4.2 Better connect the regions
Regional Victoria’s longer distances make it more difficult for people to access the services and supports that underpin their wellbeing, and for businesses to connect with customers, compared with those in Melbourne. A better road and freight rail network can improve physical connections between regional businesses and markets and improve safety for all road users. But further opportunities remain to improve regional connectivity.
In regional Victoria, most people work and access services within their local area or nearby.1 But local public transport often does not provide the connections required to do this easily. Around a third of people living in regional and remote areas have reported difficulty accessing services.2 As jobs and services increasingly concentrate in regional hubs, this is only likely to continue. Fit for purpose transport solutions which allow regional Victorians to access essential services and employment opportunities are therefore a priority.3 Digital connectivity can also break down the barriers of cost and distance for regional Victorians, and open up new markets and opportunities for regional businesses.4
The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically illustrated the importance of reliable digital technologies, triggering a surge in internet use as people turned to digital alternatives to remain connected to work, education, services, family and community.
At the same time, there was a change in digital demand from central Melbourne to suburban and regional areas that revealed areas with inadequate internet access.5
People living in regional areas still have less access to education, health and community services than those in Melbourne, compounding inferior outcomes for vulnerable and disadvantaged Victorians.6
Infrastructure interventions alone cannot remove the underlying causes of disadvantage. But infrastructure can reduce the impact, by improving access to jobs, education, health and social services, for example through transport and digital connectivity. It can also improve access via new or better facilities or by supporting new service models.7
Infrastructure can reduce the impact of disadvantage caused by a lack of connectivity in the regions by improving access to jobs, education, health care and services through transport and digital technology.
Limited transport connectivity affects opportunities and outcomes for regional Victorians
Traditional scheduled public transport services perform best when moving many people to a shared destination. This makes it ideal in urban areas, but creates challenges in regional areas with dispersed populations, large distances and disparate travel patterns. Regional Victoria’s diversity means challenges accessing transport are not uniform, varying by regions, subregions, towns and rural areas. Public transport is stretched in areas of rapid population growth in regional hubs while in rural areas, smaller populations combined with longer travel distances mean that traditional public transport services can be infrequent, unreliable and potentially unviable.8
As a result, transport disadvantage – difficulty accessing public transport due to cost, availability or accessibility of services – is high in Victoria’s regions, where owning a car is often the only means of transport. However, car ownership can lead to financial stress, particularly among low-income households.9
The lowest 20% of income earners are much more likely to experience transport disadvantage than the highest income earner (at rates of 9.9% and 1.3% respectively), and low-income families living in regional areas face particular difficulties.10 Transport disadvantage is linked to social exclusion, where some people cannot fully participate in social and economic life.11 The groups most likely to experience social exclusion include young people, single parents and families with young children, older people, Aboriginal communities and people with a disability.12 Regional Victorians most in need of public transport are being left with either poor quality or non-existent transport services.13 The local transport system in regional areas can be designed to better meet the needs of residents. Responding to the different access needs and challenges of diverse local communities requires a flexible and adaptable transport system, and different models of delivery to those in Melbourne.
Improving digital connectivity in the regions will help break down the barriers of distance
Digital connectivity is increasingly fundamental to people’s lives.14 Digital technologies are changing how people live, work and interact with each other, and opening up new opportunities to access previously unavailable information and services.15 High speed and reliable internet connections can create regional jobs through telework,16 and allow businesses to expand beyond their local market.17 However, these benefits are not being shared equally across Victoria.
People living in regional Victoria often have slower internet speeds, fewer connection choices, and worse mobile coverage from fewer providers compared with Melbourne.18 In some regional areas, inadequate connectivity can make it harder to do business, access information, engage with remote services or even make mobile phone calls.19 The quality of regional mobile services is significantly and persistently worse than in Melbourne.20 For example, regional Victoria contains more than 94% of Victoria’s 2609 identified mobile black spots.21
Better quality, more reliable digital services can support innovative remote service delivery models and remote working, and reduce community vulnerability in emergencies. Better online access can help reduce the disadvantage experienced by people with lower levels of digital inclusion or skills.22,23
Agriculture, tourism, manufacturing and service industries across Victoria’s regions have advised us that better mobile and internet connectivity would support business opportunities.24
The combined impact of the 2019–20 bushfires, which damaged existing telecommunications infrastructure, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated digital inequality for some regional communities as unreliable internet connectivity has made home schooling, work and access to online services difficult.25 The ‘digital divide’ is evident not just between metropolitan and regional areas, but also within regional cities, towns and localities.26 Without the full benefits of new technologies, regional communities are likely to experience further inequality and reduced quality of life, especially as services continue to shift online,27 and regional businesses will continue to face barriers to growth and development. The Victorian Government can support targeted interventions to boost digital connectivity in regional Victoria, where the digital divide is most pronounced and where the market is less responsive.28 The Victorian Government is improving regional mobile coverage and broadband access through its Digital Future Now initiative,29 but there are further opportunities to provide more equitable access to affordable and reliable digital technologies, so regional businesses and communities can reap the full benefits.
Connecting people to essential resources at major life stages can have a more profound impact
Different people and communities have different resources and experiences, meaning the advantages and opportunities they face in life vary. In general, people with fewer advantages have fewer resources, and can access fewer services, influencing their life opportunities and outcomes.32
Regional Victorians tend to have less access to services, resources and opportunities because of distance. This can compound other types of disadvantage they may experience, such as poverty or social exclusion.33 For example, an estimated 15% of regional Victorians live in poverty, rising to 23% in children, compared with 13% of people in Melbourne, and 17% of children.34 The impact of bushfires, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic, may cause these levels to rise.
Young people in regional areas are less likely to finish school, find work, or undertake tertiary study.35 By age 16, nearly one in six young people in regional Victoria have left full-time secondary education compared with one in eight in Melbourne. At age 24, a third of regional Victorians are not engaged in education, employment or training.36 For some, poverty or disadvantage can become entrenched. Interventions which help break the cycle of persistent disadvantage can deliver enduring benefits for the individual, for local communities and Victoria.37 Infrastructure which connects people to services and supports at major life stages – including early years, the transition from school to work, family wellbeing and ageing – are likely to have bigger positive impacts.38
Recommendations to better connect the regions
Infrastructure Victoria is making the following recommendations to improve connectivity in regional Victoria. These interact with other recommendations to align social infrastructure with better service delivery (see section 3.3), unlock economic growth opportunities (see section 4.1) and improve the resilience of communities (see section 1.3)