The pandemic has changed Australian migration patterns for good, as capital cities see the largest population losses on record

The pandemic has changed Australian migration patterns for good, as capital cities see the largest population losses on record
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  • Capital cities saw the loss of 11,800 people from internal migration, the largest quarterly net loss on record, in the first three months of 2021.
  • New ABS figures suggest the exodus from cities which began at the start of the pandemic may signal a permanent change to population patterns.
  • Sydney and Melbourne saw the largest loss of residents to regional areas.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Australians are permanently moving away from capital cities, new ABS data shows, with Sydney and Melbourne hit hardest by the pandemic-fuelled migration drain.

Even before the most recent lockdown in Greater Sydney, which began in late June, population data indicated the tsunami of people leaving urban Australia for regional areas — a trend that began 18 months ago — was intensifying.

Newly released data found that capital cities had a net loss of 11,800 people from internal migration, the largest quarterly net loss on record. 

It follows a June report that showed the number of people escaping capital cities to regional Australia had reached its highest level since 2018, as a trend kickstarted by the pandemic moved into its second year.

The ABS figures, which pre-date the latest Greater Sydney lockdown, show that 104,100 people moved interstate in the three months leading to the end of March 2021. 

This amounts to 19% more people, around 16,400, making a move away from capital cities compared with the March 2020 quarter.

It is also the highest for a March quarter since recording began in 1996. 

Since the start of the pandemic, 24,500 people have left Sydney for other parts of NSW, the data showed. 

It found that in total, almost 40,000 people have abandoned Sydney since the start of the pandemic, with more than 10% relocating to Brisbane. 

Interestingly, while Sydney lost people to every other state or territory, 880 people relocated from Victoria to NSW during the first months of 2021.

Of those leaving Sydney, the biggest movement was by people aged between 45 and 64, who also accounted for a net loss of children; 2,100 people under the age of 14 also left the city.

And while Sydney and Melbourne shed residents, Brisbane and Perth appear increasingly attractive to internal migrants. 

Brisbane and Perth gained 16,300 and 5,072 new residents respectively since the start of the pandemic.

The exodus of people away from capital cities in the first three months of the year surpassed the previous record of 11,200 people in the September 2020 quarter.

It was the result of 54,400 arrivals to capital cities compared with 66,300 departures to areas outside non-capital cities. 

The ABS also found that Melbourne lost the most people during the period; around 8,300, closely followed by Sydney at 8,200.

Terry Rawnsley, an urban and regional planner at KPMG, said the data showed how the pandemic had permanently changed population patterns as ongoing lockdowns shifted the value of city life. 

“Melbourne is a good case study,” Rawnsley said, adding that before COVID-19, the city was permanently attracting migrants from every area of Australia. 

But “the second COVID hit and we had long lockdowns, we saw a significant outflow of people from Greater Melbourne,” he said.

However this was continuing to negatively affect regions, he said, particularly around housing affordability. 

“A lot of regional communities have seen a huge surge in house prices and rents as more people have moved there,” he said. 

“Part of the reason you’d go to a regional centre is to get away from COVID lockdown but also for more affordable housing. That [affordability] has disappeared quite quickly.” 

“The new challenge is that the regional areas which haven’t experienced population growth for a long time weren’t ready to accommodate this growth.”

Tim Reardon, chief economist at HIA said the increase in people shifting to regions was affecting property markets and suggested the change might be permanent.

“Given that the population is moving interstate and building new homes it is unlikely that they intend to return to Sydney or Melbourne,” Reardon said.