BY voting as it did on Thursday night, Newcastle City Council is effectively saying it will not stand in the way of the Baird government’s determination to rezone the old heavy rail corridor as a centrepiece of the Revitalising Newcastle project.
Although Premier Mike Baird has repeatedly described the light rail and its attendant civic improvements as “the people’s project”, the reality is that the state government, through the Department of Planning and Environment, has carriage of the “gateway” rezoning process. By supporting it, Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes and her Labor colleagues Declan Clausen and Jason Dunn have ensured there will be no repeat of a situation that played out almost 20 years ago when the then-Labor state government stripped a Labor-run Newcastle council of its planning powers over Honeysuckle. In that instance, the council was opposed to the positioning of the Crowne Plaza Hotel on Merewether Street. No such threats have been made publicly this time around but Planning Minister Rob Stokes is not the only state government figure mystified at the opposition to a program that will see the government spend more than $500 million in a city that has long cried out about a lack of love from Macquarie Street.
Although a vocal section of the community is still opposed to the light rail running down Hunter Street, the government has said in writing to the council that it no longer requires the rail corridor for transport. With this as insurance, Cr Nelmes is signalling her preparedness to work with the government provided she can still meet her commitments to the Labor philosophy and to ratepayers. In this light, her proposal of a motel on the Newcastle rail station site is both a practical suggestion for its future use, as well as a symbol of the city’s break with the past.
While the Labor and Greens voices opposed to the rezoning are obviously heart-felt in their calls for the decision-makers to pause before doing anything precipitous, Cr Nelmes voiced the fears of a lot of people on Thursday night when she said that “doing nothing . . . is not a bargaining chip”.
Opposing the rezoning would have eventually proved futile, and put the council even further at odds with a government that has maintained its pledges despite an electoral backlash against it. Thursday’s vote took the state’s second city another step along the road to a long-awaited future.