- Opinion Piece -

It’s growth, Jim, but not as we know it

I never expected to begin my first column with an apology to Mr Spock and the legions of Star Trek fans – all of whom will know this line was never actually spoken in the series – but here we are.

In my first few weeks of connecting and reconnecting with many new and familiar faces, industries and community groups across Greater Shepparton there have been four stand-out messages. Firstly, the plans and expectations for growth – in population, in business activity and in opportunities for all.

Secondly there is optimism in Shepparton’s ability to capture our share (and maybe a little more) of the people, business and capital that’s on the move as part of the ‘metro-exodus’, and on the table thanks to the forthcoming federal and state elections.

Third, there is a recognition that Shepparton is much more than the sum of its parts. We can’t quite put our finger on it, but it was evident in the community response to last year’s lockdowns and continues permeate how we see our future. In short, there is a confidence and enthusiasm for Greater Shepparton to apply its experience and local wisdom to shape the programs and services delivered in our region.

Fourth, we can all see tremendous opportunities for our younger generations to not just have jobs, but to build exciting careers and businesses in our region, in existing and emerging industries, trades and professions.

The conversations are inevitably sprinkled with observations of what are or could be barriers, and here too there are some common observations. Most link to our ability to attract, grow and retain the workforce needed to realise our potential.

It’s ironic that our region seems to be able to grow everything but a local workforce. There are many factors at play here. One common theme is the need to more effectively develop and describe the opportunities and pathways available to our younger generations, and to those wanting to enter or re-enter the workforce.  How many of us are doing jobs we had never heard of while we were at school or that didn’t exist a decade or even a year ago? Strengthening the linkages between ’learning and earning’ is key.

Any conversations about our immediate, medium, and long-term workforce needs inevitably lead to observations on the supply and mix of housing stock available in Greater Shepparton.

Obviously, land supply is a key factor in determining the pace of housing development and our ability to service a growing population. Council released its updated residential and industrial land supply assessments at its February meeting. In short, the reports confirm there is approximately five years’ worth of zoned residential supply for a market that should be planning with access to at least 15 years’ supply. The supply of industrial and commercial land is also below market expectations.

Council has outlined actions it will take to boost supply which includes seeking support to from the State government’s planning agencies – but Council has also signalled that fast tracking can still require a three to four year timeline. This suggests we are facing tight supply just as we are preparing for large scale expansion by several of our major employers and as the appetite for individuals and business to move to the regions is picking up.

There are further perspectives to this issue. Our local Community Connector program has been welcoming the equivalent of one new professional every two days since it began in January 2021. The pace has increased in the early months of 2022 with a further 40 welcomed into the Shepparton region.

Securing housing is by far the biggest stress for people when they relocate. However, the Community Connector team is reporting some interesting insights into the types of housing our new residents are seeking and expecting – when they first move and as they plan for the longer term

There is interest in higher density, apartment style accommodation, close to work, that allows residents to enjoy the regional lifestyle… with minimal home and garden maintenance.   A quick scan of the Shepparton skyline confirms the limited supply of this style of accommodation.  Whether and how we grow this type of accommodation is worth exploring – to grow the vibrancy and activity in our city centre, and to moderate the demand for additional land.

Our housing stock is just one part of the mix, but it’s a great example of how adapting our past assumptions can reveal some great new opportunities for our region.   We will grow, but in ways that may be quite different to what we have known.

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Lindy Nieuwenhuizen

Lindy Nieuwenhuizen