ESCAPE PLAN

Catch a ride with the VESPAs

A popular TV show inspired Seachangers. Treechangers swapped the city for the bush. Then came the smashed avocado generation, who struggled to afford city property, but refused to sacrifice their café serves of coffee and avocado on toast. Now the demographer who gives market trends the colour and character of a best-selling novel, has announced the arrival of the VESPAs

STORY: KIRSTEN CRAZE     PHOTOGRAPHY: TASHA McWILLIAM  illumaphotography.com.au

The famous scooter got its name because Vespa literally means “wasp” in Italian, but that moniker has been pinned to an emerging swarm of people down under – and it’s got nothing to do with hipsters on two wheels. Bernard Salt, social demographer and devotee of the tribal acronym, has coined the term VESPAS, or Virus Escapees Seeking Provincial Australia. And as always, he’s onto something.

A driving force

Since COVID-19 locked us all down, made us work from home and ultimately turned our world on its head, a horde of Aussies have ditched their inner city digs for regional Australia in search of a sea (or tree) change and a healthier way of life. Despite COVID cases dropping across the nation, there seems to be no fall in the number of city slickers seeking greener pastures.

“Heres a pool of people streaming, or should that read scootering, out of the big cities, in search of the safety, the security, the space, the affordability and, in their minds at least, the possibility of introducing their values and lifestyle to provincial cities within striking distance of the capitals,” Salt wrote in his August column in The Australian.

He mentioned Geelong and Ballarat as a target for Melbourne escapees; Wollongong and Newcastle as hot spots for those fleeing Sydney; and Toowoomba, as well as the Gold and Sunshine Coasts for Brisbane deserters. Even smaller places such as Robe and Victor Harbor in South Australia and Busselton and Bunbury in Western Australia were named.

Changing gears

It’s an exciting (and unprecedented) time for regional Australia, says Salt, as he pointed out just how dramatic the young brain drain has been on regional towns for generations.

“Demographers are positively giddy with excitement at the prospects of a COVID-inspired switch in the direction of the pattern of Australian settlement. For years, decades even, a brooding and, I suspect, a somewhat resentful regional Australia tithed their youngest and their brightest to the bright lights of our nations biggest cities and beyond,” he wrote.

Over the years, those holes left by exiting young “villagers” were steadily being filled by retirees. However, that growing Baby Boomer demographic left some towns with skewed populations and a void where skilled workers needed to be.

Enter COVID-19. Although the work from home movement had been gaining steam in a pre-pandemic world (thanks to the NBN and a shift towards a greater work-life balance from some enlightened employers) there’s nothing like a global health crisis to kick a migration into action.

The last Census in 2016 showed that 4.4 per cent of Australians reported that they worked from home. Mid-2020, conservative estimates placed that number at about 50 per cent, and Salt has claimed that figure could settle around 10 per cent post-pandemic.

“Heres a pool of people streaming, or should that read scootering, out of the big cities, in search of the safety, the security, the space, the affordability and, in their minds at least, the possibility of introducing their values and lifestyle to provincial cities within striking distance of the capitals.”

Searching for a new Australian Dream

“The pandemic has no doubt unnerved many city-based cosmopolitan-living aficionados to the extent that they are now thinking differently,” Salt said about the emerging VESPA movement.

And the phenomenon is not just an idea dreamt up by a demographer, there’s proof in the data. Real estate sales figures in regional NSW already paint a clear picture that small towns (and outer ring suburbia) is hot property right now. Sales volumes have soared in places within a two-hour commute of Sydney like the Central Coast LGA where there were 1100 residential sales in September 2020 alone – a jump of 222 homes from September 2019. The Mid-Coast LGA saw a year on year increase of 154 sales to 452 homes exchanged, while volume in The Hills Shire LGA rose by 148 to 568 homes sold this September.

In 2020, property values in regional Victoria, outperformed capital city values for the first time in 15 years, as people migrating to major regional towns such as Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo pushed up demand for property. Salt says he expects the shift out of Melbourne to the regions will continue. 

“If I am correct, and Melburnians are driven by the same values and much the same capacities as Sydneysiders, then we might soon see a cavalcade of VESPAs scootering down the Geelong Freeway, up the Hume Highway, out the Calder in desperate search of a bolthole, a Bonnie-Doon of a safe place,” Salt explained in his October column.

“Demographers are positively giddy with excitement at the prospects of a COVID-inspired switch in the direction of the pattern of Australian settlement.”

Time for the regions to get revved up

Tim Lawless, head of research at CoreLogic, said in the July quarter Regional Market Report that regional areas have a whole lot to offer new residents – but he noted that there will be pros and cons for those fleeing the cities.

“On the positive side, housing prices tend to be lower, providing a more affordable entry point to the market, population densities are generally lower which is something that might be even more appealing as we move through this pandemic, and in many examples, regional areas will offer some lifestyle advantages, either via the locations proximity to the coastline or wide open spaces,” he said.

“On the downside, regional economic conditions can be more volatile, especially those areas that are heavily dependent on a single industry for economic prosperity, and some areas may not show the same level of amenity and access to essential services as a capital city or major centre.”

However, that volatility was present in a pre-COVID Australia where manufacturing had gone off-shore and the regions were losing their bright young minds. The October Federal Budget took steps to cement a better financial future for the regions with a significant boost to infrastructure spending.

An extra $1 billion was slated to immediately upgrade bike paths, streetlights, footpaths, walking tracks, community halls, and barbecue facilities as part of the Coalition’s Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Program announced in May. In addition, the Government added a $14 billion bonus to its 10-year infrastructure program for “new and accelerated” projects across each state, a scheme it estimates will create 40,000 new jobs – something for potential VESPAs to get fired up about.

Read Bernard Salt’s columns in The Australian
On your bike and out of the city – click here
Fleeing Melbourne’s ring of steel – click here

RELATED STORIES

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE

201 Doctors Point Rd, East Albury

201 Doctors Point Rd, East Albury

52 Eastern Beach Road, Geelong

52 Eastern Beach Road, Geelong

Our marvellous adventure

Our marvellous adventure