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Turning The ‘Broken’ Into Something Brilliant

Turning The ‘Broken’ Into Something Brilliant
May 28, 2024 Propertyology Head of Research and REIA Hall of Famer, Simon Pressley

Very few things warm my cockles more than a nostalgic reflection into the original inspiration behind the evolution of a city, particularly Australian cities.

One of the more fascinating Australian cities is one which, despite its relative remoteness and arid climate, has more people who choose to live there than idyllic towns such as Kingscliff NSW, Batemans Bay NSW, Port Douglas QLD, Torquay VIC, Victor Harbor SA and St Helens TAS.

This particular city is where Australia’s largest company was founded (and flourished).

The unofficial father of Australian outback painting, Charles ‘Pro’ Hart, gained much inspiration from living in this iconic city.

It is also the hometown of many elite athletes, including former AFL All Australian and Adelaide Crows captain Taylor Walker, Brent Staker, Dean Solomon, Isaac Cumming and Jamaine Jones.

Numerous movies have been filmed from this regional city. Among the smash hits are Mad Max, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Dirty Deeds and the TV drama series The Flying Doctors.

In case you have not guessed, the iconic city which I am referring to is Broken Hill.

It was named ‘Broken Hill’ by explorer Charles Sturt when he visited the region in 1844 and was inspired by a prominent ‘humpbacked’ range, or hill.

Broken Hill currently has a median house price of just $185,000 and a median rental yield of approximately 9 percent.

Broken Hill’s desert proximity and its foundation being driven by the discovery of valuable reserves of natural resources has incredible similarities to two of the greatest cities in the world, Las Vegas and Abu Dhabi. I believe Broken Hill has immense potential for future urban development into something quite special.

More on that shortly.

Situated 1,100 kilometres west of the state capital of Sydney, not far from the South Australian border and 300-kilometres north of Mildura (Australia’s 44th largest city), Broken Hill is Australia’s oldest mining town.

Affectionately known as the ‘Silver City’ (silver, lead and zinc), it was founded in 1883.

Discovery of the world’s richest ore body led to the formation of Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP) in 1885. Rapid urban development swiftly followed.

Broken Hill’s population peaked at 35,000 in 1915.

At that time, Australia’s population was 4.9 million and Broken Hill was this country’s 9th largest city.

It is incredible to think that Broken Hill’s population back then was more than Canberra, Geelong, Gold Coast, Wollongong, Cairns, Townsville, Bendigo and Sunshine Coast.

Approximately 50-years after commencing operations, BHP relocated away from Broken Hill during the late 1930’s to fully realise the company’s potential.

BHP has since become Australia’s largest corporation with widespread interests in steel production, coal mining and shipbuilding.

The proud history of the ‘oasis in the west’ includes being at the centre of major Australian trade union and labour market reforms.

Right up until after WW2, Broken Hill remained NSW’s third largest city, behind only Sydney and Newcastle.

Since the 1950’s, Broken Hill’s population has steadily declined.

At the latest count, Broken Hill’s population of 17,624 in 2023 made it our 128th largest city.

The 14 percent population decline over the last 20-years was the steepest fall of any Australian city.

Despite the population pattern, Broken Hill’s median house price more than tripled, from $47,000 in 2003 to $185,000 in 2023.

For those with an interest in finances and return-on-capital, real estate in Broken Hill (on a dollar-for-dollar basis) produced a slightly superior result than Sydney and Melbourne over the last 2-decades.

That’s not a typo!

For more general information about Broken Hill, or if planning a trip to this iconic city, Broken Hill Now is a very useful site.


City profile

Contrary to the perceptions of many naïve people, Broken Hill has well established infrastructure and numerous attractions which are unique to the outback.

There are some attractive parklands and well-manicured sports fields.

The city centre has an eclectic mix of beautiful heritage listed buildings, a few grand old pubs, various modest retail strips, numerous old houses which have been repurposed into boutique galleries, and conventional houses.

It is accessed via the national highway system, a commercial coach service, passenger rail or plane.

Generally speaking, 60,000 people fly to and from Broken Hill each year, with Qantas and REX servicing flights to Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Dubbo, Griffith and Mildura (the closest major city to Broken Hill).

Broken Hill is also the major airport base for Australia’s Royal Flying Doctor Service.

While the city’s average annual rainfall of 225mm is well below Sydney’s 1,200mm, it is not greatly different to Adelaide’s 530mm.

In fact, Broken Hill receives more annual rainfall than Abu Dhabi (50mm) and Las Vegas (100mm).

In attempt to encourage visionary thinking (possibilities as opposed to so-called ‘problems’), it is worth noting that both Las Vegas (founded 22-years after Broken Hill, in 1905) and Abu Dhabi (founded even more recently, in 1965) are hotter and dryer than Broken Hill. That proved no barrier for their remarkable evolutions into modern metropolises with current populations of 2.9 million and 1.6 million people, respectively.

Much of Broken Hill’s water supply comes from a variety of inland river systems. Menindee Lakes is also very popular for a variety of water sport recreational activities.

There are components of Broken Hill’s demographic profile which are similar to Vegas and Abu Dhabi.

Broken Hill has an above average ratio of people aged 55+ (its average household age is 44), there are fewer married couples than the Australian average, fewer children and 37 percent of homes are occupied by singles (cf 25 percent AUS).

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95 percent of Broken Hill’s 9,550 residential dwellings are detached houses.

3-bedroom homes account for 54 percent of the total housing stock, while 20 percent have 4-bedrooms.

Despite lower annual household incomes than the national average ($61,000 cf $91,000), Broken Hill’s 42 percent homeownership rate is very high (cf 31 percent AUS average).

Only 24 percent of locals depend on rental accommodation (cf 31 percent AUS).

From an industry perspective, mining still occurs in the region, but on a much smaller scale than a century ago.

According to Census 2021, mining now accounts for 10 percent of the local workforce.

Whilst Broken Hill is part of NSW, it has closer economic links to South Australia – the region’s ore concentrates are transported to Port Pirie for refining and smelting.

In recent years, AGL Energy has invested significantly in the region for solar power generation. It does not require rocket science to imagine future possibilities in this sector.

Increased utilisation of the region’s natural landscapes, outdoor recreation activities and local creative minds have been embraced to develop a culture which supports art, its beautiful indigenous heritage, the city’s fascinating post-colonisation history, its low stress lifestyle and incredibly affordable housing.

A variety of local galleries, museums and retail shops boasting locally-produced art support an understated tourism trade.

Collectively, 22 percent of Broken Hill’s workforce is employed in accommodation services, art and recreation and retail trade.

A further 21 percent are employed in the Health sector.

The Darling River supports the region’s agriculture, particularly sheep farming.


Who dares to be brave and develop Australia’s inland oasis?

Bearing in mind its current strengths, the Broken Hill of the future could include:

  • a new university for excellence in the arts,
  • new theatres with a year-round calendar of concerts (featuring Australian musicians and comedians),
  • an expanded residential community of affordable houses on quarter-acre blocks (remember them?),
  • a sporting centre of excellence with elite facilities to host year-round training camps and the occasional fixtured match (if the NRL can send 4-teams to Vegas to open the 2024 season…),
  • development of resorts and hotels (channel your inner Vegas, folks),
  • airport infrastructure upgrades,
  • investment into enhanced local amenities and promoting the region’s unique attractions for tourists,
  • future town planning to incorporate quirky architectural building facades,
  • an enhanced town water system which also supports an abundance of trees, lawns, parks and water features,
  • a training academy for pilots,
  • remote observatory facilities for Australia’s recently developed Space Agency (in Adelaide),
  • large scale investment into a suite of renewable energy projects, and
  • specialist military training facilities.

Already, more people live in Broken Hill than Airlie Beach QLD, Bowral NSW, Beechworth VIC, Hanhdorf SA and Yamba NSW.

The arid climate ‘obstacle’ is nothing more than narrow-mindedness and a shameful preparedness to accept mediocrity when greatness is possible.

For much of the last 60-years, Australia has produced very few major transformations of our cities. It’s as if our current ‘urban innovators’ consider being able to walk and chew gum at the same time a ‘success’.

Let’s embrace urban templates like Abu Dhabi, Las Vegas and many others around the world which have transformed what was once ‘remote and arid’ into the ‘uniquely spectacular’.

Visionary thinking like this must be part of an Australian City Building Strategy which should prioritise decentralisation, maximise the potential of Australia’s natural assets, regional expansion, lifestyle quality and housing affordability.

Australia can learn from other high-profile arid cities such as Casablanca (population 3.89 million) in north-west Africa, Santa Fe (2.1 million), Phoenix (4.7 million), the South American city of Lima (10 million), Dubai in the UAE (3.6 million) and Baghdad (7.7 million population) in Iraq.

The awesome desert city of Cairo has almost as many people (22 million) as the entire population of Australia.

Whilst political neglect and poor leadership is responsible for Broken Hill’s progressive population decline during the last 70-years, it has enormous potential and is only limited by vision, bravery and determination.

It is entirely practical for Broken Hill’s population to return to its 1915 peak of 35,000 (much the same size as current day Byron Bay NSW, Warrnambool VIC and Geraldton WA).

Broken Hill is one of many existing ‘untapped’ Australian cities which already have fundamental infrastructure such as highways, airports, seaports and rail.

Instead of boring bureaucrats and bland town planners repetitiously producing yet another ‘plan’ for an extended cookie-cutter community or Lego city, those responsible for designing Australia’s cities should engage the expertise of the world’s best urban innovators.

Broken Hill is cherry ripe for an Elon Musk type.

If such a visionary urban creation was implemented in Broken Hill, it would significantly strengthen connections and produce knock-on benefits for other relatively nearby communities like Swan Hill, Mildura, Dubbo, Cobar, Ivanhoe, Hay, Port Augusta and Port Pirie.


Broken Hill real estate

Census data confirms a progressive reduction in the total number of private dwellings, from 9,752 (2001), to 9,570 (2011) and 9,551 (2021).

3 to 4-bedroom Broken Hill homes in good condition are currently worth between $200,000 and $350,000.

Homeownership can be accomplished with as little as a $12,500 (5 percent) deposit for a $250,000 house in reasonable condition. And the mortgage payments for a standard home in Broken Hill are $30,000 per year less than a comparable mortgage in a majority of Australia’s 40 largest cities.

Premium-quality 4 to 5 homes are worth circa $600,000.

In a typical calendar year, approximately 350 to 500 houses are sold, and less than 10 apartments sales are transacted.

Broken Hill’s property market produced approximately 70 percent capital growth over the 3-years ending 2023.

A standard 3-bedroom house can currently be rented for as little as $300 per week (about half the price of elsewhere).

There are plenty of run-down homes (likely to be mortgage free) that the owners seem content to leave as-is.

A survey commissioned by the Broken Hill City Council in 2021/22 found there were about 1,500 houses or blocks across the city which are intentionally left vacant.

Some buyers see value in paying (say) $60,000 for these derelict properties, clearing the site and rebuilding.

ABS data confirms that an average of just eight (8) new homes get approved for construction each year.

It is unlikely there will ever be large scale housing development in Broken Hill.

If that were to occur, the cost of constructing new homes would likely force up the value of established homes significantly.

Broken Hill’s rental market has historically been very stable.

Residential vacancy rates were consistently between 2 percent and 3 percent throughout the last decade.

They dipped to near-zero during 2021-2022, due to people escaping densely populated locations which were vulnerable to pandemic lockdowns and / or people chasing affordable rents.

In April 2024, Broken Hill’s vacancy rate was a very low 1.4 percent.

The asking price to rent a house has steadily increased each year, from $220 per week in 2017 to $350 in 2024.


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