New 'business as usual' includes truncated railway

From the early eighties through to the end of the noughties, Business as Usual in Newcastle’s City Centre meant another shop closing, a new absent landlord and more urban decay.

There were pockets of resistance, but the CBD’s only real success story during that period was Renew Newcastle.

Somewhat perversely, its business model relied on a healthy supply of commercially unviable buildings and dormant sites awaiting redevelopment.

And by its very existence, Renew Newcastle was proof of massive market failure in Australia’s oldest and largest regional city. It took the current NSW government to recognise a practical solution was essential for the economic prosperity of the Hunter, NSW and the nation.

The historic difference with the 2012 Newcastle Urban Renewal Strategy (NURS) was the enabling planning frameworks and $460 million accompanying the strategy.

Overnight, business confidence began to rise and the appetite for development began to grow as the biggest risks had been eliminated.

And a new Business as Usual in the Newcastle City Centre was born – one defined by smart growth, change and innovation.

In combination, they have unleashed a new wave of investment in the city. Urban renewal projects worth $1.049 billion have since commenced or received approval – projects which will provide the housing and workplaces for the next generation of Novocastrians.

Ultimately, over $2.5 billion worth of economic activity and thousands of jobs will be created as the city centre prepares to accommodate 6000 new dwellings and 10,000 new workers.

This is not coincidence. This is cause and effect.

Even so, there are those in our community who prefer conspiracy theories over facts and nostalgia over progress.

Their latest stage was at the “Nile Inquiry”, a select committee of the NSW upper house investigating aspects of planning in Newcastle and the broader region.

While the final terms of reference for the inquiry were very broad, the questions asked during the hearings were very narrow.

The Greens and Labor MLC’s on the committee have assumed the NURS was developed to exclusively benefit the property industry.

They contend these insiders are now “eyeing off” the heavy rail corridor as a prime development site.

During the Property Council’s evidence, members were told the industry position on future use of the rail corridor had been unequivocal for nearly 10 years – that it must be transformed into public domain and green space for pedestrians, cyclists and other active uses.

The Property Council also debunked the myth that Novocastrians had not been consulted. Ten separate reports since 2003 recommending truncation had been publicly exhibited.

Unprecedented community consultation had taken place over the past 18 months – 686 submissions was evidence of deep community engagement.

As members of the inquiry debated the difficulty posed to surfers from Maitland having to change transport modes, truncation of the heavy rail line was progressing.

New jobs have been created, contracts awarded to local firms and major preparatory works are under way.

The Nile Inquiry report will be released just prior to the March 2015 NSW election. It should highlight the overwhelming evidence that bringing Newcastle’s urban revitalisation to the point of implementation has been exhausting, followed due process at every stage and been ground-truthed in world’s best practice.

There is no smoking gun. The heavy rail line is being truncated.

Light rail is on the way. Let’s get back to the new Business as Usual.

Andrew Fletcher is the NSW Regional Director - Hunter at Property Council of Australia

This piece was first published in the Newcastle Herald