Big guns dominate draft urban planning changes

Tim Owen has announced that he will not recontest the seat of Newcastle because  it is likely that prohibited donors “contributed in some way” to his election campaign. This decision is the proper one.

But in the wake of the ICAC hearings, a significant question needs to be asked: whose interests was he elected to serve?

Mr Owen has said he leaves the city a “wonderful legacy”, a revitalisation that will benefit Newcastle ‘‘far beyond our lifetimes’’.

But what is that legacy? We now know that Newcastle is a rich prize for developers. It is worth recalling that GPT, which stands to gain from the recent draft changes to relax planning restrictions, donated $11,000 to the Liberal Party in the lead-up to the 2011 state election. That donation was later withdrawn.

Newcastle has a superb port that has been leased – in other words privatised –  for a very good price. But we have scant information about the deal. It seems like a windfall, but we don’t know what the sweeteners are.

We do know that the state government will lose a lucrative income stream from the port, and that some of the money will be spent on new train carriages, although these are unlikely to be manufactured in Newcastle, despite our capacity and expertise.

We have a promise that our rail line will be cut at Wickham but no guarantees for improved bus services from the new terminus, or a viable light rail service that goes beyond three or four stops. What’s more, much of Newcastle’s share of the port lease proceeds will be spent on cutting the rail line and installing the short tram track.

Mr Owen’s promised city “revitalisation” is perhaps the cruellest twist of all because its latest version scuttles planning safeguards that protect the unique built character of Newcastle.

A major electoral promise of the Liberal government Mr Owen represents was to clean up planning in this state. Specifically, Mr Owen’s team committed itself to extensive community consultation at the “strategic planning stage” of proposed development rule changes. That should have meant a systematic approach to listening to, recording and evaluating community concerns about any new planning proposals. Surely we could have expected some semblance of consideration for residents’ concerns?

Those of us who have engaged in good faith with the revitalisation of Newcastle have received very short shrift for our efforts. Hundreds of residents have made submissions individually and in groups to the draft Newcastle Urban Renewal Strategy. Whatever became of all those submissions and contributions we made in ex-planning minister Brad Hazzard’s bright new world of community consultation at the strategic planning phase? Very little, you’d have to say.

Nonetheless, some submissions were taken very seriously indeed.

While the punters were sweating over their submissions, the big guns – GPT with their state government partners UrbanGrowth, and the University of Newcastle – put out sophisticated objections to the plan. For these players the strategy didn’t go far enough. GPT/UrbanGrowth wanted major changes to the building height and density provisions. Likewise, the university wanted significant changes to the allowable densities and heights on its city site.

So who was listened to? Very shortly after the close of submissions, Planning and Infrastructure NSW published a new draft State Environment Planning Policy (SEPP) to enact the Urban Strategy in the Newcastle inner city area. Guess what? Those suggestions, many made about the importance of accessible and seamless public transport into the city centre, were ignored. So were the pleas that the heritage and built character of Newcastle be respected.

What we have now in the draft SEPP is a planning instrument the sole function of which is to dramatically change Newcastle City Council’s own legally enforceable land-use code, the Local Environment Plan (LEP). The draft SEPP removes that section of the current LEP that protects the beautiful and well-recognised vista to and from Christ Church Cathedral and the ridge on which it stands. If the provisions of the new LEP are implemented, residential towers as high as 20 storeys will dominate that part of the cityscape.

Tim Owen didn’t respond to my concerns or the concerns of many Novocastrians who made submissions. He told us “for the greater good of all, some are going to have to put up with a loss of view and that’s the way it’s going to be”. Only certain submissions get a hearing “for the greater good”.

The current alarming ICAC revelations about developer donations have brought into sharp relief the privileging of developer interests by state Liberal-National and Labor governments over the interests of the citizens who elected them.

Therese Doyle

Greens Newcastle City Councillor

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