LAST time the NSW government tried to create a broad development strategy for the Hunter Region the result was a mess.
That was in the days of the long-lived Labor administration, and the sense of sleaze that surrounded the declining years of the ALP’s tenure was blamed for discrediting the plan. Allegations that some well-connected developers had their pet rezoning proposals boosted – against the advice of senior planning bureaucrats – tainted the whole regional strategy in the minds of many.
And for all the government’s talk of wanting to help develop the Hunter, its actions seemed to fall short. The Hunter Expressway – the biggest single project in the region for years – was chiefly funded by the Rudd federal government as part of a nationwide bid to stimulate the economy with infrastructure work. For its part, the state government tried to divert the money to Sydney instead, only failing because the Hunter Expressway plans were much further advanced than any of the capital city alternatives.
Both Labor and Coalition politicians have stood accused of actively harming the Hunter’s economic interests by undermining efforts to build a container terminal in Newcastle. That treachery was seen by many as a re-run of earlier political skulduggery that diverted a car import terminal from the city.
Now that the government has wheeled out another regional plan – including the concept of a ‘‘Hunter City’’ based around Newcastle, Lake Macquarie and Maitland – many people will be hoping for positive contributions from the state.
Planning Minister Rob Stokes has noted the potential advantages of coordination between local government areas. He might well extend that thinking to state departments.
Consider, for example, the massive benefits that could accrue to the Hunter and NSW from delivering the longpromised very fast rail link between Sydney and Newcastle. A worldstandard high-speed rail service could put the Hunter and Sydney within viable commuting range, generating immense development opportunities.
The minister has also referred to the issue of managing land-use conflicts. This Coalition government came to power partly on a promise to repair the broken mechanisms that attempt to mediate between mining and other land uses. It has failed to honour this promise, but it is still not too late to try again.
Mr Stokes has already made a strong start to rebuilding the government’s planning credibility in the Hunter, forcing a re-think of UrbanGrowth’s Newcastle tower plans and approving the purchase of the Store building in Newcastle, potentially enabling a redesign of the proposed new Wickham rail terminus.
Drafting a regional planning strategy that delivers practical results instead of parroting recycled rhetoric would be a marvellous next step.