Young families fuel rural renaissance as inland migration boosts regional towns, data shows

Young families fuel rural renaissance as inland migration boosts regional towns, data shows
  • PublishedSeptember 15, 2023

Morgan Williams believes he struck gold when he and his young family packed up their beachfront home in Perth and moved 100 kilometres inland to York. 

Whereas it was once the discovery of actual gold deposits nearby that lured people to Western Australia’s oldest inland town, now it’s riches of another kind that are behind the town’s population influx — good jobs, an enviable country lifestyle, and affordable housing.

It’s a trend occurring all around the country, as a growing number of Australians move further inland and further away from coastal capital cities, according to the latest official snapshot of regional migration. 

Six months after Mr Williams arrived in York, the fly-in fly-out worker is almost mortgage free and has no regrets about swapping views of the Indian Ocean for the red morrel eucalyptus trees that line his sprawling property near the Avon River. 

Tow young boys sitting in a makeshift boat.
The Williams boys, Flynn and Archer, embrace country life.(Supplied)

“In Perth, I could stand at the front of my door, throw a rock, and hit the ocean,” he said.

“I’m FIFO, so I had a good income, and the missus [Kylie] had a good income. She worked at a university, so we could afford that sort of life.

“But then we looked at it and went, ‘Are we just trying to keep up with the Joneses? Or are we actually living the life that we want to live?’.”

It is young families like the Williamses relocating to the regions who are driving a population boom in rural towns with historically low growth, according to the Regional Movers Index, from the Commonwealth Bank and Regional Australia Institute (RAI).

A map showing that it takes 1 hour and 26 minutes to drive from Perth to York.
The Williams family left ocean-front views in Perth to move to York, WA’s oldest inland town.(ABC Graphics: Emma Machan)

RAI chief economist Kim Houghton said the index also found the COVID sea- and tree-change movement was having a “ripple effect” on other regional areas.

“I think where people are going is a little unusual,” he said.

“We’re seeing population growth in some of our inland towns that really haven’t seen much population change for the past five or 10 years.”

Morgan and Kylie Williams love their new country lifestyle.

Mr Williams is still commuting for his FIFO job with an iron ore miner in the Pilbara, while Ms Williams is now working for a local agricultural company in York.

But the town’s unexpected growth spurt has taken many by surprise.

Young families on the move

Net internal migration to York (population: 3,500) was 238 per cent higher in 2022 than it was in 2021, which means there was a big increase in the number of people relocating to the area from other parts of Australia.

Picture of York's main strip with shops and cars.
York’s main street is a bustling hub of cafes, small shops, and heritage buildings.(ABC Midwest and Wheatbelt: Laura Meachim)

Port Pirie in South Australia (population: 17,750), Central Goldfields in Victoria (population: 13,380), Glen Innes in New South Wales (population: 8,900), and Gladstone in Queensland (population: 64,300) were among the regional areas that also recorded triple-digit increases in net internal migration last year.

“It’s been quite a significant turnaround for some of those places to see net inflows,” Mr Houghton said.

To make the list, regions had to record a “net inflow” of at least 50 people in 2022.

The key drivers, according to Mr Houghton, were modest house prices and good job opportunities in regional areas.

Time to escape the ‘rat race’

Tired of the traffic and daily commute, David Hunt and his family “escaped the rat race” of Brisbane late last year.

A father holds a baby girl, while a mother has her arm around a young boy. All are smiling.
David and Melany Hunt moved from Brisbane to Glen Innes with their children, Harrison and Sophia, in late 2022.(Supplied)

But unlike many Queenslanders, they didn’t relocate to the Gold Coast — the Hunts crossed the border and moved a four-and-a-half-hour drive away to the rural town of Glen Innes in the New South Wales Northern Tablelands.

Mr Hunt said he and his wife, Melany, were inspired by a friend who’d relocated to Hobart during the pandemic, and decided they too were prepared to move to give their four-year-old and seven-month-old children a better quality of life.

“We found life was just becoming really, really, really busy,” he said.

“I think there’s a lot of people who want to escape the rat race and have a more relaxed life.”

And like the Williams family, the prospect of a cheaper home was also part of the appeal for the Hunts, who could pick up a house for about half the amount it would cost them in Brisbane.

A map showing that it takes 4 hours and 30 minutes to drive from Brisbane to Glen Innes in northern NSW.
The Hunt family moved from coastal Queensland to inland New South Wales.(ABC Graphics: Emma Machan)

Locals leave town as newbies move in

It’s not only people from capital cities making the move inland.

Mr Houghton said the data pointed to a “ripple effect” from the pandemic, which was seeing long-term residents in areas that became popular, and more expensive during COVID, pack up their homes and move inland.

This was the case for regions including Noosa in Queensland, Victoria’s Surf Coast, and Eurobodalla and Lake Macquarie in New South Wales, which were still attracting people from capital cities but appeared to be losing locals.

“We’re seeing longer-term residents leaving those regions and moving further inland,” Mr Houghton said.

“And that’s causing this sort of ripple [effect]. We hadn’t expected to see that quite so clearly in the data.”

He said it was unclear whether the locals had been priced out of the market, displaced, or were simply moving to a smaller less-populated location.

Back in York, Morgan Williams labelled his move a big “de-stresser”.

Life has slowed down, his kids have space to run around in, and he has a new daily ritual.

“Every morning I grab a coffee, and I sit outside,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s cold, or super hot. I just sit outside and watch the day.”


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