In what was hailed a “historic” decision on Thursday, Newcastle Council agreed to begin a rezoning process that would see buildings, parks and even affordable housing on the land that once carried the city’s heavy rail tracks.
But the debate proved deeply divisive in the Labor camp, pitting lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes against fellow Labor councillor and Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp.
In an unlikely alliance, Labor councillors Nelmes, Jason Dunn and Declan Clausen sided with Liberal councillors Brad Luke, David Compton, and Lisa Tierney and independents Allan Robinson and Andrea Rufo to push the rezoning through.
Cr Crakanthorp and Cr Stephanie Posniak (Labor) joined Cr Therese Doyle (Greens) in attempting to block the rezoning.
Cr Michael Osborne (Greens) and Cr Sharon Waterhouse (Liberal) were absent from the meeting.
In an impassioned address, Cr Crakanthorp accused state government ministers Andrew Constance and Rob Stokes of “holding a gun to the head” of the council, by refusing to release funds for the revitalisation of the city without development on the corridor.
“How dare two government ministers stand outside parliament and more or less blackmail this council into voting in favour of the rezoning,” he said. “Sydney is dictating once again to Newcastle. It’s a dictatorship, not a democracy.”
But Cr Nelmes argued that decisions on transport lay with the State Government and the council should not be “hoodwinked” into thinking its role was anything more than “advocacy”.
“You have to be a realist sometimes in these discussions for the betterment of the city,” she said.
“Doing nothing is not a bargaining chip...the last thing you want is to create pockets and ghettos.
“What we do have is the power to ensure ad hoc decision making on transport does not occur in anyway in the future.”
Cr Crakanthorp countered that the council had given away “its biggest bargaining chip” by voting the rezoning through and that the Shooters and Fishers MP’s were yet to hear anything more about the extra money they secured when they supported the closure of the rail line.
The “gateway” process that will now begin will see further rounds of consultation with the community and government agencies before the rezoning returns to council for a final decision in about 12 months.
Cr Clausen stressed that the council might not necessarily back the rezoning when that occurred.
Council required that in the meantime, the state government develop a “comprehensive, evidence-based plan for public transport” in the Lower Hunter.
It will also ask for a legislative commitment from the state government that all proceeds from development on the corridor will be reinvested in the revitalisation of Newcastle, after a number of verbal assurances.
Cr Nelmes said if the transport masterplan – including looking at the potential extension of the light rail network – was created in tandem with the rezoning process over the next 12 months it would be a “very good outcome for the city”.
In an unusual turn of events, Crs Nelmes, Dunn and Clausen were congratulated for their position by the Liberal councillors.
Cr Tierney said she didn’t believe the community had a thorough understanding of what the rezoning would involve and the next 12 months would give them the opportunity.
“From the consultation that has happened so far, we are seeing a majority wanting mixed use on this corridor…minority groups have always had a strong voice at this council and we have always listened, I think sometimes to our detriment,” she said.
Cr Doyle argued that the corridor should be reserved for transport and said the state government had still not provided any evidence that its plan to run light rail down Hunter Street was the best outcome for the city.
“I absolutely refute the idea that the community wants this rezoning,” she said.