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Transforming Western Sydney, is the new airport the big changemaker?

Interview with Dr. Awais Piracha, Associate Professor in Geography, Tourism and Urban Planning.


Planning expert Dr. Awais Piracha says the Western Sydney airport is one of the most important new infrastructures in Western Sydney.  Despite its significance, Dr. Piracha

emphasises that the airport may not deliver all the promised benefits to the region. He notes that: “As an endpoint rather than a transit airport, its capacity to generate jobs and economic benefits may be limited compared to initial projections”.


Dr. Piracha, an Associate Professor at Western Sydney University, brings significant expertise to his assessment. He was appointed as a member of the Western Sydney Transport Infrastructure Panel by the Minister of Infrastructure in 2022, underscoring his deep understanding of the region's needs. In May 2023, Dr. Piracha and the panel presented a report to the Australian Government, outlining key recommendations for infrastructure development. This report catalysed a significant government commitment of $1.5 billion towards essential infrastructure projects in Western Sydney. 


In our discussion, Dr. Piracha clarified why the Western Sydney Airport is so important for Sydney's infrastructure. He pointed out how it helps ease congestion and the shortage of flight slots at Sydney's main airport, especially with curfews and limited space. The government’s strategic move to secure land for the airport back in the 1970s, has now become vital for the region’s growth. The development of the new airport generates a multitude of related projects, particularly the build of the new city of Bradfield, and infrastructure upgrades such as new metro lines and better roads, making it easier for everyone to get around. 


Despite the general excitement about the airport's potential to boost the local economy, Dr. Piracha reiterates that it is important to keep expectations realistic. He explained that unlike global transit airports where passengers frequently transfer to other destinations, the nature of the Western Sydney Airport makes it less appealing for businesses. He states: “The airport is great for travellers, but it's not going to become a major hub like some people hoped, because it's a terminus. People won't transfer at this airport to other destinations, and it is therefore not as attractive for businesses compared to global transit airports. Simply having an airport isn't enough to attract businesses”. 


The interview highlights several other challenges surrounding the Western Sydney Airport's development. When it comes to the big promises of hundreds of thousands of new jobs, the reality unfortunately falls short, with an actual figure that is likely to be in tens of thousands.  And with residential growth outpacing the growth of employment opportunities, the feasibility of planned urban areas like Bradfield City is vitaly impacted. The airport development has driven up property prices dramatically, making it difficult for many people to afford homes in the area. 


When discussing how roads and public transport connect with the Western Sydney Airport project, Dr. Piracha shared some key points. He mentioned progress with the metro line, partly funded by the Commonwealth's City Deal program, but also pointed to the missed opportunity of not extending the metro line to connect with another important line, which could have made travel across the city and suburbs easier. Another challenge is fitting in more infrastructure among all the new housing in the area, with concerns about how well existing roads can handle all the extra traffic. The transportation issues have had much attention recently, but Dr. Piracha cautions not to exaggerate the negatives. Despite falling short of expectations, Dr. Piracha believes the airport still serves a valuable purpose, though he advocates for realistic expectations and improvements in addressing these challenges.


Dr. Piracha continued by discussing the diverse stakeholders involved in the Western Sydney Airport project and their varying perspectives. He identified several groups, including the local community, councils, business organisations, environmental groups, and the Commonwealth government itself. While the airport construction generates jobs, there were concerns from environmental groups about its impact. However, he highlighted that compared to privately-owned projects, community engagement was more robust in this case due to government involvement. Despite some concerns, Dr. Piracha indicated that major issues had not arisen, except for disputes over flight paths, particularly from residents in the Blue Mountains region. He acknowledged the broader concerns about noise, environmental impact, and aircraft fuel disposal, but suggested that careful planning had mitigated these issues to some extent. 


Looking ahead, Dr. Piracha stressed the need for stakeholders, including the community and business groups, to reassess the airport's role in Greater Sydney and collaborate to ensure its success. This recalibration process, he noted, would require ongoing engagement and dialogue to address evolving needs and challenges.


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