Maddy Sudlow sits softly at the heavy farmhouse table, dressed in a worn green jumper, sturdy work pants, and a generous coating of red dust. She stirs her smoko cuppa before taking a sip of the refreshing cold milo, and offers a warm smile. It’s barely 9:30 am but she has already spent hours shifting and drafting a herd of cows.
“You would have to have been here early, we had to be in the yards at quarter past seven,” she says.
The 22-year-old never expected this to be her morning routine. She had previously been on track to move at a different speed, in the corporate world. Studying law and art, Maddy seemed set to live and work in metropolitan Perth – until she realised it wasn’t a future that appealed to her.
“I was doing some work experience for a law firm that was in Northbridge and I had this distinct moment where I was catching the bus,” she says.
“Everyone around me just looked miserable – I was miserable, and I just thought I could not do this the rest of my life.”Maddy Sudlow
Since trading her law and arts degree for agricultural science, you’re more likely to find Maddy in her dad’s old work shirt, a wide-brimmed Akubra, and Rossi boots.
Her situation is not an isolated case. Recent data from the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) and Commbank suggests Maddy is part of a growing trend. Their analysis of Australia’s migration habits shows a new frontier of movement from the city to the country, exacerbated by the years of on-off COVID lockdowns in major cities.
In fact, the RAI is pushing for more young people – aged 15 to 39 – to move back into the regions to offset ageing populations, with a goal of increasing the proportion of young people from 31% to 35% by 2032.
Maddy advocates for other young adults to make the move.
“I’ve recommended it to my friends in Perth, I’ve said, ‘Before you fully lock down all your jobs in the city, you should try a year or two living somewhere outside of it.” she says.
But she recognises that living in the country is not always idyllic.
“I think they might start to realise that it’s actually quite hard living in the regions,” says Maddy.
“There are a lot of services getting taken away from the regions that are really important like medical health, and mental health facilities. Just the small things that are like the basic necessities, are slowly being removed from regional areas.”
Finding friends and combatting loneliness is also tough.
“Socialising is the hardest because you have to put yourself out there. You have to commit to a sports team or, I don’t even know what option there is other than a sports team,” says Maddy.
“Realistically, that’s the only way you can meet people.”
If you were looking for Maddy on a Friday night,you’d find her at Northampton’s biggest event of the week: the post-netball game beer or two at the Community Centre. And with her, you’d find the heart of the town – a lively gathering of locals. Kids run around playing chasey, their noise mirrored by the parents and young adults congregating inside, coming together for a drink and a chat.
“It’s just the first bit where you have to put yourself out there that’s probably the hardest. But it’s like once you do break through that it’s really nice and enjoyable… You’re surrounded by a village of people,” says Maddy.
Statistics from the June Quarter Regional Movers Index, conducted by the RAI and Commbank, show an increasing trend of city dwellers trading the rush of metropolitan living in favour of country towns.
WA was named a ‘stand out’ in the June Quarter, with three of Australia’s top five local government areas with the largest internal net migration flows found in the state.
The Greater Geraldton region was the largest, Waroona the third and York the fifth largest.
York Shire President Denese Smythe was ecstatic when she heard the news. In 36 years of living in York, she had never seen a comparable rate of growth.
“I think it’s absolutely fabulous, we’ve got new buildings, we’ve got lots of new people in the town. The town, it’s growing and I’m really pleased,” she says.
Denese says York’s proximity to Perth is a selling point for people who want to make a tree change but are worried about uprooting their lives.
“We have a lot of people coming here for tourism, and so I think they see that it’s a lovely little town and think ‘hm I might move there,’” she says.
“We’re close to Perth, it’s a beautiful setting – the town is listed as historic – but we’ve got facilities.”
Denese says the sense of community and small-town charm could account for a rise in young families migrating to the shire, to let a new generation experience being raised in the country.
“There are a lot more younger people, and younger families are coming to York which is great. They’re possibly moving for the same reasons I did when I first came here… I decided I wanted to bring my daughter up in the country.”
RAI chief economist Dr Kim Houghton says this can ease concerns about the population health of WA’s regions.
“There’s been a long-running pattern of young people leaving smaller towns, and the regional leaders that we speak to get worried about their town sort of hollowing out and not being refreshed as young people leave,’” he says.
“Often places will see or feel like they’re seeing a net outflow of young people and a net inflow of old people and that worries them.”
The hope of affordable housing, job opportunities and a better quality of life has drawn millennials (people aged 25 to 39) further inland.
“They’re a really interesting group because that group or even anybody under 35, they’re in that career building and family forming and house buying sort of stage of life quite often,” says Kim.
“They can bring a lot to regional communities.”
He says regional infrastructure and services are not equipped for the unforeseen growth.
“There are a lot of what we think are growing pains in a lot of our smaller regional places.”Dr Kim Houghton
“Most of them have been quite keen to see some population growth, particularly from young people, but it’s certainly put pressure on some physical infrastructure like housing. And then a lot of those services have become really tight.”
Top of the tree
New Geraldton resident Steph Edwards walks through each room of her three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bathroom house, animatedly pointing out how little work she and her husband, Ryan, had to do after buying the property.
It’s a mid-century build but it was fully renovated before we even bought it, and honestly, there’s not much we would even want to do, which is lucky.
The backyard is spacious, with a large pool perfect for the mid-west heat, swathes of lawn with room to spare for a trampoline and cubby house, and a patio converted into Ryan’s outdoor gym. As they see it: a space for every member of the Edwards family. The two children, Logan, 4, and Slade, 2, demonstrate how they ride their bikes on the concrete, as their parents watch on adoringly.
Originally from the UK, Steph and Ryan travelled the coast of WA before deciding to settle in Geraldton. For their young family, the dream of home ownership became a reality in November 2022, one that was unlikely if they hadn’t ventured into the regions.
“For what we’ve got now with the price of our house, you would only get a studio flat back in England. So of course that made such a huge difference to us,” says Steph.
“And I think in Perth, it’s more expensive – it’s definitely still better than back in the UK – however, in comparison, Geraldton is a lot cheaper.”
Steph and her family have integrated into the laid-back atmosphere of the small beach-side city. In fact, she says with amenities so close and a lack of peak-hour traffic, she couldn’t think of a better place to raise her two boys.
“The beach is a 10-minute drive, the hospital, everything you need, you can get there super quick. The kids love it, and the weather is always going to be a plus,” she says.
“We didn’t move here to start a family, but now we will never leave because we have young children. I feel like it’s just the best place to bring up young kids – it’s just so family-orientated.”
But having little children has highlighted the strain on resources – such as childcare and medical services. After a recent trip to the emergency room with their youngest, Steph and Ryan were faced with a long wait time to be seen. The parents watched on for hours, frustrated as they could do nothing to ease their sons’ pain.
“[The hospital] is so busy all the time, the ED is constantly full. It’s still not an excuse, but at the same time, you can understand that they’re under so much pressure,” says Steph.
“But again, we’re thankful for what we do have. We appreciate it and we understand that it’s stressed.”
Geraldton chief executive Ross McKim says the city recognises the rapid population growth has put unprecedented pressure on Geraldton’s resources, and is implementing development strategies to hopefully ease the issues – particularly the lack of housing.
“We do offer very cheap housing compared to other places – that’s the positive, the negative is it’s hard to get, but that’s the same everywhere,” he says.
“This week, I think there were only about 30 rentals available in Geraldton, and it’s been as low as 10.”Ross McKim
Ross says he is on the Regional Capitals Australia board to address the lack of current property vacancies.
“The number one issue that we’re all trying to work on is housing. Different areas have different hindering points, blocking points, so we’ve engaged consultants to try and come up with a solution.”
Ross says although Geraldton is experiencing issues with services, the City has worked hard to encourage people to consider making the move.
“Geraldton’s been on a quest to revitalise itself for about 10 years. Our motto at the moment is ‘take a fresh look’ because we weren’t that pleasant, but now we are,” he says.
“We’ve done a lot of work in the last 10, 15 years, moving the railway line out of town, turning the CBD around, beautifying foreshores, upgrading our sporting facilities, et cetera, et cetera.”
Geraldton, Waroona and York aren’t the only local government areas striving to entice people to make a country move by refreshing the town centre.
President of the Avon Valley Arts Society Lindsay Newland is a passionate advocate for using public art to brighten rundown buildings and create a sense of community. Since moving to Northam in late 2020, she has completed a mural funded by an RAC grant and is currently in the process of gaining funding to create another.
“It’s a great way to showcase what our town is about, what our people are about, our history – and for art’s sake it’s beautiful, so it raises morale, and it raises that sense of pride in our space,” says Lindsay.
“Public art, I feel, has a way of telling stories.”
Buoyed by positive trends in growth, WA towns are increasingly confident in pitching what their region has to offer potential movers:
Kalbarri, 570 kilometres north of Perth
Northampton, 260 kilometres north of Perth.
Pinjarra, 76 kilometres south of Perth.
Maddy Sudlow says people don’t have to think about forever, but some time in the regions can change your life.
“So when are you going to move regionally? Are you going to be in Perth your whole life? Surely do a few years working in Geraldton or Albany or Karratha.”Maddy Sudlow