally not out of reach in such a widespread fashion.

On the pull side – a key factor has been lifestyle. Covid-19 has been a wake-up call for many and given us time to reflect on what matters in life. A quieter life, with simple pleasures and a nourishing environment to raise children is clearly something that matters for many. The allure of the ‘good life’ pulls people into the regions.

But alone these push and pull factors are not enough – there are other practicalities which are necessary to enable people to actually carve out a new life in the regions. At the top of the list of these enabling factors is employment.

Over recent times, the employment pendulum has clearly swung in the regions’ favour. Not only has job growth been strongest in regional New Zealand and Australia, but the extensive field testing of working from home during lockdowns has finally broken conservative attitudes to remote working. The reality is that many professional roles can for the large part be performed anywhere and both nations’ extensive regional flight networks mean that it is not too challenging to periodically pop in to head office or fly for some face-to-face time with a client.

Even as life has begun to slowly get back to normal and we put the pandemic behind us, it is hard to see the rekindled love affair with regional New Zealand and Australia going away anytime soon. The legacy of Covid may be some permanent changes to the way we work, what we value in life, and where we choose to live.