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Social service and infrastructure needs in rural Victoria - reports released

Socially inclusive communities are the corner-stone of a vibrant, thriving society. Good access to public transport, open space, utilities, schools, churches, community amenities, social services and recreation facilities are important elements that build thriving communities. However, there are some rural and regional communities in Victorian that experience more disadvantage; where there are high levels of unemployment, lack of affordable and safe housing, low educational attainment, and poor quality infrastructure and services. 

Building on previous work identifying social service needs in regional Victorian in 2018, Catholic Social Services Victoria has released two new reports that outline the social service and infrastructure needs of rural and regional communities living in Gippsland and the Great South Coast, and surrounds. The reports are based on research and consultations conducted in 2019 in Warrnambool and Warragul, and reflect the experience of people working in their local communities with people experiencing disadvantage and isolation.

While the reports do not address all aspects of disadvantage, they outline the gaps in services and infrastructure, provide evidence and examples of solutions that are having a positive impact, and provide recommendations on what can be done. The reports make particular reference to how infrastructure impacts on disadvantage in response to work currently being undertaken by Infrastructure Victoria to update Victoria's 30-Year Infrastructure Strategy in 2020.

Social Service and Infrastructure Needs in Gippsland 

The themes arising from the research and consultation conducted in Warragul in 2019 reflect the following web of factors that lead to social disadvantage and isolation for communities living in this area:

The long distances required for travel, the high cost of having a car and the limited and costly public transport options, limit access to healthcare, education and employment. Participants stressed that housing instability is a common underlying issue for most people seeking assistance; private rental accommodation is expensive, substandard and often unsafe. Mental health is also significant factor for many people seeking assistance. There are few psychosocial mental health programs and participants find many people experience inconsistent mental health treatment services. NDIS has added confusion in the mental health system and inconsistency.

Emergency relief is no longer occasional assistance in times of emergencies. For many individuals and families, it forms part of their regular budgeting to try to make ends meet. This is reflected in the increase of food relief programs and the use of emergency relief being used for everyday expenses such as fuel, utility bills and car registration. An underlying issue is the low level of income, particularly for those on pensions and benefits. 

A lack of adequate income to meet the basic needs of good, shelter, utilities, transport, healthcare and education has negative impacts not only on the development of positive community engagement and connections, but also on the development of supportive personal networks. 

These factors have been compounded by the devastating impact of the recent bushfires in the area, and now, COVID-19. More than ever, communities in the Gippsland area need particular assistance. For those facing significant disadvantage in the region, improving infrastructure would help to improve access to important health, welfare, education and employment services and opportunities.   

Read the full report, here.

Social Service and Infrastructure Needs in the Great South Coast and Surrounds 

Many of the themes arising from the research and consultation conducted in Warrnambool reflect the disadvantage and isolation experienced by those living in the Gippsland area, however the lack of housing is the biggest single challenge facing this region. The low level of pensions and benefits, increasing debt, unaffordable rent levels and relationship breakdown has resulted in increasing numbers of people in housing stress and seeking housing and homelessness assistance.

The cost of living pressure has increased the number of requests for assistance and emergency relief. Community meals and breakfast clubs are provided every day of the week by a range of service and community clubs, churches and schools across Warrnambool.  

Collaboration and the ability to be flexible are key to providing responsive and appropriate outreach services to rural and remote families. Current funding models do not sufficiently take into account specific challenges in regional and rural areas.  

Read the full report, here. 

Communities experiencing persistent disadvantage, need long-term and place-based solutions that address the underlying causes of disadvantage. This includes using a strengths-based approach that recognises and harnesses the strengths of the local community and engages the community in the planning and development of solutions to address disadvantage. Importantly, infrastructure plays a vital role in facilitating access, engagement, connections and connectively in our communities. 

The reports provide a number of clear and specific recommendations for consideration by State government and local councils. Some of these include:
1. increase the frequency of buses (regular and smaller community buses) between smaller towns and regional hubs, and improving the coordination between the bus and rail services, particularly during peak times to enable more people to use public transport to access employment and education 
3. improve digital connectivity and coverage across the regions, particularly in rural areas that are more isolated from communities
4. increase social housing and increase the availability of affordable housing across the regions through programs that incentivise landlords to improve sub standard housing
5. increase the level of New Start as advocated by ACOSS's Raise the Rate campaign
6. increase the access to employment opportunities for people on low-income and increase the number of financial counsellors across the regions
7. ensure funding models realistically account for the specific distance and resource requirements for social service provision in regional and rural areas
8. improve community building infrastructure in rural and remote locations to facilitate the co-location of agencies, encourage collaboration and improve flexibility of social service provision and ensure adequate planning of and funding for clinical and community mental health services to meet the current demand across the regions 

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