Western Sydney is commonly touted as “Australia’s fastest growing region”, “the nation’s third largest economy”, and an “electoral battleground”. Conversely it is regularly rendered in the media as the site of record heatwaves, interminable gridlock and drive-by shootings.
At best, these broad descriptions of the West glaze over its complexities and deny its diversity. At worst, they entrench stereotypes and deepen divides. They convey very little of the diverse experiences of the people that live there. Understanding those experiences is critical in achieving meaningful engagement with the aspirations, ideas and concerns of the region’s residents. That is the objective of Western Sydney University’s vehicle for regional thought leadership and solutions-orientated change, the Centre for Western Sydney.
Since its creation in 2014, the Centre for Western Sydney has established itself as a research entity of profound rigour. The Centre’s work on jobs distribution and related economic, employment and planning policy is authoritative. Equally, it has brought to the fore a range of analysis exploring the impact of, and ways to mitigate, rising heat in Western Sydney.
Drawing on those sound foundations, Western Sydney University re-launched the Centre on 26 November 2020. This renewed focus will see the full range of the University’s, Western Sydney related, collaborative expertise brought to bear to fulfil a unique commitment in our Act and a central tenet of our mission: supporting the development of Western Sydney. The Centre will research and advocacy with, and for, our region.
The relaunch of the Centre is a very deliberate and profound escalation of its activity. Western Sydney is particularly exposed to the impact of the current recession as a result of pre-existing socioeconomic inequities relative to other parts of Greater Sydney. These issues create additional urgency for policy responses from all three levels of government. The Centre will actively partner in that process, with industry and the region’s communities, to ensure policy is based in evidence and, very importantly, co-created with and for Western Sydney.
The reinvigorated Centre for Western Sydney is intended to act as a leading source of collaborative and cross disciplinary research and advocacy on Western Sydney. The Centre will produce long and short form analysis, media commentary and policy engagement on issues of central importance to the continued development of Western Sydney. This will include a regular ‘report card’ evaluation of policy performance across six key priorities for the region’s development, specifically: learning, health and wellbeing, home, connections, society and culture, and the economy.
The Centre will be an active participant in policy development, political analysis, impact case-studies, and regional advocacy. These core functions will be underpinned by a number of guiding principles, comprising: the amplification of heterogeneous voices in Western Sydney; an intergenerational approach to engaging with the region; and the need to drive informed dialogue and action, delivered through the strong politics of listening.
Education and Participation
Education remains the most impactful catalyst for positive change in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, from early childhood through to the tertiary stage. Remarkable improvements in access to, and participation in, quality education have been achieved across Western Sydney over the past three decades; however, profound inequities persist in particular sub regions and among some communities. The major economic and labour market dislocations of the current recession heighten the urgency to address this priority.
Health and Wellbeing
Health is a fundamental barometer of community wellbeing. Significant investments have been made, in recent years, in health infrastructure and services at sites like Blacktown-Mt Druitt, Liverpool, Nepean and Westmead. Equally, the recent public health response to the pandemic, across Western Sydney, indicates a relatively high level of functionality and and capacity across the network. However, entrenched over-representation persists throughout the region in chronic health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, mental health issues and Indigenous. Equally concerning, forward planning reveals pronounced health workforce shortages in key frontline and allied health professions. Meeting these challenges will be pivotal in ensuring Western Sydney’s wellbeing in the decades ahead.
Housing and Community
A safe and secure home is a fundamental right many people in Western Sydney are denied. Rates of homelessness and housing insecurity have changed little in recent decades. Worse, the representation of young people and older community members, particularly women, is increasing. This is intolerable, particularly in a country as wealthy as Australia. The recession and the related labour market implications will further impact housing affordability across Western Sydney. The lack of a coordinated, and at-scale, stimulus response to support social housing is worse than a missed opportunity, it risks exacerbating already profound housing challenges experienced throughout the region.
Place and Connectedness
As a markedly dispersed and dynamic metropolitan area, Western Sydney relies on connectivity - via transport links, digital and related infrastructure - to realise the full range of regional priorities the Centre for Western Sydney promotes; i.e. learning, health and wellbeing, home, society and culture and economy. The Greater Sydney Commission’s reorientation of planning across a ‘three cities’ framework and at the district level supports the principle of a ’30-minute city’. This approach, if supported by targeted infrastructure investment and evidence-based policy development, is a viable structure against which to pursue rapid, multimodal and sustainable transport options. Prioritising connections to, and significantly increasing, jobs-dense concentrations will be pivotal. To date, that aspiration has not been pursued with sufficient urgency. Concurrently, planning for transport and digital connectivity must respond to changing work patterns instilled throughout the pandemic. Measures to ensure digital connectivity for socioeconomically disadvantaged members of the community will be critical, as will steps to support digital literacy.
Society and Culture
As an expression of community diversity and dynamism, culture is the characteristic that kinetically defines, reshapes and challenges Western Sydney’s identity. At a structural level, investment in arts infrastructure and programs for Western Sydney still significantly lags Inner Sydney and comparable populations. The Powerhouse relocation to Parramatta brings scale, but the implications of the subsequent retention of the museum’s Ultimo site, and questions over political will need to be addressed. Resourcing and support for greater cultural expression among the region’s widespread migrant, refugee and ethnically diverse communities is needed.
Sustainability and Economy
While relative income, employment and economic participation levels have increased in recent decades, Western Sydney is characterised by distinct differences in prosperity. Several subregions of the West had youth unemployment levels in excess of 20 per cent, pre-pandemic. Those challenges have undoubtedly intensified as a result of the recession and associated labour market dislocation. Persistent disparities also exist in structural barriers to economic participation among large segments of the region. For many women, poor access to child-care and the lack of related policy and economic stimulus measures have compounded constraints on their capacity to engage in work. Despite numerous government strategies to address job-creation and job-density shortfalls across Western Sydney, the region still profoundly lags Inner Sydney and comparable areas on both counts. An expanded and accelerated policy response is required, and the urgency has intensified with the onset of the recession.