Upper Hunter housing crisis

IN February, when the NSW government released a report it commissioned into the level of public spending in local government areas affected by mining, the Upper Hunter was a clear loser.

The figures showed that this extremely productive region is tapped by mining companies for profits and by the government for royalties, but misses out on a fair share of reinvestment.

At the time the deputy premier and regional infrastructure and services minister, Andrew Stoner, said Muswellbrook and Singleton had been neglected under the previous Labor government. He promised that the Coalition would ‘‘engage with local councils and Infrastructure NSW to identify key economic infrastructure projects in these regions’’.

Six months later it isn’t clear whether anything has changed. The area’s roads are still clogged with mine-related traffic, the railway is carrying unprecedented tonnages of coal, the air is still dusty, businesses are still finding it hard to keep trained staff because of better wages in the mines and people are still complaining that 12-hour shifts are hurting community cohesion.

Those who earn the high wages are presumably glad, but many in the Upper Hunter community don’t work in the mines and are stuck on non-boom pay scales. Some of them – especially those on low fixed incomes – find it hard to make ends meet when prices of many goods and services have risen sharply.

Accommodation is a case in point. Some argue that it isn’t the mines that have caused rents to rise to unaffordable levels, blaming landlords for hiking their prices.

That ignores the point that that those landlords are only behaving like others in high-demand environments, taking advantage of a commercial opportunity to boost returns on their bricks and mortar assets. And it is, most assuredly, the mines that drive the high demand.

In many other places mining companies are obliged to invest in accommodation for their workers. Whole villages of pre-fabricated huts have been built by contractors to service some mines in areas where local supply is patently inadequate.

With more Upper Hunter people priced out of the market and forced to camp in tents and shelters, it’s time the government and the mining industry stopped jawboning about looking after the community and got on with the job.

Disability victory

THE federal and NSW governments should be proud that they were able to set aside petty politics and enable an important trial of a national disability insurance scheme.

The importance of the agreement is hard to overestimate. If successful, the pilot scheme will be a template for a national program to revolutionise the lives of people with disabilities.

It’s great news for the Hunter too, since 10,000 people in this region will pioneer the new system, benefiting from the opportunity to have services tailor-made to suit their individual needs and preferences.

It is refreshing to see Labor and the Coalition rediscovering bipartisanship on such an important issue.

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