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Revitalising our cities – let’s really mean it  

February 16, 2021

When we talk about revitalising our cities after COVID-19, lets really mean it – from CBDs right out to the newest house in the newest estate. The boom is not over for growth areas despite the 2020 Population Statement’s forecast pause in national population growth. So while governments are bringing CBDs back after lockdown, let’s not forget about the outer urban growth areas, home to one fifth of Australia’s population and still catching up with the consequences of decades of massive growth. Recovery will take longer in the outer suburbs: they were Australia’s main COVID-19 hotspots, already had high unemployment and now, have among the highest levels of mortgage stress in the country.

Increases in building approvals and planning advice requests in NGAA Member councils across the country - showing levels of residential development, investment and ongoing demand - are evidence of the continuing population pressure on growth areas post-pandemic. In my municipality of Wollondilly in Sydney’s south, the first stage of a new housing development in Wilton sold out in record time this year – during the pandemic. An additional 45,000 people will soon move into this part of Wollondilly despite the lack of crucial state and federal infrastructure (including roads, trains, health services and schools).

In Victoria’s growth areas, building permits for dwellings in 2020 are up - by 20% on 2019 numbers at Wyndham Council. This is nearly double the state-wide trend of an 11% increase in domestic building permits for the same period. In West Australia, the City of Cockburn’s building approvals are up by 21% this year compared to the previous 12 months.

Local governments in growth areas do not expect State and Federal-funded infrastructure to be provided overnight, but we do want firm funding commitments made, and transparency about when funds will be available. We don’t want to see any more of these real examples of growth area growing pains: thousands of people in a ten year traffic nightmare with just a single exit road from their suburb; seventeen years for a community to hear that a promised train station for their “new” suburb might be considered in the next five years; or a suburb bigger than a major regional city that still doesn’t have a hospital.

Just four years ago, growth areas received only 13% of federal infrastructure, while they generated 35% of population growth and 25% of jobs growth. Recent infrastructure investment by State and Federal governments has started to improve on the shocking growth areas infrastructure deficit (20% less than other metropolitan areas), but there is still a long way to go to end the postcode discrimination.

The cost of under-investing in outer urban growth areas is more than traffic nightmares and declining liveability. Higher unemployment (particularly for young people); lower levels of education and a higher incidence of mental health problems are some of the other human costs of under-resourcing the outer suburbs and making it hard to access jobs, study and health services.

Infrastructure can transform these communities by matching their vitality and pace of growth. Outer urban growth areas are innovative by nature – we’re here because we have turned paddocks into postcodes and built thriving communities. We’re more culturally diverse and younger than the rest of the country. The potential of the outer suburbs was highlighted during COVID-19 lockdowns, when people who were able to work from home enjoyed spending more time with family and in their local community, instead of a daily, expensive nightmare commute.

As a nation we have enjoyed the economic benefits of a booming population; yet we’ve neglected the new suburbs and communities that are the consequence of population growth. Cities have changed dramatically from last century’s model of a wheel of suburbs around one CBD hub, yet infrastructure funding still lags behind the polycentric, multi-nodal reality. Our capital cities need better planning and investment that supports distributing infrastructure, jobs and housing more evenly across the entire metropolitan area, including bringing new jobs closer to where the growing population lives.

Some positive steps in government policy and funding, like the City Deals program, reflect the spatial shift. Yet, despite this and the widespread benefits of changes like remote working for outer suburbs residents, some governments (like South Australia’s) still prioritise the CBD by trying to remove remote working from the table.

As well as talking about revitalising the CBD part of our cities, let’s use this recovery period to take a holistic view of all that our cities are and can be. Let’s include all of the city in our policy, planning and funding decisions - right out to the furthest edges. Let’s focus also on transforming our outer suburban economies and communities with infrastructure and services for the five million people who are already here – and the many more who are still coming. 

The next Federal Budget is just three months away, and a Federal Election is imminent. The Government and the Opposition are saying the right things and promising major infrastructure investment in outer urban growth areas. This year we will be keeping watch on whether those good intentions, policies and funding promises become a reality.

Councillor Matthew Deeth, Chair of the National Growth Areas Alliance (NGAA) and Councillor, Wollondilly Shire Council, NSW

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