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Ellenbrook was a master-planned suburb, but 26 years later residents feel forgotten

ABC NEWS logo ABC NEWS 21/10/2020 By Emma Wynne
a group of people in a park: The entire suburb was built from scratch 25 years ago. (ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne) © Provided by ABC NEWS The entire suburb was built from scratch 25 years ago. (ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)

The picture-perfect suburb of Ellenbrook was announced in 1994 as a new greenfield development just beyond Perth's urban fringe.

Named after a tributary of the Swan River honouring Lady Ellen Stirling, the wife of Perth's colonial founder, it was billed as an ideal master-planned community far removed from the problems of inner-city life.

Each stage of the development was designated a village, complete with storybook English names like Woodlake, Charlotte's Vineyard, Morgan Fields and Malvern Springs.

But less-flattering references like "Ellenbronx" and "Felonbrook" sprung up in recent times as the area gained a reputation for isolation and social disadvantage.

Many residents say they only see reports of their suburb in the media when there is an upcoming election, a tragedy or a crime — the community was rocked in 2018 by the deaths of a mother and two children allegedly at the hands of the woman's teenage son.

Ellenbrook and the adjoining suburb of Aveley, founded in 2006, have grown to house more than 50,000 people, with development planned that will bring another 20,000 into the area in the next few years.

A train line providing a fast link to the city, first promised in 2008, is still in the construction stage and residents face long commutes.

The first cottage site in Ellenbrook

For retiree John Edgecombe, life in Woodlake, the first village in the development, has been everything he hoped it would be.

Twenty-six years ago he arrived at the former sand quarry at 6:30am to secure one of the first cottage sites; now, he lives in a house surrounded by a thriving garden and opposite a perfectly manicured park and lake.

Mr Edgecombe has deep roots in the Swan Valley and is able to help at the family vineyard five minutes' drive away.

"The original planning was very good, it's multicultural, and the train will be a big benefit.

"I meet at Woodlake shops at 8:00 every morning with two or three of my friends, we discuss politics and everything else.

"I'm a life member of the gardening club. We just join in whenever we can."

His one grievance is that Ellenbrook boys have to play for East Perth in the WA Football League rather than the geographically closer (and his beloved) Swan Districts.

'We feel neglected'

Robyn Pickrell also loves the area and the community. She calls her acre at the nearby Vines estate a "patch of paradise".

She is deeply concerned, however, at what she says is a lack of investment in social support.

"There is just not the infrastructure that we really need out here," Ms Pickrell said.

"We don't have a swimming pool. We have a youth centre that is nowhere near big enough for the population we have got. We don't have the space to run the seniors programs that we need.

"We all thought the cinema would come with the latest development, but for some reason they seem to think the population isn't big enough for a cinema."

In the wake of the family triple tragedy two years ago, Ms Pickrell decided to help bring the community together by founding the Ellenbrook Mile, a walking group that takes to the streets and encourages people to meet and talk.

"Ellenbrook Mile evolved because we just got so much bad press," she said.

"There was constantly some other drama or some horrible thing that seemed to make the news out here, which really affects the mental health of the community.

"When people keep hearing people talking about you in a negative way, everybody starts getting affected.

"We are using this opportunity of starting some groups to support the marginalised groups such as seniors, women and CALD [culturally and linguistically diverse] communities."

Lots of houses but community space lacking

While Ellenbrook has a library and the long-promised swimming pool and youth centre planned for the next few years, it has no community or seniors centres.

Ms Pickrell and other community groups currently work out of a temporary space, dubbed the Workshop, donated by the owners of the central shopping mall.

They are hoping the use of the shopping centre space will demonstrate the need for a dedicated facility.

"There is a really strong desire to build community here," she said.

"But the problem is we can't seem to get the local government and the State Government and the Federal Government to see, 'OK, this is what we need'.

"Everything has been promised and it never quite arrives.

"People keep saying the infrastructure comes when the population comes, but is that true?"

'I find Ellenbrook so isolating'

Pat Gaines is a pensioner living alone in public housing in Ellenbrook. She volunteers at the Workshop twice a week but longs for a proper seniors centre offering activities like bingo, dancing and craft.

"I come to the shops every morning — my neighbours laugh at me because it's my routine just to walk around and around for exercise," Ms Gaines said.

"I go home about 11.30am and I feel like I've done something. But that's not my wish, it's not what I want to do.

"I'm always thinking: Where can I go? Is there anything else I can do in this area without having to jump into my car and drive in the city?"

Ms Gaines loves the community — citing the 250 people who sent her offers of help on Facebook after the sudden death of her son on a remote mine site recently — but she regrets the isolation.

"None of my family comes out here to visit. I've been here 13 years and I've had 10 visits."

A leapfrog beyond the fringe

Ellenbrook is not as far away as it is generally perceived by people in Perth.

The town centre is a 30-minute drive from the CBD but is separated from the north-west urban border by the large bushland area of Whiteman Park and has historically had poor public transport links to the city.

The long-promised rail line is set for completion in 2023 and should finally provide a faster link to jobs and services in the city.

Courtney Babb, a senior lecturer in urban and regional planning at Curtin University, said Ellenbrook, in many ways, had been an innovative development.

"At the time it was designed it was really one of the first big master-planned new urbanist greenfield developments, and there is a very well-designed element to it," Dr Babb said.

"One of the early projects was schools in houses, which was basically using residential houses as a temporary school until they could get the population there to build up and justify a bricks-and-mortar school.

"There is also the micro-lot housing; that was one of the first places in Perth to have housing on less than 100-square-metre lots.

"The key thing about Ellenbrook that has defined its history is the fact that it was built as this leapfrog development outside the urban fringe."

Services haven't kept up

While the state has made money from the sale of land, the town has proved expensive to service, especially with the rapid growth in population.

"[It was intended as] a self-contained place that would have everything — seven villages and a town centre, a new town development that would have everything there designed really well," Dr Babb said.

"The issue over time is the lack of services and lack of community infrastructure."

Two things in Ellenbrook's favour are its beautiful natural environment with well-planned outdoor spaces and park, and it is affordable — the median house price is around $350,000, well below Perth's average of $475,000.

"The transport thing is really key. The younger people and older people who may not have access to a car, I think they've been poorly served," Dr Babb added.

'I wouldn't live anywhere else'

Labor MLA Jessica Shaw, who was elected to the state seat of Swan Hills in 2017, believes Ellenbrook has been neglected by successive governments.

"The difficulties that we face come from a history of Ellenbrook being a forgotten suburb," she said.

"I've lived in the electorate for 14 years. Ellenbrook was developed and loads of people were put out here and the services and facilities that we need and deserve just didn't follow that population growth."

Ms Shaw said she wanted to increase services for young people, including delivering on a project to build a youth centre, however that effort had hit a financial roadblock.

After viewing an existing suburban youth centre built for $1.5 million, she secured a funding commitment of $1.86 million from the State Government.

The local council, however, has designed a building that would cost $5 million to build; it will contribute $2 million but the remaining amount is still to be found.

"There are challenges out here with young people and them not having enough to do. That is front of mind with me always," Ms Shaw said.

"My focus is on getting the youth centre sorted out. It will be a great facility if we can get it over the line."

She said she was both exasperated at Ellenbrook's image but optimistic that with the development of the train line, opportunities were on the way.

"I get very frustrated when people talk this place down. Crime in Ellenbrook is significantly lower than a heap of other like-for-like suburbs in the outer metropolitan area.

"But that kind of isolation that we've had knits us together — people know one another out here, it's very neighbourly. We stick together out here."

Building a model community from scratch?

Ellenbrook is studied as part of town planning courses in WA and "does have a lot of interesting elements about it", Dr Babb said.

"The main issue is that it happened outside the urban fringe. If it were closer, I think it would be seen as much more of a success," he said.

"It's got some very good elements in terms of the physical design, the layout and diversity of housing lots."

Twenty-six years since its creation, with residents still waiting for community infrastructure, can greenfield developments like Ellenbrook be seen as a good idea and will they be done again?

Dr Babb is unequivocal.

"Well, we are still planning a lot of greenfield developments on the fringes, so that is still happening anyway."

It remains to be seen whether the lessons of Ellenbrook will be learned.

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