Regional resurgence: opportunities for the Illawarra

The impacts of a post-COVID shift to continued remote and hybrid working means for the Illawarra region were the focus of the Property Council’s Illawarra Outlook for 2021. Astrolabe Director Michael Comninos was on a panel exploring the event theme ‘resurgence’, where Michael posed the notion that the Illawarra and Western Sydney are well positioned to collaborate to compete as a region, as long as connectivity is properly supported.

The panel also discussed how COVID-19 has shifted our relationship with where and how we work. While we know that more people leaving Sydney’s CBD than staying is an enduring pattern of internal migration, COVID-19 changes to business as usual has brought forward people’s plans to move away from CBDs. There are early signs and indications that these flows are reshaping the world’s urban geographies.

Regions like the Illawarra are well placed to benefit from these shifts: the region supports a desirable lifestyle with high natural amenity, leading institutions like the University of Wollongong are already in place, and close proximity to Sydney makes commuting an option when required.

The panel session focused on opportunities for the Illawarra into 2021 and beyond. For the panel, Michael was joined by Esther Cheong, Eliza Owen, and Lexia Wilson and chaired by Nick Rheinberger.

The Illawarra Outlook panel. Image: Charlie Gillon

Five priorities for the Illawarra

The Illawarra has significant opportunities to boost its reach and profile in the short term. Michael suggests five things that the region should prioritise:

1. Maximise what is already in place: The Illawarra already has the makings of a strong innovation economy, anchored by the University of Wollongong. The Illawarra has a skilled talent and labour pool, particularly in the highly sought after 20-39 age cohort. To retain this talent and University graduates, people need confidence they can find suitable work. Port Kembla, Sydney’s second freight port, is strategically located for growth when considered alongside a new second international airport opening in Western Sydney in 2026.

2. Leverage lifestyle: Regional places that offer lifestyle benefit are ready-made to attract and capture those who are able to work from anywhere. The lifestyle dividend; with coastal and rural amenity and diverse and vibrant centres, like the Illawarra offers options for what people do before and after work. To ensure this lifestyle remains accessible and affordable, the Illawarra needs greater diversity in housing supply: different types of stock available at different price points. Currently there is a bias towards freestanding homes, but increasing the supply of higher density housing needs to be encouraged to provide options for lifestyle seekers, particularly young couples without children.

3. Get hybrid working right: Where given the choice, there is resistance to a 5 day CBD return. This is bringing about the rise of ‘hybrid working’ – where people balance their working week between the home and office. We all pivoted fast in 2020 due to necessity; 2021 is the year to become more deliberate about what this looks like. For instance, people may seek out a ‘third space’ – a flexible office environment close to home. The Illawarra can provide these spaces, where the operating environment is seamless, and these is a guarantee of security and control and reliable technology.

4. Ensure connectivity: The Illawarra is not a region in isolation. A key opportunity in the short term is to maximise the connection between the Illawarra-Shoalhaven region and Western Sydney: be it people, freight, and/or energy flows. Action needs to be taken to ensure that the Illawarra does not fall behind in service levels – crucial to this is the number and frequency of train services to Sydney. Digital connectivity is another enabler that can support a seamless working environment in place.

5. Rethink industrial land: The panel conversation noted an accelerated demand for industrial space. While South West Sydney is better placed to accommodate last mile freight distribution, the Illawarra can lead advanced manufacturing. Value added production should be prioritised – capitalising on talent, cheaper land, available infrastructure, and a growing innovation ecosystem.

Astrolabe Group are the recognised experts in urban growth and leading change with a uniquely empathetic approach. Talk to us about what the change in remote and hybrid working may mean to you and your stakeholders and how you can understand the benefits of this regional resurgence.