The Draft Newcastle Urban Renewal Strategy presents what appears to be some highly desirable upgrades for our city’s public spaces and buildings. Artists’ impressions paint an inviting picture. Who wouldn’t want what’s on offer: vistas of newly refurbished squares and parks such as Wheeler Place and Birdwood Park; a restored Victoria Theatre and sympathetically redesigned Stegga’s Emporium; cafes, boutique bars, shops and lively small businesses; attractive new housing developments catering for the full range of residents from urban professionals to students and those on low incomes?
We are also told that the strategy is based on low car use, the provision of frequent and reliable public transport as well as generous provision for cyclists and pedestrians.
The success of the draft strategy relies on the coming together of “stakeholder” groups, including State government, local government, the private sector and the community. Newcastle residents will be watching closely to see whether we really can have a Hunter St that is vibrant and welcoming with activity nodes along its length, well-planned cycleways, affordable housing and environmentally sustainable developments. They will also be keen to be involved and to have their contributions really heard and acted upon.
Yet this document will become a legislative framework that will, in practice, remove most of the elected council’s powers to plan for the city centre once it is finalised. Despite pre-election promises, the O’Farrell government is actually accelerating the removal of local council and community power to engage in planning negotiations once planning instruments are adopted by them. This draft strategy is a first step in that process. Once the current consultation period is over, Newcastle residents will get no further input.
Apart from objecting to the state government robbing us of our planning rights, one of the first questions we need to ask is “How will we pay for all this anyway?”
The strategy estimates the cost of the public domain upgrades to parks, plazas and public buildings to be around $58 million. Newcastle City Council’s current financial status does not allow such large outlays, so we will have to raise it from developer contributions (known as Section 94A contributions). Those contributions won’t flow in time to make those upgrades feasible, especially given that the draft strategy also recommends that Council delays collecting that money from developers. Indeed, the draft strategy is heavily reliant on hypothetical developments, which may or may not eventuate.
On the other hand, the State Government’s Hunter Investment and Infrastructure Fund will provide $60 million towards closing the current safe and reliable rail transport into the city centre. That money would be just enough to cover most of the public upgrades recommended by the draft strategy, but will provide less than 20% of funds required to adequately close the rail. The only thorough-going analysis so far of the feasibility and cost estimates of closing the rail line at Wickham has been provided by a studycommissioned by the previous state government. The AECOM study estimated that the cost of safely removing the railway to be somewhere between $374.5million and $504.5 million (Investigation into the feasibility and cost estimates of terminating the Newcastle Line at Wickham, Executive summary pii AECOM Australia 2010).
The draft strategy also insists that public transport is key to successful revitalisation. Indeed mixed-use developments in the East End of the city are slated to have lower requirements for car-parking spaces because of the anticipated resurgence of demand for public transport.
So the second question we have to ask is “What public transport?” especially given the decision to close the rail line at Wickham and replace it with bus services?
Closure of the Rail line at Wickham will not only cost taxpayers dearly and cause major problems for thousands of public transport users, it will also mean some significant disruptions to parts of the city away from the centre. The most feasible method of cutting the rail line at Wickham, according to the AECOM study, would require the closure of both the Beaumont St and Railway St level crossings at Hamilton and Wickham respectively. A closed level crossing at Beaumont St will have serious deleterious effects on Hamilton businesses, to say nothing of inconvenience to nearby residents. The alternative would be to stop all trains from Sydney at Broadmeadow, completely disrupting smooth connection between the Maitland line and the Newcastle Sydney line. Neither option is public transport friendly.
The strategy document mentions no plans to increase the number of available buses necessary to create the public transport implied in the proposed measures. There will just be more buses moved to the city centre to provide the frequent services promised.
This state government has clearly not thought through the economic and infrastructure implications of this strategy, particularly its decision to close the rail line.
The Newcastle community needs significantly more time to consider and respond to the full detail and implications of the draft strategy. They also deserve to be heard with considerably more respect than has been so far accorded them in consultation meetings that have been held so far.
Greens Councillor Ward 2 Newcastle City Council