OPINION: The sleeper issue in the outer suburbs

OPINION: The outer suburbs have finally been heard.

While national issues undoubtedly contributed to the election outcome, concerns closer to home had particular resonance: cost of living and crippling commutes.

In seats like Macarthur and Lindsay in Western Sydney and Cowan and Burt in Perth's outer suburbs, voters were angry because the issues that mattered to them did not get enough attention.

Tradies, office workers and others spend hours in the car each day just to get to and from work and other basic services like health. That’s due in large part because there are poor roads and public transport and insufficient local jobs.

Needless to say, there’s a personal and economic cost: cost of living and stress on families and lost productivity for the community at large.

While there were commitments to infrastructure projects in the Federal election campaign, it did not rate the level of discussion that it deserved. It was not talked about holistically, but it affects people’s daily lives and businesses. What we know from our research is that voters in these areas are sick of election-cycle based, one-off announcements and want a long-term, strategic approach to these areas.

Now is the time for the Government to not only listen, but do something about it.

We know what the problems are: the roads and public transport aren’t coping with the population growth in outer suburbs now – and that’s without taking into account the extra 2.5 million people who will call these areas home in the next 15 years.

And here’s the solution: provide a serious, long-term approach to address the $50 billion infrastructure backlog in outer suburbs nationally and plan for the growth.

In the same way that rural and regional areas have been recognised as having unique challenges and opportunities, it is time to see the outer suburbs in the same way. If we can see that Tamworth and Mildura have similar concerns, why can’t we see the same of Penrith in Sydney’s West and Wanneroo in Perth’s north?

At the moment, the outer suburbs are still too much of an afterthought. They are like the forgotten middle child, sandwiched between the inner city and regional areas and not attracting their own, much-deserved attention.

Outer suburbs are distinct areas which have already quickly grown to accommodate five million people, but it won’t stop there. They are growing faster than anywhere else and in just 15 years, they will be home to 7.5 million people. So there are particular needs for these communities, but given the right sort of attention, they will flourish.

Research carried out by PwC shows that with adequate investment, these areas could be competitive not only nationally, but globally.

The Coalition’s promise of a City Deal for Western Sydney, centred around what will be the new airport, is a step in the right direction – but we need a similar focus on other outer suburbs around the country, plus long-term funding.

Investment is often focussed on our thriving CBDs. Rural and regional areas have received their own political attention and co-ordination and have benefited through the National Stronger Regions Fund (NSRF), which still has around half a billion dollars in the kitty.

But the Coalition has recently announced the fund will be renamed and will exclude all metropolitan areas, including outer suburbs, which previously had access to it.

While the bush deserves attention, what is often not recognised is that outer suburbs contain significant rural land holdings and they also often serve rural and regional communities beyond their boundaries.

This proposed change, which deserves further discussion, is all the more reason that outer suburbs should be seen as distinct areas, needing a national approach and funding mechanism to match.

Giving residents and businesses in the growing outer suburbs the same opportunities and access to infrastructure as other Australians is not only a matter of fairness, it is also a matter of common sense.

Other research carried out for the National Growth Areas Alliance tells us that investment would create jobs, provide greater tax revenues and permanently boost national GDP by billions of dollars annually.

In addition to strong economic arguments, a serious investment in these areas will provide much needed social cohesion. Otherwise we run the risk of encountering divided cities – the haves in the inner city and have nots in the outer suburbs.

It is up to the Prime Minister to prove that there’s never a better time to be an Australian – no matter where you live.

This opinion piece was written by Ruth Spielman, the Executive Officer of the National Growth Areas Alliance. It was published here in the Sydney Morning Herald