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When John Gibbons arrived 20 years ago as a councillor at the old Shire of Werribee – population 35,000 – it was growing, but not particularly quickly.
"Growth just wasn't an issue," says the councillor, who holds the housing portfolio for Wyndham Council, population 210,000.
Today, the growth is swamping the area, as thousands of new housing lots come onto the market and demand for community services from new residents rockets – but without a corresponding increase in state or federal government funding, says Cr Gibbons.
Figures for Wyndham Council show the past financial year had the largest growth ever recorded for the outer west. More than 6500 housing lots were approved in Wyndham's areas in the year to July. There were almost 9000 applications for subdivisions in the area. Birth notices show more than 80 births a week are appearing for suburbs within Wyndham's catchment.
Low housing costs are the primary driver for the massive push to the west. The median price for a three-bedroom house in Tarneit, 30 kilometres to the west of Melbourne's GPO, is $385,000. In Ringwood East, 30 kilometres to the east, it's $756,000.
Cr Gibbons says he has no problem with growth. "Sprawl is [only] a problem if there are no community facilities to support the growth," he says. But he says there is an increasing sense that not nearly enough is being done to recognise the urgent need for better infrastructure.
"We need community centres, we need libraries, we need kindergartens," he says.
The council's figures show it will need a primary school each year for 30 years based on current growth. And it has 21 arterial roads that are at capacity during peak times. "Seventeen of them are VicRoads' responsibility," says Cr Gibbons.
Craig Rowley is chief executive of LeadWest, an advocacy group for Melbourne's western suburbs. He says the city's strongest growth is in corridors such as Wyndham and Melton.
He argues better transport infrastructure should connect western suburb residents to jobs, education and services. Additional stations planned along the route of the Regional Rail Link project need to come into service more rapidly than planned, says Mr Rowley, and bus services need more funding.
But ultimately, he says, it is important that Melbourne's central city is not the only place to get a decent job. "Jobs need to be closer to where people live," he says.
Mr Rowley also believes the huge increase in housing numbers in the west is being driven by the property market, with such suburbs as Sunshine now becoming increasingly out of reach for many. "People are chasing housing affordability, meaning people are pushing out into housing on the fringe," he says.
Cr Gibbons says that, for now, the hectic rate of growth in the west represents a massive headache. But, if enough is done to bring new services, the growth will be a boon.
"Eventually it will be an upside but [now] it's a big problem," he says.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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