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                                  Editorial Comment: 22 March 2008                               

                   Here comes Sydney’s yuppie carousel

Morris Iemma’s North West Metro is fine as an infrastructure project but fares less well as a strategic investment.

“Labor Premier promises 12 billion dollar bonanza to rich north shore, spurns battling western suburbs”. That could have been the media reaction to Morris Iemma’s North West Metro announcement. Instead we’ve seen unbridled elation or whining about the Premier’s bona fides. It says a lot about our public culture.

Public transport is a key amenity for the rising class of inner-suburban, green-tinged, knowledge workers. Hence its elevation as an all-purpose answer to our many urban dilemmas. True enough, infrastructure spending is akin to an absolute good. Unless something goes seriously wrong, new infrastructure underwrites economic growth and improves peoples’ lives. That much is a given. The hard part is how to order the legion of competing priorities.

Before embarking on hefty capital expenditure, we expect our leaders to have thought through coherent strategies for industries and public services crying out for funds. Otherwise, broad social and economic objectives could be missed. Even worse, money will just flow to the most vocal interests.

But enough of motherhood statements. How does Mr Iemma’s glittering proposal measure up? In and of itself, the project is unobjectionable. When measured by the test of boosting growth and improving lives, there’s something to be said for it. A cursory glance at a diagram of the route is enough to perceive that. Anyone familiar with Sydney’s economic geography knows about the so-called ‘global arc corridor’. This is a zone of advanced technological and business services stretching from the north-west business park precinct, around Macquarie University, down to the CBD and on to the southern industrial zone near the airport and Port Botany. Of all Sydney’s regions, none are better plugged into the global economy. It’s the mainspring of Sydney’s global status.


North West Metro runs through the heart of the arc’s extension north of the CBD and terminates at the fast growing fringe suburb of Rouse Hill. On the way it crosses parts of the inner-west and lower north shore, residential hubs of Sydney’s professional classes. The benefits are tangible, if overstated. Better transport services attract more skilled workers including the best people from overseas, and influence the locational and investment decisions of local and foreign firms. In the global competition for talent, we are told, footloose professionals are drawn to places with superior amenities. It won’t hurt tourism either. So much, at least, is the constant drumbeat of ‘creative class’ theorist Richard Florida and his acolytes.

To some extent, the line will improve the lot of all commuters and motorists, from wherever, who battle traffic congestion around the CBD’s entry points.

It’s all good then? Not quite. While the project passes as an infrastructure project, it’s not so great as a strategic investment. Media cynicism aside, the Iemma Government has put out a credible overarching strategy for greater Sydney. Its City of Cities plan of December 2005 represented a breakthrough in at least one crucial respect. Possibly for the first time, a NSW government acknowledged that Sydney CBD isn’t destined to dominate the whole region and rival CBDs are emerging in formerly suburban centres like Parramatta, Liverpool and Penrith, dubbed ‘regional cities’. That much is obvious from the plan’s title. The old core-periphery dichotomy is fading away. It’s a simple matter of population shifts.

City of Cities created an expectation that major planning proposals would, directly or indirectly, advance the strategy of distributing infrastructure assets, and hence stimulating economic development, across greater Sydney, focusing on the emerging outer centres. On several social equity and economic grounds, such a strategy makes sense. Urban expansion is the only real, long-term solution to problems like traffic congestion and housing affordability.

The essential problem is that North West Metro delivers little distribution for the buck. This is a generational project of great magnitude, costing an estimated 12 billion dollars, yet it pours money into one of the city’s super-affluent zones while adding zilch to the emerging – and relatively underprivileged – centres anointed by City of Cities. A massive gift to Global Sydney, North West Metro means next to nothing for Regional Sydney.

Other factors weigh in the balance against the project. Larger Australian cities grew around radial heavy-rail lines and, apart from Melbourne, dispensed with light-rail in favour of cars. In the typical European and North American context, metro is an intermediate network, filling gaps between inter-regional heavy-rail and local light-rail services. But a section of North West Metro just parallels, and duplicates, some of the existing main northern line from Ryde to near Pennant Hills. At least that defect was missing from the aborted plan to extend this line to Rouse Hill (the north west rail link).

Not that Rouse Hill has been crippled by the lack of a rail connection. Only recently, it unveiled one of the most innovative and attractive town centres anywhere in the country. Global Sydney does very well for itself too. Despite attempts by inner-city organs like the Sydney Morning Herald to proclaim it a basket case, successive surveys rate Sydney one of the world’s most liveable cities. If only the same could be said of Regional Sydney. The latest ABS social atlas, based on census figures, portrays ‘a divided city’ in terms of wealth and opportunities. Unless the government ramps up spending on transport infrastructure across the whole region, City of Cities looks like a dead letter.

Rouse Hill and environs may qualify as outer growth regions deserving a break. One hopes, though, that Mr Iemma hasn’t caved in to the ‘inner-city uber alles’ crowd. They're interested in payoffs for the inner-west and lower north shore, of course, not the outpost of Rouse Hill. Demanding infrastructure goodies for its readership, the Herald is standard-bearer for a motley crew of Greens, academics, resident activists, lobbyists and councillors adept at spouting green and ‘creative class’ rhetoric for their own purposes. They have the power to exert relentless pressure.

As for the western and south-western suburbs, they get to be the poor cousins - as always.

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 TNC  22 March  2008                     Like to respond?                     Top/Home