Regional cities – are they growing or slowing?

Regional cities – are they growing or slowing?

It’s no secret that Australia’s largest cities are recording rapid rates of population growth.  This presents challenges for infrastructure provision, transport and demand for services.  How do urban planners respond to these challenges?  Is there anything we can do to curb this growth?

I often see comments, particularly on social media, suggesting that the government should encourage decentralisation and that our regional cities should do more to take the heat off the major cities.  Some of these comments have an unfounded basis, but it did get me thinking – how quickly are Australia’s regional centres growing?

At the time of writing the ABS had yet to update its geographic classification to reflect 2016 boundaries for Signficant Urban Areas (SUAs), so I’ve used the 2011 boundaries in this blog.  Very handy because the most recent release of the rebased ERPs also uses this classification.  The ABS defines SUAs as areas with concentrations of urban development with a population of more than 10,000 persons, and are built up from SA2s.

Significant Urban Areas

Between 2006 and 2016, SUAs recorded growth rates far in excess of non-SUA areas.  SUAs grew by 1.8% per annum over this time period, which is comparable to the national average of 1.7%.  By contrast, non-SUA areas grew by 0.9% per annum.  Between 2006-16, SUAs increased in population by 20% as a whole.  The table below shows the variations by State, which are significant, but they also show different patterns in 2006-11 compared to 2011-16.

Average annual growth rate, Significant Urban Areas, 2006-2016

State Growth 2006-11 Growth 2011-16 Total growth 2006-16
NSW 1.5% 1.5% 1.5%
VIC 2.0% 2.4% 2.2%
QLD 2.3% 1.7% 2.0%
SA 1.2% 0.9% 1.1%
WA 3.0% 1.7% 2.4%
TAS 1.0% 0.4% 0.7%
NT 2.1% 1.3% 1.7%
ACT 1.8% 1.4% 1.6%
Australia 1.8% 1.6% 1.7%

Source:  ABS, Regional Population Growth (ABS Cat. no. 3218.0)

Despite a downturn in the mining economy, Western Australia recorded the fastest growing SUAs over the period 2006-16, averaging 2.4% per annum over the ten years.  However, there was a marked difference between each intercensal period.  Between 2006-11, the growth rate was 3.0% per annum, but this declined to 1.7% per annum between 2011-16.  This is still around the national average but much slower than the heady heights reached in the earlier period.

Victoria and Queensland also recorded SUA growth of 2.0% of more between 2006-16, but the fortunes of these States were quite different.  Similar to WA, Queensland’s SUAs grew faster in the earlier period (2.3% pa) but this declined to 1.7% between 2011-16.  On the other hand, SUAs in Victoria grew more rapidly between 2011-16 (2.4% pa) compared to 2.0% between 2006-11.  Between 2011-16, Victoria’s SUAs recorded the most rapid annual average growth rate of all States and Territories.

Regional cities

The urban settlement pattern in Australia is dominated by very large state capital cities, with much smaller regional cities.  This is commonly called urban primacy.  In Australia it is largely a legacy of the early days of European settlement when trade and colonial administration was largely handled in one city, creating a spatial concentration of jobs, opportunities and population growth.  The ACT aside, there is a degree of urban primacy in across most states.  It is most evident in South Australia and Western Australia, where around 90% of the state’s population live in Adelaide and Perth respectively.  However Queensland and Tasmania have other large regional cities, so the population share in Brisbane and Hobart is far less.

The table below shows the annual average population growth rate for SUAs without their state capitals.  This provides a better indication as to the actual growth of regional cities (although there are quirks – as discussed below).  The high growth rates in Western Australia and Queensland are still evident, particularly in the earlier period when the average annual growth rate was well above the national average.  In contrast, SUAs in regional Tasmania and the Northern Territory lost population between 2011-16.  In Tasmania, this reflects population loss across the regional centres along the north coast.

The Northern Territory only has one SUA in its regional area – Alice Springs – which grew modestly between 2006-11 (1.3% pa), but then went backwards by a similar rate between 2011-16 (-1.2% pa).  This effectively resulted in minimal population change over the period 2006-16.  A major reason for this population turnaround is that Alice Springs records net migration loss ie more people moving out than in.  Part of this may be related to the more transient nature of the population, but ABS migration statistics show that the region loses more people in family age groups ie 25-44 years and 0-14 years which impacts on the momentum for further growth.

Average annual growth rate, Significant Urban Areas (without State capital cities), 2006-2016

State Growth 2006-11 Growth 2011-16 Total growth 2006-16
NSW 1.2% 0.9% 1.0%
VIC 1.7% 1.9% 1.8%
QLD 2.3% 1.6% 2.0%
SA 1.2% 0.7% 0.9%
WA 3.1% 2.3% 2.7%
TAS 0.9% -0.2% 0.3%
NT 1.3% -1.2% 0.0%

*there are no other SUAs in the ACT other than Canberra-Queanbeyan

Source:  ABS, Regional Population Growth (ABS Cat. no. 3218.0)

The curious case of Ellenbrook

While the SUA geographic classification is useful, it does have some quirks.  Perhaps none is more obvious than the inclusion of Ellenbrook, which recorded the fastest growth rate between 2006-16 – 10.2% per annum.  However, Ellenbrook is essentially an outer suburb of Perth, located in the northern part of the City of Swan.  In the last five years, there has been significant growth around the suburbs of Dayton and Brabham, such that urban development north of the Roe Highway is virtually continuous up to Ellenbrook.

It will be interesting to see if the ABS continue to classify Ellenbrook as a separate SUA when the 2016 structure is finalised.  At the moment however, Ellenbrook has the distinction of being Australia’s fastest growing regional city – even though it isn’t one.  This “quirkiness” also extends to places like Melton, which is in Melbourne’s west and is not contiguous with the rest of the metropolitan area.  However it is a significant urban area, but for the purposes of this blog is hardly a regional city.

So what is the fastest growing regional city?

If SUAs adjacent to the state capital cities are excluded, then the fastest growing regional city in Australia between 2006-16 was Torquay, located on Victoria’s coastline in Surf Coast Shire.  Torquay grew by an average of 5% per annum between 2006-16, to reach a population of 19,066.  There are a number of new housing estates particularly on the northern side of town, and the town benefits from its proximity to Geelong (about 20km).  Despite its long history as a favoured holiday destination and strong amenity factor which attract sea-changers and retirees, it’s becoming difficult to separate Torquay from the greater Geelong/Bellarine Peninsula economic and social catchment.  This will increasingly be the case as Geelong’s urban growth edges southward through the ongoing development of Armstrong Creek.

Victoria had some of the fastest growing regional cities between 2006-16, and these were all located in Melbourne’s peri-urban area.  Aside from Torquay, they include Ocean Grove-Point Lonsdale and Warragul-Drouin (both growing by 3.1% pa) and Bacchus Marsh (3.0% pa).  Again, there are new housing estates on the edge of these towns, and they have good access to the wider Melbourne or Geelong labour market.  These towns offer lifestyle and relatively affordable housing opportunities to a wide range of people – a key reason for the rapid growth rates.

So regional cities, particularly if they are located in peri-urban areas, are growing.  But can growth in the regions take the pressure off the capital cities?  Well, it comes back to units of measurement – rates and volume.  Impressive that some of these growth rates are, it is simply unrealistic to expect that regional cities can accommodate the same volume of growth which is occurring in Melbourne.  For instance, Torquay grew by 7,310 persons between 2006-16 – less than 1% of the growth that occurred in Melbourne over the same time.  Even Victoria’s three largest regional centres – Geelong, Bendigo and Ballarat – grew by a combined total of 56,635 persons between 2006-16, which is still less than the average annual volume of growth occurring in Melbourne.

Do you work or live in a regional city?  Or face particular challenges planning for the development or provision of services in rapidly growing regional cities? The .id community suite of information tools is currently being updated with information from the 2016 Australian Census for LGAs across Australia, providing a wealth of up-to-date knowledge about regional cities.

To help you answer more advanced planning challenges in regional cities, .id’s team of population experts are always on hand to work with you to understand the questions you need to answer and provide the evidence base required to inform confident decision making.

.id is a team of demographers, urban economists, spatial planners, population forecasters, and Census data experts who use a unique combination of online tools and consulting to help governments and organisations understand their local communities.

Simone - Myth Buster

Simone has a rich background in human geography, demography and urban planning – a background that was useful in her previous roles in the Commonwealth and State Governments, and now as part of the forecast team at .id. From the Queensland coast to the southern suburbs of Perth, Simone produces population and dwelling forecasts that help local governments make informed decisions about future service and planning needs. She is a regular contributor to .id’s blog and has spoken at several conferences on how our cities and regions are changing. She is a big advocate of evidence-based planning and how Census and other data can inform this. Outside of work Simone is a keen traveller and photographer – interests that tie in well with her professional life and help her to understand “place”.

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