As a region, NSW packs a punch. We number almost a third of the entire Australian population and create a third of the country’s GDP. However, not everyone in our state feels the benefit. That’s why yesterday’s announcement from the Premier is to be commended – promoting regional development through faster train links is exciting electoral politics, but it also happens to be great economic policy.
It’s a policy that works for the city and the state alike. To people in Sydney who feel like the rate of growth is too fast and the pressure too great, sharing the load with regional centres is manna from heaven. To people in the regions who feel like Sydney gets too much of the good stuff, sharing the benefits through a network of regional centres is exciting.
Declaring this announcement to be good policy might make sense from a regional advocate, but as an advocate for Greater Sydney, some explanation on why I’m excited is needed.
This year, the Committee for Sydney undertook research to understand how Sydney interacts with regional cities like Newcastle, Gosford and Wollongong, and the results aren’t pretty for the regions.
Sydney, especially eastern Sydney around the CBD, has an incredible gravitational pull, taking in workers from across the region, giving little in return. Around 14 per cent of workers in Wollongong and 15 per cent of those on the Central Coast commute to the Sydney CBD. Meanwhile less than 1 per cent of eastern Sydney’s workers head north or south.
This monocentric model may be good for the CBD, but it’s deeply inequitable, driving people who can’t afford to live close to work further away, condemning them to long commutes. It also makes providing efficient transport services to our community harder – consider the packed trains heading into the city each morning, which are near empty heading the other way.
NSW has already started on the path of polycentric economic development. The Greater Sydney Commission’s model of three cities reflects a vision where people can live within 30 minutes of jobs, amenities and services across the Sydney basin. We also mapped how far you can get in 30 minutes from regional centres – and the answer is not very far. Certainly not to jobs-rich Sydney.
Using faster rail connections to grow the economies of these centres is smart – it brings existing jobs in Sydney closer, providing more options for better paid jobs for locals. At the same time, it makes opening a business or moving your company to the regional centre a more attractive option. The allure of beach or bush living while being within an hour of potential clients is a winning combination for attracting talented people to join your company.
But rail alone won’t make these regional centres grow. We will need a coherent economic strategy that identifies the complementary advantages each location has – and how these centres will work together, rather than compete. Reassuringly, economic strategy is at the heart of this announcement.
So – yes, I work at the Committee for Sydney, and yes, much of the benefit of this will flow to the regions. But Sydney cannot compete on the world stage without building a bigger network of people, firms and ideas, so this is a necessary step.
It’s also not particularly new on a global scale. Many other global cities are growing regional connections through faster rail to compete. The “Randstad” mega-region is crisscrossed by fast rail, allowing people to live in the Hague, Rotterdam or Utrecht while still working in Amsterdam.
Meanwhile, California is connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles by high-speed rail – recognising the benefits will mostly be felt by regional communities within an hour of each city. Professor Andrew McNaughton, announced as leading the NSW government’s investigation on this topic, has led the HS2 project to connect London to 10 out the 12 major cities in the UK by fast rail, creating a network of connected centres.
Of course, announcements are easy. Delivery is, especially for fast rail, too often a mirage never to be reached. People are unsurprisingly cynical about this. But I’m confident we can get past the talking and move to delivery with two steps: keeping the focus on regional economic growth – not getting distracted by the latest piece of technological kit or fixated on speeds; and taking a staged approach – picking small, easy upgrades one by one, rather than trying to solve the region’s transport woes in one go.
Simply put, the time for getting serious about connecting our region to our city better has come. A commitment to fast rail connections across regional NSW should be commended – even if it means sharing the strengths of Sydney with the communities around us.
Eamon Waterford is Director of Policy for The Committee for Sydney.