country road in regional western australia Taylor Burrell Barnett

Planning for regional development: context, issues & what to do

23 Aug 2022

Planning outside of metropolitan areas is often dealt with in one fell swoop by blunt regional policies, but the diverse landscapes across the many regions in our vast state mean that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to regional development will never work.

In this article, Jeremy unpacks the issues facing regional development in Western Australia, how the regions differ from each other, and what role planning can play in addressing the issues.

Regional areas in Western Australia are subject to some of the most complex and serious issues across social, environmental, and economical outcomes. These ‘Wicked Problems’ as they are known, are often difficult to solve. Not only are the specific issues hard to resolve, but the solutions can also be contrary to one another. So can planners do anything to help?

The Regional Context

What's important to understand, and perhaps not acknowledged deeply enough, is that the contextual differences between regional areas within WA are often very large, and those differences are difficult to encapsulate or properly understand by the state based policy makers. And high level policies, which are often used as a blunt tool to address state-wide regional planning matters, often miss the mark in addressing the nuanced factors at the heart of the issue.

How the government-led support system for these regional areas has changed is also worth understanding.

Over the last 20 years governments have gradually withdrawn from explicit regionalised intervention in economic and demographic processes. Whereas governments historically determined the location of people in rural and remote areas, more recently governments have left the future of rural and remote communities more to ‘the market’.

However, the reality is that these markets do not work – or perhaps barely exist – in regional and especially in more rural and remote areas. Market-based systems have small numbers of consumers and usually a very small number of suppliers. Because of this, regional and rural services are often unlikely to enjoy the same economies of scale as metropolitan-based services, and small businesses can find it much harder to maintain their viability. Think of the pressures on small health clinics servicing remote communities. These businesses struggle to maintain viability servicing such a small population, however their presence is critical to the local community, and would have dire consequences if they ceased to exist.

With the specific context set for these regional areas, understanding the complexity of the solutions becomes more apparent.

What are the key issues?

Housing Affordability: housing affordability across Australia is a hot topic of conversation, with regional areas often feeling more of the brunt. This is driven by pure supply and demand. Smaller regional housing markets function less efficiently than metropolitan markets, which results in lower private sector investment. This lower uptake of supply is compounded by factors such as rising construction costs, and lower median wages in regional areas. This is only one scenario. Other factors, such as the proliferation of short stay accommodation can play a part too, depending on the specific region and local government area. Also, regions in the northern half of the state can be subject to extreme market volatility with housing costs rising to extreme peaks during times of high activity in the resources sector, while dropping quickly and dramatically when activity falls.

Climate change: climate change is a serious issue which needs to be at the centre of planning practice moving forward. Climate change threatens regional WA in a number of ways, from rising sea level  and coastal erosion, to drought and bushfires. A drying climate will also require adaptation of our agricultural sector. The effects are diverse and wide ranging, and an understanding of the specific threats at hand is key to any meaningful intervention.

Land use conflicts: Regional areas that do show signs of economic and population growth are often tied in with counter-urbanisation migration patterns, influenced by lifestyle factors on offer. But this amenity migration is not a panacea for regional development. This is especially poignant for some regional areas with large areas of rural land. Rural land, when used for agricultural pursuits, involve activities which are often dirty, noisy, and smelly – something that is often not understood or appreciated by those seeking a peaceful tree change. The co-locating of residential lifestyle lots can therefore threaten to undermine the economic output of these productive zones, and careful land use planning is required to avoid these conflicts.

Homogenous Landscapes:  One more complex issue that threatens all regional areas, albeit in different ways, is a lack of multifunctional landscapes and diverse economic output. For example, in the Pilbara region, studies have predicted that without economic diversification away from the current mining industries (which are seeing a decline) the Pilbara could become a region of ‘Ghost Towns’ in the not-too-distant future. Economic diversification would see regions insulated from changes in the market and equip them better to weather any potential economic downturns. In the shorter term, diversification can also serve to reduce the levels of volatility in population and housing costs that are commonplace in resource-driven economies.

What can be done?

While the prognosis for many of our regional communities may come across as quite dire, there are those proposing solutions at a local level. These specifically seek to address some of these local issues in a contextual way. Planning is at the heart of this, and this is something that the industry has acknowledged.

At the most recent PIA Regional Conference in Northam,  it was widely acknowledged that the planning profession is ideally placed to develop robust policy frameworks and strategic planning that respond to the unique dynamics of particular regions. These can be directly aligned to help address the specific issues faced by regional communities.

The blunt tool policies that are often imposed at the state level are going to be less powerful than strategies and policies developed at a more localised scale. The state is of course, still an important player, as part of the success of localised planning frameworks is to ensure good inter-regional integration and coordination, as well as resourcing support to help with the delivery. A framework which empowers regionalised responses to local challenges, with state level support, will serve to more effectively tackle some of these issues a context-sensitive way. From here, we may finally start to see the regions develop into sustainable, environmentally sensitive, connected and industrious places, fit for a prosperous future.