Why Britain's rural residents have a much brighter future than people living in regional Australia

LESSON FOR AUSTRALIA: "The Arun valley isn't wealthy, but it doesn't struggle".
LESSON FOR AUSTRALIA: "The Arun valley isn't wealthy, but it doesn't struggle".

We were in London last month and took the opportunity to head into the countryside for a couple of days. We took the train to Portsmouth and alighted at Arundel in West Sussex. Arundel is a pretty market town with a castle and Catholic cathedral. 

A citizen’s right to walk the paths across private farms saw us lunching in the fields, perched on a hill looking north. In the foreground is the next township, Amberley. We can't see London, 100 kilometres distant. But we can see the train from London, one every 30 minutes right through the day. As we eat, we watch the train snake down the Arun valley. The train brings locals back from their appointments in London that morning, cyclists for an afternoon ride through forested lanes, and idle folk like us – all appreciative of a regular, dependable train that has serviced this part of regional Britain since 1841.

The Arun valley isn't wealthy, but it doesn't struggle. Its agricultural base is solid and there remain good local butchers, bakers and cheese makers. Tourism tops up this  economy.

It’s obvious that the railway is critical for the resilience of the Arun valley. So are European trading regulations that make small scale agriculture viable meaning traditional family farms survive. Protected ancient walking rights draw visitors to Arundel from all over Europe.

Britain might not have the greatest welfare system in the world but its protection of the countryside means the residents of Arundel and Amberley have a future they can look forward to.

And then there is regional Australia.

Recently the Australian Bureau of Statistics released a report on income inequality in Australia. Beneath layers of spreadsheets there are two key findings. One is that the income divide between the big east coast cities – Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane – and the rest of Australia is becoming more pronounced. This is worrying. The average household in Sydney, for example, is said to have received (at the time of the 2016 census) $2495 per week in private income. This compares with about $1900 for the average household in Adelaide, Hobart and regional NSW.

The second finding, by contrast, is that Australia's welfare system is doing its job, by and large. Where people are short of a quid in their pay packets, they have access to government support to ensure a reasonable standard of living. Australia’s income redistribution system seems to be working, at least on paper. The bottom 10 per cent of households in Australia earns only $161 a week in private income, says the ABS. But this is boosted to an equivalent of $687 per week after Centrelink payments and access to education, health and other benefits are taken into account.

But therein lies a major problem. Australian governments – federal and state – have pretty much abandoned a direct interest in supporting regional economies. 

The family in the countryside, down on luck, can get a weekly deposit from Centrelink into its account, but it can't catch a local train anywhere, or get a job at a local abattoir, mill or cannery. Moreover, when this family leaves the district the welfare cheque disappears as well, and a house once lived in lies empty. Our countryside is being depopulated, and our towns abandoned, while our big cities choke on their growth.

Regional policy in Australia needs to be much more than a Centrelink office.

Phillip O’Neill is professor of economic geography at Western Sydney University.