LATE last year, builders at a Newcastle construction site were putting the foundations down for a high rise residential project when they drilled into a Hunter Water sewer line.
The error was realised, eventually, but not before a substantial amount of cement had been pumped into the sewer, blocking it permanently. Repair was impossible, so Hunter Water laid a new line along the block in question, at considerable expense to whoever eventually foots the bill.
I found out about the job this week in a conversation with someone about the city’s development boom. This person has a shop near the building job in question, and has found the going pretty tough, economically, with street closures and noise – not to mention the smell from weeks of sewage pump-outs while the new line was laid – sending customer numbers through the floor.
I asked him why he hadn’t complained at the time, and he said he didn’t want to whinge, and that the development was good for business and the city in the long term. His worry, though, was that he and other businesses in similar situations – the ones that have traded on while the city was in the doldrums – might not make it through to the bright and shiny future promised in all of the pamphlets and plans promoting the new, revitalised Newcastle.
From his point of view, and it’s a view I’ve heard from others familiar with the cut and thrust of property development in the real world, there’s a lack of co-ordination between the various public and private sector entities involved in making Newcastle work.
His call is for some sort of “Good Neighbours” protocol to be put in place to ensure that everyone is on the one page when projects are being built. He says he got the inspiration from England, where the Localism Act of 2011 places what the UK government describes as “a legal duty” on councils, planning authorities and public bodies to “co-operate” on planning issues.
A Newcastle version of this would perhaps be more of a round table, where the company or companies building a project, their neighbours, the council and whatever government agencies were relevant could tell each other what was going on, and raise particular problems before they arose. More importantly, open lines of communication would allow all involved to react quickly when something went wrong despite precautions taken. Building in brown-field sites is inherently messy. Until recently, Latec House (the Pinnacle apartments in Newcastle West) and Segenhoe on The Hill were pretty much it as far as tall buildings went in Newcastle on. Erecting modern commercial and apartment blocks into streetscapes dominated by two-storey pre-war shops and terraces will always have an impact.
The businessman calling for the good neighbours policy says he’s been fined by the council for using the driveway in the front of his business as a loading bay because it was the only place to unload stock in a street that had lost as many as 100 nearby parking spaces through repeated street closures and appropriation of public parking by rail line subcontractors. You would think the council would show discretion in such situations, but apparently not.
The sort of things that the people near this project have endured are likely to be repeated many times over as new infill projects go up, and as the government’s contractors trundle down Hunter Street laying the light rail line. That doesn’t mean these projects are wrong. But it does mean they are going to require careful and co-operative oversight if everyone is to keep their sanity.