Sydney’s infrastructure lag:
what can planning do about it?


It seems that every day there is a news story about Sydney’s clogged infrastructure—whether it’s roads, public transport, hospitals, or schools. Yet the congestion we are currently experiencing was predictable.

Notwithstanding the good intentions of our strategic plans, the people of Sydney are suffering the cumulative effects of many short-term decisions. Instead of keeping education land, we sold it. Instead of preserving road corridors and acquiring land years ago when it was much cheaper, we abandoned them. We were smug for many years after the last tram ran down our streets because it freed up traffic for a while. Now, we’re reinstating light rail at great expense and disruption.

As a result, we are planning and paying for expensive retro-fitting of the infrastructure networks. The new tunnels, vertical schools and other infrastructure also take years to plan, design, fund and construct.

The community are impatient and are demanding that, while this catch-up goes on, development and growth is checked. Existing communities will not accept significant and rapid urban intensification without government commitments to deliver the necessary supporting infrastructure. The deferral of otherwise-sensible and overdue housing policies such as the ‘missing middle’ reforms exemplify this grass-roots reaction.

Yet Sydney is expected to add 1.74 million people, 817,000 more jobs and around 725,000 new dwellings by 2036. Shifts in infrastructure demand will arise from an aging population and the desire for a better networked knowledge economy. A new city structure with stronger growth focused around Sydney’s Central and Western Cities will also reorient infrastructure needs.

In greenfield areas, development cannot commence at all unless key trunk infrastructure is in place. Government has a pivotal role because much of the trunk infrastructure (particularly water, sewerage, electricity and roads) is shared between development areas and is the responsibility of various government agencies. A commitment to invest in the infrastructure is often required to signal that land subdivision and development can proceed.

Renewal areas require a more complex analysis of existing and future residents’ needs, the capacity of existing networks and the fair and appropriate allocation of costs among users and property beneficiaries and the wider public. Affordable housing, efficient transport links, recreation opportunities and health and education are the infrastructure priorities for urban renewal areas. This should also extend to ‘green infrastructure’, including functioning waterways and open spaces.

Infrastructure planning and delivery—though it is time consuming and expensive—is fundamental to a functioning modern city. There is no room for the old silo culture. The community now expects coordination and certainty. Approaches towards integrated planning and funding agreements like the City Deals and Growth Infrastructure Compacts demonstrate a way forward.

The Planning Institute of Australia promotes an infrastructure funding and delivery system based on the principles of strategic planning, efficient costs, nexus and the fair sharing or apportionment of cost between users.

The creation of a single comprehensive district or precinct infrastructure plan setting out what infrastructure is needed to sustain growth is a key step. This enables consideration of what infrastructure is a priority and why and who should pay.

The plan should be underpinned by a funding mix that clearly sets out the respective roles and shares to be provided by State and local development contributions, value sharing and betterment, special rates, grants, other taxes and charges. Having an intergenerational funding mix would address the current problem of over-reliance on up-front developer contributions for infrastructure that benefit populations 30 or more years into the future.

PIA supports an integrated process for growth infrastructure planning: a single basis for the prioritisation and sequencing of growth infrastructure that binds separate agencies. Placing the Greater Sydney Commission (GSC) under the Premier’s portfolio is an important development which, it is hoped, will lead tothe effective coordination of agencies and the streamlining of infrastructure roll-out.

Immediate attention should be directed to:

  • Supporting precinct growth plans with comprehensive infrastructure plans linked to comprehensive funding and delivery plans. This should be in the Greater Sydney Commission’s first Growth Infrastructure Compact that is anticipated during 2018/19 (for Greater Parramatta Olympic Peninsula).
  • Publicly exhibiting DPE’s proposed Special Infrastructure Contributions plans for the nominated growth areas. The program is well behind schedule.
  • Clarifying exactly where and how the GSC’s 5-10% affordable housing target will apply.
  • Ensuring all local, state and affordable housing contributions and obligations are in place before land is rezoned.

People rightly perceive that development has raced ahead of the infrastructure that is needed to support it. We have to catch up so that Sydney doesn’t stagnate and grows sustainably. To do this we have to clarify and streamline the infrastructure funding and delivery system so that infrastructure is delivered when and where it is needed.

People expect a ‘liveability’ dividend alongside growth—and our infrastructure planning and funding systems should deliver it.

This article originally appeared in New Planner – the journal of the New South Wales planning profession – published by the Planning Institute of Australia. For more information, click here.