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Population Distribution: Small towns: which ones are in decline?
AUSTRALIAN SMALL TOWNS WHICH DECREASED OR INCREASED BY 10% OR MORE, 1986-96
A number of small towns throughout Australia have been affected by falling prosperity. In 1996 there were 678 towns with between 1,000 and 19,999 people, 100 more than in 1986, and nearly 2.5 million people lived in them (an increase of about 324,000 since 1986). Of the 578 towns of this size existing in 1986, about a third (31%) had sustained population losses by 1996, with 10% declining by at least 10%. At the same time, another 47% grew by at least 10%.
Towns in decline between 1986 and 1996 were usually inland in wheat-sheep belts, dryland grazing regions or mining regions. Conversely, most towns experiencing substantial population growth were coastal, located around metropolitan capital cities, or associated with growth in particular industries such as wine growing or tourism.
People living in declining towns risk losing their savings, livelihood and support systems as they confront the break-up of their community, loss of jobs, deteriorating infrastructure and declining property values. In addition, declining towns often lose services through the closure of schools, hospitals, retail establishments and banks. Such closures have a direct impact on the health and well being of remaining residents, but they can also have psychological impact, with many seeing the closure of central services as signalling the 'death of a town'.1 Factors affecting population losses in a particular town may be unique to the town (the closure of a mine or downturn in a local industry). However, understanding differences in the distribution of declining and growing towns throughout Australia provides insights into other factors affecting small town prosperity.
URBAN CENTRE BY SIZE
New South Wales
Population losses in New South Wales were particularly evident in inland towns west of the Great Dividing Range. The largest cluster of towns experiencing population decline of at least 10% between 1986 and 1996 were located in the north-east wheat-sheep region. These included Werris Creek, Wee Waa, Narrabri, Barraba and Dorrigo which are, in general, service centres for surrounding agricultural areas. Towns further south such as Murrumburrah-Harden (a service centre for the surrounding agricultural region) and Batlow (a timber milling and fruit growing town) also sustained population losses of at least 10%.
Note: The town of Scone, in the Central-East region of NSW was listed in the print version of Australian Social Trends 1998 as being a town in decline. The figures which indicated this were later found to have been affected by a relocation of geographical boundaries, and further enquiries have revealed no evidence of decline in this town or its surrounding area.
Against this trend many inland towns grew by at least 10%, particularly along the Murray River, in the Snowy Mountains, close to the Hume Highway approaching Sydney, and in the Hunter Valley region. These were mostly affected by the growth of particular industries such as wine growing and tourism. The pattern of coastal growth was strongly evident in New South Wales.
As in New South Wales, the inland areas of Victoria in the wheat-sheep belt experienced the greatest population declines. Most of the towns experiencing population decline were in the central-west and central-south regions of Victoria. Towns in the central-west region included Charlton, Ararat, and Beaufort which are, in general, service centres for surrounding agricultural areas (wheat, grazing). The towns in the central-south region (in the Latrobe valley) sustained the largest absolute population declines. These towns were Moe-Yallorn, Morwell and Churchill which are heavily dependent on the open-cut brown coal mining industry.
Towns experiencing population growth were mostly concentrated around Melbourne and along the Murray River. Some scattered tourist towns grew by at least 10%. Rutherglen, a wine growing area, and Lakes Entrance, a tourist resort on the coast, grew by 20% and 28% respectively.
SMALL TOWNS DECLINING 10% OR MORE, 1986-1996
A number of towns experienced population decline in the central-west region where sheep farming and iron-ore mining are main industries. These towns included Dampier, Mount Magnet, Pannawonica, Paraburdoo, Roebourne and Wickham. Of these, Wickham sustained the largest absolute decline (796 people). Exmouth, also in the central-west region, may have declined because of the withdrawal of American personnel from a naval communications centre located there. In the south-east, the mining towns, Laverton and Norseman, declined by more than 10%. Laverton sustained the largest percentage decline (44%). Wyndham, in the north, declined by 35%.
Inland towns that grew by at least 10% were scattered between the different regions of Western Australia. Meekatharra in the central- west grew by 25%. Broome and Kununurra in the north grew by 97% and 56% respectively. In the south-east, Leonora grew by 14%.
As was the case in Victoria, the majority of towns experiencing population growth were concentrated around the capital city, Perth. Population growth also occurred in towns south of Perth and on the southernmost coastal point of Western Australia.
Population growth rates in Queensland as a whole have been very high in recent years (see Australian Social Trends 1998, Population - State summary table), with much of the growth occurring in coastal towns. These stretched as far north as Port Douglas (which grew by 173%) and south down the coast to the Queensland/New South Wales border.
Nevertheless, various small towns in north-east and south-east Queensland experienced a decline. These towns were located inland from Townsville to Bundaberg. These towns and declining towns in the north-west region (Hughenden and Winton) are mostly service centres for surrounding agricultural areas (cattle, cotton, sheep and grain). Collinsville in the north-east, and Blackwater and Biloela in the south-east sustained the greatest absolute declines.
Not all inland towns in wheat-sheep belts and dryland grazing regions of Queensland were experiencing population declines. Emerald, also a service centre for surrounding agricultural area (cattle and farming industries), grew by 56%. Emerald is at the centre of a major irrigation scheme. Many towns of the Darling Downs west of Brisbane also grew by at least 10%.
Four towns in South Australia (all located in the central-north region) declined by at least 10%. These were Burra, an old copper mining town; Peterborough, a railway town surrounded by grain growing and pastoral areas; Woomera, the site of a rocket range; and Leigh Creek, a coal mining town. Leigh Creek sustained the largest absolute and percentage population decline, losing nearly half (961 people or 49%) of its population over the decade.
Against this trend Coober Pedy, which is located in the outback, grew by 31%. This growth is probably due to the growth in tourism and opal mining in the region. Other small towns that grew by at least 10% were concentrated around Adelaide, in the wine growing regions and along the Murray River (continuing the New South Wales/Victoria pattern). These included Berri (produces fruit products) which grew by 12% and Renmark (a wine growing town) which grew by 25%. Other wine growing towns closer to Adelaide included Tanunda and Gawler in the Barossa Valley (grew by 23% and 36% respectively) and Aldinga and McLaren Vale which are south of Adelaide (increases of 53% and 93% respectively).
SMALL TOWNS CHANGING IN SIZE BY 10% OR MORE BY STATE OR TERRITORY, 1986-1996
Strong population loss occurred in mining towns in the west of Tasmania. These were Queenstown, Tullah, Rosebery, Savage River and Zeehan. Other towns that had declined by at least 10% were George Town (north-east), and Bridgewater-Gagebrook and New Norfolk (south-east). Bridgewater-Gagebrook sustained the largest absolute decline (losing some 1,200 people). Most of the growing towns were located near Launceston and the capital city Hobart.
No towns declined by at least 10%. Of towns that grew, most were situated near the top of the Territory. These were Jabiru, Galiwinku and Katherine (expanding by 20%, 25% and 40% respectively). Growth also occurred further south in Yulara, a tourist resort close to Uluru and the Olgas (grew by 138%).
1 McKenzie, F. 1994, Regional Population Decline in Australia, Impacts and Policy Implications, AGPS, Canberra.