In the face of rapid development in Western Sydney, a big gap remains between what the people of Western Sydney need and what the NSW government is delivering.
Billions of dollars are pouring into Western Sydney – one of the largest and fastest growing regions in Australia – in the face of a projected 50 per cent increase in population to three million by 2036.
From the transformation of its town centres, to a second airport at Badgerys Creek and a raft of motorway and rail projects, it feels like Western Sydney is finally getting the attention it deserves.
But all of this investment could fail to deliver liveable cities, says Billie Sankovic, chief executive of the Western Sydney Community Forum, a body that works with community groups to help shape social policy and service delivery in the region.
Sankovic, who has spent nearly 30 years working across Greater Western Sydney in the community, tertiary and government sectors, says a yawning gap remains between Sydney’s east and west in terms of services and infrastructure. On top of that, there are inequities within Western Sydney.
She says public transport and housing remain the most pressing problems. However, social infrastructure and services such as public schools and hospitals – especially aged care and mental health services – also need to be addressed.
“Western Sydney is in an amazing position in terms of the level of opportunity facing us and we really need to harness that in a way that reflects the priorities of the people who live in Western Sydney,” says Sankovic.
“The infrastructure that is being delivered is very much focused on the North-West … [but] you have a million people who don’t live on that corridor,” she says. “The South-Western corridor of Western Sydney, in particular, has significant access issues.”
People living in newer suburbs, for example, can spend up to half an hour driving to a train station, while new train lines often lack adequate parking at stations or are not well served by bus services.
“In any of those suburbs that have been developed in the past 10 or even 20 years, it takes you 45 minutes [to travel to a major train station] and then there is nowhere to park, no public buses that you can get to the train. Before you even sit on the train you may have already travelled for over an hour,” Sankovic says.
In some instances, she says, government is building infrastructure that simply doesn’t deliver a reasonable return on investment. If commuters only save six minutes getting to work on a new toll road that cost billions of dollars, was it worth building the road? If you want people to travel on a new, expensive rail line, does it make sense not to provide enough parking at each station, or fail to provide local bus services to connect with the rail line?
“Is there enough investment generally? Where do you spend the money you have? Do you borrow for some of these projects? It’s all a matter of priorities and choice,” Sankovic says.
Another example of the disconnect between planners and people is the state government’s promise to build an $80 million “mega TAFE” near Sydney’s planned second airport.
It was a welcome decision, says Sankovic, “but we know, through research and anecdotally, that … people don’t see TAFE anymore as a pathway to education”.
Why is there such a big disconnect between what Western Sydney needs and what government delivers?
One of the reasons is fragmentation of policy-making, says Sankovic, who has been involved in almost every development in Western Sydney in one way or another, in recent years.
“There is no cohesive decision-making,” she says. “One government agency looks at one element [of a new project], another looks at another element. When we are shaping decisions there is not one place that you can go to, not one group that you need to work with,” she explains.
If there was one thing Sankovic could change in Western Sydney it would be closing the gap between what government and developers deliver and what people really want.
“For us, it would be decision-making focused on community priorities so that when we deliver or make decisions as a state about delivering a piece of infrastructure we see it as a means to an end rather than as an end to itself.”