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COVID-19 has changed the way we work. Toowoomba could reap the rewards

Companies across Australia now understand they don’t need to bring everyone together in a high-rise to get their jobs done. There’s no reason people can’t live in Toowoomba, Ballarat or Dubbo and still work productively for a company based elsewhere.

Regional towns and cities offer a fantastic quality of life. Houses are cheaper, traffic is less congested, people are friendlier, and the atmosphere is cleaner and greener.

Plus, regional areas have been largely immune from the COVID-19 clusters uncovered in parts of Sydney and particularly Melbourne.

Demographer Bernard Salt believes this experience could usher in a new “treechange” in Australia as people move to country areas within striking distance of a capital city.

In a recent Weekend Australian column he wrote: “Perhaps in the 2020s we will see a new generation doing not so much a treechange or a seachange but a knowledge-worker wellbeing shift into the healthful and well-spaced climes of towns and villages not too remote from capital cities.”

Toowoomba is a perfect example of an attractive regional city in that sweet spot: just 90 minutes from Brisbane, two hours from the Gold Coast and with a new international-quality airport on its doorstep.

With unsurpassed liveability, it’s now a real option for knowledge workers.

A near empty main street in Toowoomba this week.

A near empty main street in Toowoomba this week.Credit:Dan Peled/AAP

The Regional Australia Institute Big Movers: Population Mobility in Australia report found millennials – defined there as aged between 20 and 35 – were already catching on to the appeal of regional living.

Regional areas have traditionally suffered a “brain drain”, with many young people heading off to the big smoke to seek better career opportunities. But the report found about 208,000 millennials shifted between communities within regional Australia in that period, rather than heading off to the major metropolitan cities.

It’s not just younger people making the move. Between 2011 and 2016, more than 1.2 million Australians either moved out of the big cities or from one regional town or city to another.

Regional cities are throwing off the perception that they are somehow less desirable by offering the best of both worlds – liveability and career options.

For a significant regionally-based business like Heritage Bank, this offers many advantages. We’ve previously had problems enticing people away from the big cities to come and live in Toowoomba – often due to concerns about career options in future.

Now, work-from-home technology means location is not such an issue any more. The lifestyle advantages of regional Australia have started to outweigh concerns about longer-term career options.

We’ve found repeatedly that people who take the leap and move from a capital city to Toowoomba absolutely love the lifestyle. If we can get them here, they stay here.

It’s also given Heritage the chance to employ more people based in a capital city, working for us remotely. We already do this to a degree, but more workers may now consider it as an option.

What’s really exciting for regional communities is that young people now increasingly see them as viable and attractive options. They are not the ugly step sisters of the capital cities – they are a Cinderella story in the making.

Governments should harness this trend, along with an appeal to the generation of people forced to move to a capital city in the past.

Many “regional alumni”, as I call them, would jump at the chance to bring their family back to the more idyllic lifestyle they loved, especially with government support and incentives.

Peter Lock is the CEO of Heritage Bank, which has been headquartered in Toowoomba since its origins in 1875.

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