Research based on new Census data has shown that life expectancy goes down dramatically as you travel west in Sydney. At its most extreme the gap between average life expectancy in an Eastern Suburb of your choice and Mount Druitt in Sydney’s west is 20 years.

This is shocking.

Having worked in East London for over a decade before I came to Australia I was familiar with the reality of a divided city. Those of us working to transform East London had discovered that for every Tube station going eastwards from the centre of London, life  expectancy dropped by a year. That was bad enough but the gap in London at its worst never reached 20 years. Yes, that’s right, in a very key indicator of inequality Sydney might just have a worse record than London.

Though there are complex reasons behind this, a full understanding needs to start with some simple honesty. Self celebration of Australia as the land of the “fair go” has blinded us to the reality of disadvantage amidst plenty. It has put us to sleep when real energy, urgency and focus are required to tackle this problem.

In reality, Sydney is a city divided by wealth and health.

Apart from stubborn islands of poverty and ill health in the inner city and clusters of well-off graduates in and around Westmead and parts of the north-west, there is a clear delineation between a healthier, wealthier Eastern Sydney and the poorer relation in West and Southwest Sydney.

There are two Sydneys. The one to the east of Parramatta has most of the new higher paid jobs, most of the public transport network, fewest new migrants and refugees, and most of the city’s private schools. It enjoys the economic and social benefits of higher density, which means that jobs and services are easily walkable or accessed by mass transit, now understood to be key attributes of cities that succeed for all their citizens.

Western Sydney by contrast currently creates 14,000 people of working age each year but jobs for only 8000 and many of them are low paid. It is taking two-thirds of all Sydney’s homes over the next 20 years, though on current trends these will be in lower density developments, poorly connected to public transport, which inhibits walking or cycling.

These are thus neither job-rich nor healthy environments and are likely to sustain or even exacerbate the divisions within our city. While the new Western Sydney Airport will help to provide new opportunities for high-paid knowledge jobs in the region, and while the excellent Western Sydney University is proving to be a brilliant nurturer of talent for the future, we can and must do better to fill the jobs gap.

This is the backdrop to the differential life expectancy outcomes in Sydney. Poverty, social exclusion and ill health are increasingly concentrating not in denser inner-city neighbourhoods but in the low-density suburbia of Western Sydney, poorly served by public transport, where long car journeys to work – and even to shop – are the norm. There is accordingly serious residential sorting going on in Sydney with fewer and fewer mixed communities of the kind many of us grew up in, to our benefit, forming or being retained.

These dispersed, unwalkable communities have also become breeding grounds for diabetes 2, the deadly urban plague of our times. If nothing is done we shall see more and more evidence that where you live in Sydney determines your life chances.

When we saw how unequal an otherwise booming London was becoming, the councils I worked with in East London started a bipartisan campaign to achieve what we called “convergence”. Our objective was to ensure that within 25 years time, in key economic, educational, social and health outcomes – GDP per head, skills development and school performance, domestic violence and, yes, life expectancy – East London would achieve convergence with the average scores for London overall.

Our ironic but still galvanising slogan was: “fight for the right to be average”. Little did I know when I arrived here six years ago how relevant, sadly, that fight would be in today’s Sydney.

Tim Williams is chief executive of the Committee for Sydney.

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  1. Well said Phillip O’Neill!

    Tim Williams…. thank you for your contribution in reinforcing the negative stereotypes of Western Sydney (and further criticising Mount Druitt). Mainstream media already seems to be doing a great job at that.

    1. Thank you James Hulme. Your post uncovers the data analysis problem: A selective extract by the newspaper reporter of data on mortality rates showing one Sydney suburb – arguably not typical of anywhere – is portrayed as a different thing (life expectancy) and deployed as a generalisation for all of Western Sydney. This is not how good public policy is developed.

  2. I wonder where Dr Williams gets his data? He says it is from “new Census data”. Yet life expectancy isn’t calculated from census data. Life expectancy data are calculated from death registrations.

    The latest ABS life expectancy data at SA4 level (cat. 3302.0.55.001) show Sydney’s average life expectancy (2015) at 83.5 years. The highest life expectancy in Sydney is the North Sydney and Hornsby SA4 at 86.1 years. The lowest is Central Coast at 80.9 years. For Outer West and Blue Mountains (which includes Mt Druitt) life expectancy is 82.1 years, only slightly lower than the Eastern Suburbs at 84.5 years, and higher than the Sydney City and Inner South SA4 which records 81.8 years.

    I can’t find any data showing a difference in life expectancy between east and west Sydney of 20 years. BTW, nations with life expectancies 20 years lower than Sydney’s eastern suburbs include Yemen, Gambia, Togo and Cambodia.

    Finally, the latest census data does shed some light on how well Western Sydney is doing. Household income data show Western Sydney is more middle class than Australia as a whole. Sure, Western Sydney doesn’t match the high incomes earned by north shore and eastern suburbs households. But few parts of Australia do.

  3. Western Sydney is a different city from Sydney. Calling it “Western Sydney” is doing it a disservice by categorising it as a quarter part of a greater “Sydney”. Call it Parramatta, or Liverpool, of whatever, but while it’s just west sydney it will always be just a sub-urban area of a greater whole.

  4. High levels of health are a result of good public transit, it doesn’t matter where you go in the industrialised world the more car dependent a society is the worse their health is. End car dependency by building mass transit. All new developments to zero car by elimination of roads and transform society into walkable neighbourhoods.
    The first project in any real-estate development is mass transit.

    1. I do not believe that this is the case in many places in the USA, where wealthy suburbs are car-dependent and public transport is utilised predominantly by disadvantaged people. Many US suburbs were deliberately set up this way during the ‘white flight’ from inner cities. Those who live in car-dependent suburbs are educated, socio-economically advantaged who can afford to lead healthy lives (participation in sports, attendance at gyms, etc.) and to access health care when they need it. ‘Mass transit’is not necessarily the key!