• Loddon Herald

Reversing the trend


AS LONG as I have been a Loddon Shire councillor the overarching goal of council has been to first arrest and then reverse the shire’s long-term population decline.

Whenever a key strategic policy initiative is being discussed my main consideration has always been the effect of the policy decision on the shire’s population growth.

This goal has been challenging since it defies the population trends of small towns across Australia, unless they have some special attribute such as being a tourist destination.

In my home town of Wedderburn, the population at the 2016 census is listed as 946. An article that appeared in the 1930 Victoria Police Gazette states that Wedderburn had a population of 2500, “adequately serviced by one constable and a bicycle”.

The drift has been to capital cities and regional centres driven largely by the availability of employment.

There has been no better example of this than our own small town of Korong Vale. Prior to the Victorian Railways rationalising its assets and leaving the town in the mid 1980s, with the jobs going with

them, Korong Vale had a hotel, general store, café, bank, post office, bakery, police station, butchers shop, clothing store, garage, football and netball clubs and a full refreshment dining room at the railway station. Now only the pub remains.

It is absolutely essential that we retain a sufficient customer base, both locals and visitors, so that businesses and other service providers are viable and can continue to provide the basic services that the populace requires.

Otherwise our towns are doomed, and all the pleasures and advantages of living in a country town are gone with them.

So, how to do this? The response of most people is that the Shire Council should be attracting businesses and so people to our communities. Easier said than done. Just what businesses should we be attracting and how? Our experience has been that businesses find us, we do not find them. When they do want to come we need to be in a position to assist them to the extent that is possible within Loddon Shire’s very limited resources.

The council has a rate revenue of only $10 million and an expensive community to service with a small population of 7500 people, numerous small towns requiring duplication of facilities and a big area of 6500 square kilometres.

If the municipal district of the City of Melbourne had the same population density as Loddon Shire there would be 41 people living there.

Some examples of our service challenges include that we have 4720 kilometres of our own roads to maintain which is enough to take you from Melbourne to Perth and a third of the way to Darwin.

We have five swimming pools that cost the ratepayers upwards of $20 every time someone uses them and over 20 public halls that have existed since the horse and buggy days.

Our approach at Loddon Shire in addressing population decline has basically focused on two courses of action.

First, it has been essential that we get our land use planning right.

Basically our goal has been to protect our best farming land while opening up suitably situated areas of land for rural lifestyle living.

We attempted convert 20,000 hectares of land to the rural living zone and eventually received government permission to convert 3000 hectares.

We are now seeing the benefit of this as demand for small rural blocks on which you can build has gone through the roof.

Second, we have continually improved the presentation of our towns to make them more attractive places to live and visit. We have excellent sporting facilities, multi-purpose community centres, well presented streets, beautiful open public spaces etc.

This is expensive work, but it is having an effect. Just take a look at Wedderburn today and compare it with how it was 20 years ago.

You only have to take the comments of former locals who return to the town or read the perspective of Melanie Tanner in last week’s Loddon Herald.

So how are we going in the population stakes? At every census since Loddon Shire was formed in 1995 its population had declined.

This trend had been occurring for decades. That was until 2016 when there was a small turnaround in our population from 7546 in 2011 to 7558 in 2016. Small but significant in context.

We very much look forward to the 2021 census. We are very optimistic. Observations would suggest that our main towns have turned the corner.

Our smaller towns are more problematic. The biggest single issue constraining their growth is that they are not sewered and there are challenges in building a house on a smaller allotment because of issues with septic tanks and effluent treatment.

Council has nominated Newbridge as a potential growth area because of its excellent location, but it has no reticulated potable water supply or sewerage system.

We have to commence a thoughtful conversation with these communities regarding their expectations and their levels of service.

* Cr Gavan Holt is the Wedderburn Ward member of Loddon Shire Council.

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