Look to older tree-changers to save our dying rural towns

Sunk are thy bowers in shapeless ruin all,

And the long grass o’ertops the mouldering wall;

And trembling, shrinking from the spoiler’s hand,

Far, far away thy children leave the land

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,

Where wealth accumulates, and men decay

So said Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith in his poem, the Deserted Village in which he decried the depopulation of rural areas due to the economic changes of the industrial revolution and the closure-of-lands acts in the 18th century.

But are our country towns dying, and what, if anything can we do to stop the exodus? Or should we just accept the ebb-and-flow of peoples and populations as a natural consequence of a free and open market-based society?

The 2016 census shows that more than 10 per cent of smaller rural communities are in relative or absolute decline in terms of population. But it was not always this way; 20 years ago, our rural communities were forecast to have a bright and growing future. The communication revolution, they said in the 1990s, would save the small country town.

Improved communication technologies such as the internet, emails, mobile phones, broadband technology, and other telephony would lead to thousands of tree-change technologists fleeing the smoky, choking metropolis to continue their city-based careers in rural splendour.

Yet the work-from-home revolution that was going to free the creative expert from the restrictive confines of the CBD has proved as illusory as the 1980s myth of the “paperless office”.

Most of the tech professionals that moved to the country to work either missed the city and eventually moved back or found that, in fact, absence does not make the heart grow fonder. Without their presence in the office five days a week; their colleagues and supervisors soon moved-on and found younger and more eager replacements with their careers soon withering and them ending-up trying to scratch a living as freelancers and contractors.

Those that stayed were soon brewing their own beer and growing luxurious beards on hobby farms.

The national census continues to tell the sad story. While regional centres such as Bathurst, Orange, and Ballarat in Victoria continue to grow, most of this is at the cost of smaller country towns. “Sponge Cities” demographer Bernard Salt calls them, sucking-up the people and services from surrounding smaller communities.

Salt argues that smaller country towns were a product of the early 20th century but were now in the process of dying as people travelled further in better cars on better roads for goods and services they once obtained in their own village or town. Before long the people themselves move as their ties to these smaller communities weaken and break.

The point that the boosters of the early 1990s didn’t realise, was that greater social and transport mobility is a two-way street. I recall recently listening to a group of private school matrons at morning tea in one of the most beautiful country towns in Australia. One of these ladies said by way of a boast “Do you know that all of our children are now working overseas at this moment?”

Why live in the same one-horse town as your parents, when you can call them on a mobile from anywhere in the world; Skype them free at any time you want, and stay in touch daily with Facebook and other social media?

While journalists that I worked in with the late 1980s were happy to stay in their home-town for the whole of their careers, almost all the young professionals that I worked with by the early 2000s universally saw the country as a stepping-stone to the big smoke.

I remember asking a community officer at a local council in one of the dying towns of the central west, what happened to all the brightest kids as represented in the youth council? “Soon as they finish their HSC, they’re all gone,” she said without hesitation.

Whether it’s the drought, closure of industries in country towns, or the rural recession, country towns are the ones that seem to get hit the hardest.

A number of strategies to combat this trend though, both fanciful and moderate, have been tried over the last five decades.

One of the most ambitious was the development corporations set-up by the Whitlam Government in the mid-1970s. In a triumph of central planning and in the warm embrace of the 30-year post-war boom, these were established in both Albury-Wodonga, and Bathurst-Orange and were designed to arrest the country-city drift and to alleviate urban problems of overpopulation then starting to bedevil our larger cities.

A mid-sized city of 500,000 was going to be plonked by Government fiat between Bathurst and Orange with jobs, services, schools and hospitals all provided for this burgeoning city. The oil crisis and the sudden sacking of the Government put an end to this great plan.

“Decentralisation” was then the buzzword in the late 20th century with Government bodies like the Central Mapping Authority (Bathurst) and NSW Agriculture (0range) relocated to these towns with the supposed effect of heralding-in a boom of “agribusiness” to provincial cities.

In more recent times, the establishment of university campuses in larger country towns has proven to be a boon for local providers of services, lecturers, and tutors, at such institutions, but has done little to arrest the drift to larger cities by the graduates; there simply isn’t the economic opportunities available as in larger cities. As Bernard Salt noted, many of these young professionals realise that most job opportunities are available in larger cities.

Proposals for economic development zones whereby tax credits and subsidies would be provided for businesses setting-up in depressed rural areas have all been refused point-blank as, by their very nature, some areas will be chosen as winners, and others as losers.

Country towns themselves have tried some crazy strategies to try and arrest this decline, most of them counterproductive. One small village in the NSW central west provided empty houses at $1 per week rent to attract city families who were after a new start. As well as destroying the local rent market, most of the families unaccustomed to the isolation of the bush soon pulled-up stumps and returned to the city.

I knew of one council that funded a robotic denture manufacturing plant in a shed attached to the local pub of a dying village. However, the first time that the software was fired-up for this project, a region-wide drain on power and internet capacity almost shutdown both services for large parts of the district.

A plan at about the same time to fund a country-based animation studio in the town was supposedly going to draw Hollywood stars to voice-over the stories that the studio would produce at an abandoned ice-works! Both plans came to nought and left the ratepayers with a heavy debt to repay for these castles-in-the-sky plans.

Later, desperately, I recall the councillors of this picturesque town asking me to pump-the-tyres up on a council scheme to become a centre for dementia wards in the district. I asked whether this was the type of reputation that the town really wanted to promote in the wider region.

The town burnt by both the “robotic denture scheme” and the “movie stars to the bush” proposal scheme has since returned to a “roads, rates, and rubbish” philosophy that has not actually stopped its slow decline, but has at least saved the ratepayers millions in failed dreams.

The general manager charged with picking-up the pieces on these failed schemes, made the point that country communities were wasting their time and money with “bring your huddled masses” pipe dreams, unless there were local jobs for these people to go to.         

A number of years ago a report was produced by a regional think tank that said that, instead of trying to attract pie-in-the-sky speculators always looking for a government hand-out to relocate with their fanciful projects to small towns; these communities would be better-off just trying to keep the businesses they already have to combat the empty shop-front syndrome.

Rather than trying to save our dying bush with fanciful industries that were going to turn these isolated rural areas with long distances between towns, relatively poor opportunities for their young, and poorer health and education services than their city counterparts, why not look at the strengths of the bush.

While coastal-based cities are great places to live when you’re young and healthy with a great career to get on with — the noise, traffic, and crowds can start to pall as one ages.

Rather than trying to attract young families and professionals with unrealistic expectations of life in country towns, why not work to their strengths, the native beauty, peace and solitude, the sense of community and friendliness, and human dimension of our regions?

Why not develop an ad campaign targeting those approaching retirement to move to a country town, village, or onto a hobby farm.

This may exaggerate the ageing of our communities, but that is happening anyway. The baby-boomer 55­–70 demographic may not be one preferred by advertisers and demographers, but they still have families, still contribute to their communities, and are often at an age where volunteering forms an important part of their lives.

They have already raised their children and are relatively-free of other commitments. They are starting to reflect on their lives and to consider the things that are important to them. They are also generally economically-independent with relatively-large disposable income and are also less likely to up-stumps and return to the city.

Rather than luring our older citizens to anonymous high-rises in retirement towns like those on the central and north coast and the Gold Coast, why not bring them to the country with its clean air, friendly communities, and hassle-free living?

Besides, the way things are going in many of our smaller communities, they may be the best bet that we have for arresting the structural decline of many of these historic towns.

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