OPINION: Payback overdue to Upper Hunter

THE New Year period always seems to bring an air of potential: A fresh opportunity to get good things done. This year is no different and presents a real opportunity for the state government to do some good for the communities of the Upper Hunter, particularly in the area of infrastructure investment. 

The alternative is to risk isolating communities that are making a mighty contribution to the strength of the state economy. 

In December last year, the state government announced plans for the removal  of a section of rail from the centre of Newcastle.

It is a long overdue project that has held back development and economic opportunities for the Newcastle CBD for some time.

The project will encourage development, bringing new jobs and investment to the region. It will also help break down the divide between the old city and the new. This investment will help grow the city’s reputation as an attractive place to live and work.

However, while NSW mining welcomes plans to encourage development and bring jobs and investment to Newcastle, the rest of the Hunter region must not be forgotten.

The NSW Minerals Council has long supported the call for greater public infrastructure in our key mining regions, like the Upper Hunter.  In our submission to last year’s state budget, we called for the government to consider a long-term, sustainable approach to funding of public infrastructure in mining regions and communities, such as a Royalties for Regions fund allocated from existing funding streams. 

While there was some recognition of the need for more public infrastructure spending in the Upper Hunter from the government, more needs to be done. 

Last year, the NSW government’s own review of the infrastructure and services spending in mining regions found that key communities in the Upper Hunter have been missing out, particularly Singleton and Muswellbrook.

It’s a view that is reflected in the local community.

In December, the NSW Minerals Council held an Upper Hunter mining  workshop in Singleton with calls from over 90 local community, industry and business leaders, for more public funding to upgrade roads to cope with increasing traffic levels resulting from local economic growth.

It was one of the top priorities raised among delegates at the Singleton workshop, as well as at previous workshops.

There are many projects across the Upper Hunter in need of urgent funding that would be of direct benefit in relieving pressure on public infrastructure in the region. 

So far, the Upper Hunter has received nothing from the NSW government’s $350million Hunter Infrastructure and Investment Fund.  

This unfair imbalance should be corrected as a matter of urgency – especially when you consider the contribution made to the state economy from mining operations around Upper Hunter communities, like Muswellbrook and Singleton.

Coal is the state’s single most valuable export commodity and the region delivers over 60per cent of total coal production in NSW.

The region is clearly a vital part of the state economy – an energy hub supplying coal for local power stations that provide electricity to NSW families and businesses, as well as generating export income, royalties and jobs.

The mining industry already makes a significant financial contribution to many Upper Hunter roads through state taxes and royalties generated by mining activity, council rates paid by local mines, as well as through individual funding agreements negotiated between project proponents and local councils.

Mining is doing its bit to help but more public funding is clearly needed.

According to its transport master plan, the NSW government intends to develop a program for road bypasses in regional NSW. 

This work should be progressed as soon as possible and include public funding to progress much-needed Upper Hunter road bypass projects for Muswellbrook and Singleton.

It is essential that government spending on infrastructure and services keeps pace with local needs.

The NSW government must invest the remainder of its Hunter Infrastructure and Investment Fund in projects in the Upper Hunter to make good the failures of the past.

The message for the state government is clear – this is a big issue for the region, not enough is being done to address it, and the Upper Hunter will not be ignored.

Stephen Galilee is the chief executive officer of the NSW Minerals Council.

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