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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 1998  
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 03/06/1998   
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Contents >> Population >> Population Distribution: Small towns: which ones are in decline?

Population Distribution: Small towns: which ones are in decline?

While the majority of small towns existing in 1986 had experienced population growth by 1996, nearly a third (31%) declined in population. 10% had declined by more than 10%. Most of these were inland.

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.


Identifying towns

In 1996 most Australians (68%) lived in only 21 cities of 50,000 people or more. However, a sizeable minority of around 14% lived in small towns of between 1,000 and 19,999. Another 11% lived in rural areas or communities of less than 1,000 people.

In this review small towns have been defined as population centres with between 1,000 and 19,999 people. Towns might ideally be distinguished from cities and from smaller rural communities according to functional criteria, such as the presence or absence of various educational, medical, recreational and retail services, together perhaps with administrative criteria such as whether or not a city or town council operated from within the town. While such conceptual distinctions might be made, it is difficult to put such definitions into practice. The above population size was therefore considered the most suitable alternative which would generally encompass these criteria.

The population counts used to define towns have been obtained from ABS Censuses of Population and Housing. The counts refer to the number of people located in the town on the night of the Census. This measure can give a misleading estimate of the actual (or usual) resident population of the town, particularly where large numbers of people are either visiting the town (as in the case in tourist destinations such as Jindabyne or Thredbo) or they have temporarily moved elsewhere.

The possible effects of such moves when measuring the growth or decline of small towns may not always be negligible. It is for this reason that only those experiencing population change of 10% or more are considered to be towns which have grown or declined. While care has been taken to ensure that listed towns are declining, it is possible that changes in town boundaries or names may account for some of these declines.

URBAN CENTRE BY SIZE

Number of centres
% of Australian population


1986
1996
1986
1996
Size
no.
no.
%
%

500,000 and over
5
5
54.4
55.1
50,000-499 999
15
16
11.7
12.7
20,000-49 999
33
42
5.5
6.9
1,000-19 999
578
678
13.8
14.3
Total
631
741
85.3
89.1
Rural balance
..
..
14.7
10.9
Total
..
..
100.0
100.0

Source: Unpublished data, 1986 and 1996 Censuses of Population and Housing.


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.

Victoria
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

Population size in 1996
Decline
Absolute decline
StateTownRegion
no.
%
no.

New South WalesWerris CreekNorth-East
1,484
18.4
335
BarrabaNorth-East
1,267
15.4
231
DorrigoNorth-East
1,013
13.2
154
Wee WaaNorth-East
1,860
11.7
246
NarrabriNorth-East
6,419
11.4
827
Murrumburrah-HardenSouth-East
1,700
16.9
345
BatlowSouth-East
1,069
12.9
158
NynganCentral
2,240
10.5
262
WilcanniaFar-West
688
34.4
360
VictoriaMoe-YallornCentral-South
15,512
15.6
2,864
MorwellCentral-South
13,823
15.6
2,564
ChurchillCentral-South
4,882
11.7
644
CharltonCentral-West
1,096
18.3
245
AraratCentral-West
6,890
14.0
1,125
BeaufortCentral-West
1,039
13.3
160
OuyenNorth-West
1,251
16.8
252
OrbostEast
2,150
14.1
352
CastlemaineCentral-North
6,690
12.6
966
PortlandSouth-West
9,664
11.6
1,270
Western AustraliaDampierCentral-West
1,424
35.3
777
WickhamCentral-West
1,649
32.6
796
PannawonicaCentral-West
779
29.1
319
Mount MagnetCentral-West
747
25.3
253
RoebourneCentral-West
958
24.5
311
ParaburdooCentral-West
1,980
13.6
312
ExmouthCentral-West
3,058
13.0
456
LavertonSouth-East
644
43.5
496
NorsemanSouth-East
1,516
14.6
259
WyndhamNorth
868
34.7
461
QueenslandMouraSouth-East
1,980
29.5
828
MitchellSouth-East
967
20.2
245
BiloelaSouth-East
5,161
16.4
1,013
BlackwaterSouth-East
5,931
15.6
1,098
MilesSouth-East
1,187
15.6
219
CunnamullaSouth-East
1,461
13.9
236
Mount MorganSouth-East
2,487
13.2
379
MontoSouth-East
1,288
12.7
187
MillmerranSouth-East
1,054
11.5
137
CollinsvilleNorth-East
2,021
36.3
1,152
MiddlemountNorth-East
2,132
14.8
371
DysartNorth-East
3,444
14.7
595
HughendenNorth-West
1,444
19.4
347
WintonNorth-West
1,142
10.9
139
South AustraliaLeigh CreekCentral-North
1,006
48.9
961
WoomeraCentral-North
1,349
25.3
456
PeterboroughCentral-North
1,855
17.2
384
BurraCentral-North
1,008
15.1
179
TasmaniaSavage RiverWest
158
85.1
900
TullahWest
268
76.0
849
RoseberyWest
1,439
31.5
663
ZeehanWest
1,116
30.7
494
QueenstownWest
2,631
26.8
962
New NorfolkSouth-East
5,286
14.1
866
Bridgewater-GagebrookSouth-East
7,451
13.9
1,203
George TownNorth-East
4,522
14.9
793

Source: Unpublished data, 1986 and 1996 Censuses of Population and Housing.


Western Australia
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.

Queensland
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%.

South Australia
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

Towns in decline
Towns in growth


State or Territory
no.
% of all towns in 1986
no.
% of all towns in 1986

New South Wales
10
5.3
95
50.0
Victoria
10
7.7
54
41.5
Western Australia
11
20.4
25
46.3
Queensland
14
11.8
64
53.8
South Australia
4
8.3
17
35.4
Tasmania
8
27.6
11
37.9
Northern Territory
0
0.0
5
62.5
Total
57
9.9
271
46.9

Source: Unpublished data, 1986 and 1996 censuses of Population and Housing.


Tasmania
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.

Northern Territory
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%).


Absolute decline

Large absolute population changes can be masked when the population base is comparatively large and change is measured in percentage terms. For this reason, towns with large absolute declines between 1986 and 1996 (losses of more than 500 people) but which did not decline by 10% or more (and are therefore outside the scope of this review) are listed below.
TOWNS WITH AN ABSOLUTE DECLINE OF 500 OR MORE PEOPLE, 1986-1996

State Town
Population size in 1996
Absolute decline

New South WalesMoree
9,270
945
Lithgow
11,441
928
Kurri Kurri -Weston
12,555
856
Gunnedah
8,315
829
Kempsey
8,630
705
VictoriaWangaratta
15,527
1,071
Colac
9,793
752
Hamilton
9,248
721
South AustraliaPort Augusta
13,914
1,377
Western AustraliaCollie
7,194
635

Source: Unpublished data, 1986 and 1996 Censuses of Population and Housing.

Endnotes

1 McKenzie, F. 1994, Regional Population Decline in Australia, Impacts and Policy Implications, AGPS, Canberra.



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