This is part two of a five-part series about the crisis in our country communities. Today Peter Devlin explores how the success of larger regional cities like Dubbo and Orange is coming at the expense of the smaller surrounding towns.
As Sydney’s population steadily increases, regional NSW’s population is plunging into decline. People are deserting country towns for metropolitan areas. A lack of employment opportunities has caused Wellington’s population to dwindle.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures show population decreases in NSW continued to occur in inland local government areas during 2010-11, and almost nine in ten inland LGAs had growth rates below the NSW median rate of 1.1 per cent. The largest population decrease for a local government area in NSW for this period was recorded in Wellington Council (down 140 people).
The electorate of Mark Coulton, the current Federal Member for Parkes includes Wellington and is the largest in the state. Mr Coulton has seen a decline in jobs due to the mechanisation of agriculture.
“It’s a bit of a vicious cycle; a lot of the rural jobs that were labour intensive just aren’t there anymore,” Mr Coulton says.
The NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure predicts these trends will continue. It does not bode well for Wellington, which stands to lose a further 750 of its residents before 2031. Locals like Margaret Schmitt remember a time when Mitchell Highway wasn’t lined with ‘for lease’ signs.
“Shops have gone; when businesses go people go too. It’s had a big effect over the last 25 years,” Margaret says. As her husband John sips his tea, milk no sugar, he adds, “A lot of people move to the city, a lot move to the coast and a lot move to Dubbo.”
John Schmitt is right. A 2013-2014 ABS report into population growth found that Dubbo was among the fastest growing rural centres in NSW. The report showed that regional centres such as Orange and Dubbo continued to drive growth in inland NSW while many of the state’s smaller towns declined in population. “The bigger centres are going ahead leaps and bounds and the smaller centres are going back very quickly,” John says.
“It’s not only Wellington, it’s everywhere. People say it’s right throughout Australia.”
Marilyn Keirle, owner of the Cactus Cafe, believes this has a negative effect on smaller towns. “Dubbo acts like an octopus, it sucks the life out of everywhere else,” she says.
Alison Conn, manager of the Wellington Information and Neighbourhood Service and member of the local council, agrees with Marilyn.
“We all suffer from it because our services are limited,” she says.
Ms Conn gives an example – despite Wellington rating among the top 10 in NSW for domestic violence incidences, she says there are no services available in the town for victims of abuse.
“If a woman is bashed by her partner and she comes to see me the next morning, all I can do is ring the hotline for the Dubbo domestic violence service. At the end of the day, it’s too hard and the woman usually goes back home. It’s frightening.”
A bridge accident too far
This lack of services spills over into youth facilities. Three young men on scooters circle a roundabout along Mitchell Highway shortly before sunset.
“We’ve been riding around the roundabout 20 times before the cops drove by. We saw them and legged it hoping they would chase us,” explains 18-year-old Jake Sanger, sweating and panting furiously. The three local boys are on school holidays but they have nothing to do other than try to provoke the police. “We get bored shitless in this town so we try to get the cops to chase us,” Jake says.
The boys, too, have a theory about Wellington’s decreasing population. Jake describes a story his grandmother told him when he was younger. “Wellington was a really popular town before the bridge closed. A truck drove over and it fell down. It was closed for months. Everyone just moved to Dubbo and Orange. This town died off,” Jake says.
Jake’s grandmother is referring to an event on 6 January 1989. A Mack truck carrying an excavator approached the bridge over the Macquarie River at Wellington. On reaching the first main truss, the excavator boom struck the overhead cross beam of the bridge. The accident pulled the bridge off its supports and plunged it 15 metres into the river.
Living in a small town can be pleasant, as Wellington’s council and administration discovered in the 1960s. Local government is a major employer and plays an important part in community economic development through its own resources and partnerships with local businesses. Farren Hotham, managing editor of The Wellington Times, says policy makers in Wellington focused on retaining its sense of a small town community.
He says the Council and the State Government wanted Wellington to stay a small country town. “There were some bad decisions made in relation to options that weren’t taken up to improve the town,” he says.
Marilyn Keirle offers a more recent example of administrative complacency. Her cafe and gallery exhibits arts and crafts, and is housed in the former Sacred Heart Infants’ School built in 1929. Until recently, she had displayed a tourist sign advertising her gallery along Mitchell Highway. Last year Wellington Council asked her to remove it. The Council argued that she was running predominately a cafe, rather than a gallery and therefore could not display the sign.
“I was disappointed. It was one of those brown tourist signs; I paid $1000 odd dollars for it and it was up there for about 12 years. We had a new person come onto Council and demand it be taken down,” she says.
Marilyn is worried the local council “doesn’t know the value of tourism”. Her concerns could be justified. Under changes in preparation to be ‘Fit for the Future’, Wellington Council may remove its tourism and economic development services.
Stuart Town, formerly known as Ironbark, is a small town (population 487) on the central western slopes of NSW, in Wellington Council. In April, at an engagement meeting at the Stuart Town Hall, locals asked why Wellington Council was looking to reduce its services at a time when other central west centres were looking at jobs and moving their tourism forward.
Wellington’s mayor Cr Rod Buhr said it was hugely important but told the crowd economic development was costing Wellington $173,000 a year.
“Unfortunately we are not getting value for money here,” he said.
Fit For The Future: but whose future?
As early as 2011, the State Government began a study investigating the special circumstances of small rural communities in NSW and last year issued a report updating its findings to strengthen local councils and communities.
The Independent Local Government Review Panel highlighted the special circumstances of small rural communities and acknowledged that while they make a significant contribution to the state’s economy – 80 per cent of Australia’s exports originate from rural and remote areas – some rural towns and villages, such as Wellington, face particular challenges in sustaining their communities and maintaining services.
The panel recommended exploring a new structural approach for these councils, maintaining the individual identity of the community, yet reducing the council’s costs through streamlining regulatory and reporting requirements and administrative overheads and making greater use of shared resources.
Alison Conn, member of Wellington Council, and manager of Wellington Information and Neighbourhood Services, is sceptical that new structural approaches will only benefit major rural centres.
“According to the stats amalgamation increases jobs, but probably in Dubbo, not Wellington,” she said.
There was a mixed reaction to the panel’s Rural Council recommendations. According to a report on workshop outcomes released by the NSW Office of Local Government last year, many councils were concerned that any new model shouldn’t seek to “scale down” the council’s role in small communities, pointing out that councils were often the backbone of these rural centres and the only advocate for the people.
“There’s some chance that if Wellington Council was to merge that we would lose our identity,” says Farren Hotham, managing editor of The Wellington Times.
Local councils were invited to complete an optional Rural Council Template when preparing Fit for the Future proposals for 30 June 2015.
The development process included two workshops, one in Dubbo and one in Sydney, where councils from some 40 smaller communities were invited to share their views. The workshops were a starting point for developing the Rural Council model. Mayors and general managers outlined the challenges facing their communities and the important role councils play in supporting their towns and villages.
“According to the stats amalgamation increases jobs, but probably in Dubbo, not Wellington.”
Cr Alison Conn
The workshops identified key criteria that councils wanted to see retained in any new arrangements. Maintaining the role of councils as community leaders, and preserving a sense of autonomy for small communities were considered particularly important.
The workshops demonstrated that the needs of small communities in rural NSW are so diverse that a single solution may not be possible. However, there was agreement on a range of options that may be suitable for rural councils to help them become ‘Fit for the Future’. These included making greater use of shared arrangements with neighbouring councils, and reducing costs through streamlining compliance and reporting requirements.