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Regions Rising: National Summit 2023

RCA attended the Regional Australia Institute’s National Summit in Canberra from 13-14 September 2023, with Chair Cr Kylie King a leading presenter at the conference, sharing the opening panel session to discuss progress on the Regionalisation Ambition 2023.

The first progress report into the Regionalisation Ambition was released, indicating that housing and workforce shortages are continuing to hamper regional growth.

The regional rental vacancy rate has increased from 1% to 1.5% which is higher than capital cities, while monthly building approvals have declined. 

Recruitment difficulty in the regions currently stands at 69%, up from 64% just one year ago which confirms anecdotal evidence across all regions that it is increasingly difficult to recruit staff and find suitable accommodation.

There was however positive progress on a number of measures including education, population, digital inclusion, education and employment:

  • The regional population has increased from 9.5 million (2021) to 9.6 million (2022);
  • The Australia Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) score in regions has increased from 67.4 (2021) to 69.8 (2022);
  • The attainment rate for regional students has increased from 69.6% (2020) to 71.4% (2021);
  • Post school qualification completion rate for regional Australians has increased to 58.4%;
  • Life satisfaction and wellbeing in regions has improved to a score of 73;
  • The number of childcare services in regions has increased by 5.2%;
  • Across all domains (except Yr 7 spelling), NAPLAN results have improved for very remote students;
  • The proportion of overseas arrivals in regions has increased slightly to 18.5% (up from 17.4%);
  • Regional workforce participation increased to 63.9% (but still lower than capitals); and
  • Over half of employment in renewable energy generation was based in regions, growing by more than 60% since 2016.

Over two days, the Summit heard from leaders across Australia to discuss how to ‘shift our gaze’ and make further progress on the measures in the Regionalisation Ambition.

Image: Regional Capitals Australia

Federal Regional Funding Program Guidelines

Below is a snapshot of regional funding program guidelines for the two new federal programs: Growing Regions Fund and the Regional Precincts and Partnerships Program.

This analysis shows where RCA’s recommendations have been adopted across both programs.

RCA RecommendationGrowing Regions FundRegional Precincts and Partnerships Program
Funds to be exclusively allocated to regional communities: excluding suburban and metro projectsYes – capital cities excludedYes – capital cities excluded
Review the stated intention to allow State Governments to access federal regional grant programsState Govts ineligible for fundingState Govts can apply provided they demonstrate a partnership with local government
That the Govt commit to annual rounds of fundingThree rounds committedRolling fund – no open or close date
Implement a two-step application process to ensure resources aren’t wasted filling in grant applications with little chance of successYes – EOI and then full applicationNo
Guidelines should support the development of a broad range of enabling infrastructureYesYes, with the exception of housing and emergency management
Funding caps should set Federal contribution at between $10 and $50 million and reflect an accurate population planning statisticYes – $500,000 – $15 millionYes – $5 million – $50 million
Council resources should be used to carry out infrastructure delivery as an in-kind contributionNoYes – contributions can be cash or in-kind
Support for business case developmentNoStream 1 provides funding for business case development

Image: City of Karratha

SEGRA Summit

Cr Matthew Dickerson represented RCA recently at the SEGRA (Sustainable Economic Growth for Regional Australia) National Regional and Economic Development Summit in Toowoomba.  SEGRA is a not-for-profit company that aims to advance regional Australia, and connect and empower rural communities.

Cr Dickerson was one of the opening speakers in the “Influence and Engage” panel session and also presented a highly-engaging speech on “Investment and Planning for Regional Cities”.

Image: SEGRA Foundation

Spotlight on: Armidale – Fast 5 with Armidale Mayor Cr Sam Coupland

How is your community changing and what is driving the growth in the Armidale region?

The overarching strategy of Armidale Regional Council is to grow our population by 10,000 in the next 20 years and then another 10,000 in the following 10 years.  Armidale has two unique factors that are going to underpin this growth – the Renewable Energy Zone (see below) and intensive horticulture.

To achieve this goal council itself needed to be on a secure footing.  Historically Armidale Regional Council (and its earlier iterations) have been financially strapped and as a result the region has never realised its potential.  This current council was determined to put this right and applied for and received a 58.8% rate increase – over three years – which came into effect this financial year. 

What are the biggest priorities for Armidale Regional Council right now?

Our priorities are everything required to achieve the target population growth, specifically:

  • Water security for a population of 50,000+ and associated industry;
  • Ensuring there is sufficient housing;
  • An additional 4,000 jobs will lead to a population increase of 10,000;
  • Improved civic amenities; and
  • Proactively drive tourism.

What are the most significant infrastructure challenges facing Council over the next 5 year and how are you adapting to meet those challenges?

  • Water security:  Council has 80% of the funding to double the capacity of its main water storage (Malpas Dam) and are finalising the pre-construction work which will see the raising of the dam wall being completed by 2026.  In addition to this, in December 2022 Council purchased a disused hydro dam (Oaky Dam) as a backup water supply. 
  • Housing: Armidale Regional Council is putting the finishing touches to the Housing Strategy and Local Strategic Planning Statement.  Both documents have been prepared with assistance from Macroplan and will be put before council in the October meeting and then on public exhibition.  The housing strategy has identified more than 8,500 lots for development which will be sufficient for a population increase of 20,000+.

The New England region has been selected as a Renewable Energy Zone by the NSW government. What does this mean for your community and what has Council learned from the process so far?

The Renewable Energy Zone (REZ) will be the biggest change to our region since settlers arrived with sheep in the 1840’s.  Such change has both positives and negatives for the region.

At one end of the spectrum, the nature of how renewable projects come into being sets the scene for social friction in a community.  This is initially between host landholders and near neighbours who discover they have been kept in the dark about developments which will fundamentally change their amenity and possibly their livelihood. 

The social friction will then radiate outwards to the town centres during construction phase as a tight accommodation market is placed under increased stress and the availability of skilled labour is soaked up.

On the positive side, the construction phase will likely last many years and provide a boost to local economies.  There are post construction opportunities to build on the renewable projects such as green hydrogen production and recycling.  There are opportunities to monetise the wave of renewable developments to ensure multi-generational benefits to the community.

Armidale will effectively become the dormitory for the REZ.  Based on the number of proposed renewable energy projects in the region, practically this means we will need to accommodate 2,000+ workers for the next 10 years.  This is a good problem to have but it requires council to have a solid plan on how we want these workers to be accommodated and what legacy may be left for the region at the conclusion of the construction phase.

All projects in the REZ are either State Significant Developments or State Significant Infrastructure and the initial attitude toward council by government and developers was one of tokenism – some would say patronising tokenism is more accurate.  By banding together with the other councils in New England we were able to establish a ‘Statement of Expectations’ which established some road rules on how renewable developers would participate in our region. 

One of the key items in the Statement of Expectations was that renewable developers pay 1.5% of construction cost as part of a Planning Agreement.  This has now become the industry standard.  In Armidale we will be pooling all funds from the planning agreement into a Future Fund to ensure intergenerational benefit from the REZ.

How do you see the role of regional capitals in the broader context of Australia’s growth?

Regional capitals have the capacity and desire to grow their populations which dovetails as a solution for the state capital cities which are bursting. 

Regional capitals need to be seen by all levels of government as a partner in Australia’s economic and population growth.  Government needs to deliver tangible solutions and do away with platitudes.

Image: Cr Sam Coupland, Armidale Regional Council

Regional Grants Programs

RCA’s advocacy on guideline development for the regional grants has paid off with the government adopting of the majority of RCA’s recommendations.  

The guidelines for the Growing Regions Fund and the Regional Precincts and Partnerships Program include the following new initiatives that aligns with RCA’s regional grants advocacy:

    • Funds exclusively allocated to regional communities (at the exclusion of suburban and metro projects) with guidelines that support the development of a broad range of regional projects and enabling infrastructure;

    • Further funding rounds have been committed for both programs, with the Growing Regions Program instigating a new two-step application process to avoid lengthy application processes for projects with little chance of success;

    • Both programs prioritise community and public infrastructure, with the Growing Regions Program accepting applications valued between $500,000 and $15 million, and the Regional Precincts and Partnerships Program suitable for projects valued between $5 million to $50 million;

    • Support for business case development is available in Stream 1 of the Regional Precincts and Partnerships program; and

    • Council resources (in-kind contribution) are able to be utilised for the Regional Precincts and Partnerships program.

RCA thanks our members for their contribution to our survey which helped shape and determine these recommendations.  Ensuring that regional programs are designed to meet the need of regional communities is fundamental to growing thriving regional capitals and is also a core objective of RCA.

See our table of recommendations and how these are incorporated into the two key regional programs.


Image: Maryborough, courtesy Fraser Coast Regional Council


Australian Government Urban Policy Consultation Network

Regional Capitals Australia (RCA) has been invited by the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development the Hon Catherine King MP to join the Australian Government’s Urban Policy Consultation Network, which will provide advice and feedback to the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts on urban policy issues.

In particular, the Network will provide advice on the development of the new National Urban Policy, which will shape the direction of Australia’s cities for the decades ahead.  The policy will aim to develop a shared vision to ensure growth in cities is sustainable to meet the challenges of the future.  The first meeting was held on 20 September and RCA Chair, Cr Kylie King was in attendance to represent regional capitals.

Image: City of Greater Geelong

Ministerial Regional Roundtable

RCA recently headed to Canberra at the invitation of the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development the Hon Catherine King MP for the Ministerial Regional Roundtable.

Attended by both Minister King and Minister for Minister for Regional Development, Local Government and Territories, the Hon Kristy McBain MP, this important policy forum is a unique opportunity to discuss the strategic challenges facing regional capital cities, and to advocate for government support and investment to enable regional Australia to prosper and grow.

At this meeting the roundtable participants were briefed on the Government’s new regional investment framework while also providing important feedback on key government initiatives in the regional development portfolio.

Image: City of Ballarat

Delegation Wrap Up

Regional Capitals Australia recently took regional advocacy to the nation’s capital, attending Parliament House during a sitting week to meet with the Government, Opposition and departmental officials.

Our board met with the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development the Hon Catherine King MP (pictured) to discuss the infrastructure demands on regional cities, particularly the financial constraints of managing and funding regional airports.

We also met with the Assistant Minister for Climate Change and Energy Senator the Hon Jenny McAllister to call for new safeguards to ensure regional communities are appropriately protected and consulted in the race to meet Australia’s renewable energy targets. The Board also met with the Federal Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water to discuss community consultation standards for renewable energy projects.

The RCA delegation had productive discussions with the Office of the Hon Andrew Giles MP Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs regarding the migration review and the importance of regional visas and Designated Area Migration Agreements (DAMAs).  The Board also presented the RCA Airports Policy to the Federal Opposition, meeting with Hon Darren Chester MP Shadow Minister for Regional Development regarding regional aviation.

Image: Cr George Seymour Mayor Fraser Coast Regional Council, Cr Mathew Dickerson Mayor Dubbo Regional Council, Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development the Hon Catherine King MP, Cr Kylie King Mayor Albury City Council, Cr Kellie O’Callaghan Mayor Latrobe City Council 

REGIONAL AIRPORTS – What is their contribution to Australia?

Regional airports are key to the social and economic life of regional Australia, however the reality is most regional airports are under significant financial strain.

Airport’s role in regional Australia

Regional airports are extremely hard-working community assets with a big part to play in the life of regional Australia and indeed our nation’s broader economy and security.

They play an indispensable role in the security, wellbeing and equity of our nation, with the Australian Airports Association estimating that regional airports facilitate over 6,000 emergency medical evacuations per year and house over 500 firefighting aircraft across Australia.

The devastating bushfire season of 2019-20 proved that regional airports are too important to fail – beyond servicing passenger services they provide critical functions essential for our nation’s health and safety including border protection, medivac, defence and disaster response.

Regional airports are also key gateways for the movement of Australia’s estimated 100,000 FIFO workers, air freight, business travel and the growth of new jobs and aviation industries.

The Australian Airports Association estimates that prior to the pandemic, regional Australia accounted for 45% of output from Australia’s tourism sector, with regional airports acting as critical connection points for international and domestic tourists. 

Financial pressures

Unfortunately, the reality is most regional airports are under significant financial strain with an estimated 60 per cent of regional airports operating at a loss due to ageing infrastructure, security cost pressures, high staffing costs, and an increasing regulatory burden.

An estimated 200 regional airports are owned and operated by local councils but rising operating, regulation and security costs means that many airports are operating at a loss and a burden on regional ratepayers.

Local councils, many of whom are constrained by rate-caps or pegs, struggle with resources to fund the ongoing regulatory, maintenance and capital upgrades required for regional airports to have a viable future.

Australian Government Response

To set a future framework for the future of the aviation sector, the Federal Government released the Aviation Green Paper, aimed at establishing the long-term policies for Australia’s aviation sector.  Public consultation occurred during March of this year in preparation for this draft paper.

A second round of consultation is now occurring, before the Aviation White Paper is released in 2024.

Pre-empting the release of the White Paper, RCA has travelled to Canberra to champion the role of regional airports, not only in underpinning the economies of regional cities but also providing critical functions essential for our nation.

Our Call to Action

Regional Capitals Australia is calling on the Federal Government to provide additional funding and support for regional airports, in particular:

  • Implement a policy recognising the importance of regional airports in increasing the connectivity of regional Australia and to consider future planning and funding of regional airports;
  • Provide recurrent funding for the Regional Airport Fund to ensure that regional airports can be upgraded and maintained and supply security arrangements for regional airports;
  • Upgrade the guidelines for the any funding to allow for landside developments to be considered; and
  • Review the efficacy of Western Australia’s Strategic Airport Asset and Financial Management Framework to determine its suitability for application across all jurisdictions.

Read the Airports Policy and Case Studies

Image: Dubbo Regional Airport

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