The University of Newcastle, Australia

The Centre for Social Research and Regional Futures is informing the future of regional Australia

Across Australia, economic, social and environmental developments have meant people are looking for answers to what the future holds for our regional and rural areas. With changes to traditional land uses, industry, community and ecological structures, will our regions continue to grow and thrive?

From left: CSRRF members Ms Jessica O'Neil, Dr Michael Askew, Dr Hedda Askland and Dr Jo Hanley at Morpeth, NSW

The University of Newcastle’s (UON) newly formed Centre for Social Research and Regional Futures (CSRRF) is working directly with government, industry and community partners to answer such questions through an innovative service model that provides not only methodologically-sound social research, but also community engagement, professional development training, and policy and planning services.

Project Director of CSRRF, Dr Michael Askew, explained that previously, government or industry would approach a researcher in one niche area who would provide them with assistance through a PhD student or Research Assistant. CSRRF takes a different approach by providing a professional, systematic and academically rigorous service to government and industry.

“Our researchers work at the ground level, conducting in-depth interviews and longitudinal studies of people living in these areas to provide evidence of how government, industry and communities can find better ways forward for everyone involved.”

Michael, a Newcastle local, describes himself as someone who is concerned with making sure our regional areas flourish. He also has the unique experience of previously being both a researcher and working in private consultancy, as well as past roles in government and manufacturing organisations.

While the Centre currently has a number of members in the areas of anthropology and sociology, it also acts as a hub for research activities across the social sciences and education – connecting a diversity of UON researchers with government and industry.

In addition, CSRRF is part of the International Centre for Balanced Land Use – a joint initiative between the NSW Government and the University through the Newcastle Institute for Energy and Resources (NIER) – and works collaboratively with the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies in UON’s School of Environmental and Life Sciences.

“It is essential to look at the full picture of what is happening in these regional areas, particularly when it comes to land use change and structural adjustment,” Michael said.

“We can’t say: ‘we are doing well now so everything is okay.’ You have to base policy and planning on solid evidence. This requires research into land use, economic and social change to understand people’s relationship to what’s happening around them and visions of the future. What will the economy look like? How will we keep young people in these areas and sustain growth? How do we maintain a sense of place and wellbeing?”

This is a fact that government and industry seem well aware of, as CSRRF is already undertaking projects for the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) and is in the process of securing a number of other major projects with government and industry partners.

The Centre is currently working with the DPI on the Narrabri Project – a pilot project that will be the first site of a possible state-wide exploration of changing attitudes to land use in rural and regional areas.

“Many towns in NSW and elsewhere have been experiencing rapid land use changes as governments globally seek to ensure food and energy security,” Michael said.

“This project will explore the social, cultural and economic processes that shape community attitudes towards changing land use in the Narrabri shire, and will determine what government can do to support the ongoing viability of regional communities in the context of changing land use.”

CSRRF’s Small Holdings Project was also commissioned by the DPI to explore the situation of small holdings with dwelling entitlements in two case study areas of NSW: the Tweed and Cabonne Shires.

The project explores the implications of small holdings use and management for the agriculture sector and communities, and seeks to identify best practice approaches for policy and planning decision making.

“To better understand the current use of small holdings and how they form part of agricultural practice further evidence on the role they play in regional areas is needed to inform local communities, Councils and the State Government,” Michael said.

CSRRF researchers are working with partners from State and Federal governments to expand both the Narrabri and Small Holdings Projects and to develop new research into planning decision making and ageing in rural communities.

They also hope to work with a range of partners in the thoroughbred breeding industry to develop research into the future contribution of the industry to the Hunter Region.

Michael predicts a bright and connected future for the Centre: “CSRRF is engaged in research that will help to shape regional futures, and that is exciting for our researchers and our study partners.”