Here at Regional Capitals Australia HQ we decided it was time to reach out to our members and learn more about your regional capitals – your vision for your city, your infrastructure priorities and the challenges facing the region. Our first interview is with Councillor Margaret O’Rourke, Mayor of the City of Greater Bendigo.
Cr O’Rourke worked at Telstra for 31 years then started her own consultancy business in communications and economic development projects. Margaret was born and raised in Bendigo and has two daughters, one 12 and one just turned 16. Cr O’Rourke currently serves as Deputy Director at the Bendigo Kangan Institute, Director of Goulburn Murray Water and Director of the Bendigo Health Care Group.
Why did you decide to join the council and become Mayor?
I worked with councils all over Australia for years in my role with Telstra. When you’re running an organisation or a business unit of an organisation in communities, you get to work very closely with local councils.
At the last election there were governance issues surrounding the council here in Greater Bendigo that concerned me and I just felt that I had something to offer. So I put my hand up, thought that I would use my knowledge and experience to give back to the community and I got elected.
It’s a privilege to be a councillor and Mayor. I just pinch myself every day about how fortunate I am to see and do what I do in my community. You think you know where you live, but when you actually get into a role of local government, what you get asked to do and see and be involved with is a real privilege.
How has your experience assisted you in your role as Mayor?
I do think that having a corporate background has been helpful for me, particularly in understanding the organisation’s finances. Bendigo has a $220 million per year budget (approximately). Obviously business experience is not a necessity, but it really does assist with understanding the needs of the community as well.
How would you describe your vision for Bendigo?
It’s really about having a very liveable community. We are beautifully placed, being in the centre of Victoria and having good transport links, including the dual carriageway of the Calder Freeway and 24 rail services.
It’s about creating the world’s most liveable community. A liveable community is one that really does enable people to live healthy, safe and harmonious lives and have attractive and affordable settings, have an excellent range of services for children and adults of all ages, with all facilities being accessible. We make sure that we don’t make unsustainable demands on our environment as well, so we think that that would make us then the world’s most liveable community as we drive towards that goal.
This is based on our council plan that we actually call our ‘community plan’. A change that was brought about from significant community feedback that showed a lack of engagement with council’s previous plan.
The cost of purchasing a house in Bendigo has been increasing as a flow-on effect from the increasing prices in Melbourne – have you seen any changes in the demographics of people living in Bendigo over the past five years?
Yes prices are going up, but in comparison to Melbourne and Geelong and Ballarat, the average price for a home is just $350,000, so it is very affordable.
We’re starting to see people moving out of capital cities to move to more regional lifestyles.
Melbourne increases by about 100,000 every year, so people are looking for something else – the regions. We have seen an increase of about 2 per cent in our population last year, which is the most that we’ve had in some time.
What are the top three industries in your council’s municipality?
Our top three industries are healthcare and social assistance, retail trade as well as education and training. Then it would be agriculture and manufacturing closely behind. We’ve got around 7,800 active businesses in the city. Greater Bendigo still has a strong manufacturing hub, which bucks the trend a bit in terms of regional cities.
What are the main challenges facing your city?
The predictions are that Greater Bendigo will grow to 200,000 people by 2050. We are just under 115,000 now, so that’s almost doubling our population.
We are very self-sufficient and have now become a real service hub for the Loddon Mallee region. Today our population swells by 10 per cent through the working week, just through non-residents wanting to gain access to work and education. We are are even attracting people from Melbourne’s northern suburbs on the train to our university.
We are also the first regional city in Victoria work with the Victorian Planning Authority and all relevant Victorian Government agencies to create a long-term city plan, featuring a 30-year pipeline of transformational projects – it is called the Plan Greater Bendigo.
Of course we are constantly working with our rural communities and making sure that they fell engaged and connected to our whole municipality, because the urban voice being loud and with larger numbers, can take over from our rural communities.
How do you work with other towns in your region?
Our surrounding shires look very strongly towards Greater Bendigo for regional leadership. Many of the Mayors say to me if Bendigo’s doing well, we will do well.
We see ourselves as a region, in the sense that if people don’t want to live in the urban scenario of Bendigo but might work here, they might live in Castlemaine or they might live in Maryborough but they can work within the Greater Bendigo region, so those surrounding shire see that as a benefit, and people that still want to live in their rural communities, they might work in the main centre.
We meet every two months with our fellow Loddon Campaspe Shire Councils. I Chair those meetings, there are six councils involved. A lot of the things we do, we do jointly to enable a better outcome for the whole region.
What are your priorities for the next 12 months?
We’ve recently had some announcements in the State Budget which we’re really very pleased about. A government hub will be based here and will house a thousand people – the hub will be a one-stop shop for people to come in and work with the various agencies.
We are working closely with airlines to attract commercial flights to our airport that was extended about 12 months ago. We have a large number of businesses that operate out of Bendigo and have head-offices in Sydney and Adelaide that require better connectivity. There is a real desire to have some commercial flights coming into Bendigo now.
Our law courts are based in a beautiful historic building in the centre of town, but it is a 19th century building, trying to undertake 21st century activities, and so we need to relocate the courts to a more suitable location. We are looking for further improvements on that and a duplication of a rail line between Bendigo and Kyneton.
We’ve also looking to expand the Golden Dragon Museum based here in Bendigo and that’s going to be renamed the National Chinese Museum of Australia
Why did you choose to join Regional Capitals Australia?
We think that because of our vision of becoming the world’s most liveable community, it makes sense to speak to other regional capital cities about their challenges and opportunities and see how we can actually work together and improve the liveability in all our regions, so there’s a lot of synergy to working with other regional centres. Working with Regional Capitals Australia also helps us have a voice in Canberra too.
Why do you think regional capital cities deserve a place in national policy?
We live in regional communities and we think they’re fantastic – we are not alone 23 per cent of Victoria’s population lives in regional Victoria.
Our communities need a voice and that’s something since I feel very strongly about. We know that strong, sustainable, vibrant regional cities really do contribute to liveability and economic outcomes for the nation. Australia’s not just about the capital cities, it is also about what the regions offer.
It’s a much more affordable place, where we might only have to wait for one set of lights. Now I know that’s going to change into the future but it still gives so much more of an offering, it really is about a liveable lifestyle.