Opinion | State's neglect of peninsular getting old

FORGOTTEN BEAUTY: Nelson Bay and its stunning surroundings are feeling the love from day-trippers and visitors, but not the state government.
FORGOTTEN BEAUTY: Nelson Bay and its stunning surroundings are feeling the love from day-trippers and visitors, but not the state government.

The census tells us that the median age of residents on the Nelson Bay peninsular is 52 years, up from 49 years in 2011. Australia’s median is 38 years. The peninsular – stretching from Soldiers Point through Nelson Bay to Fingal Bay – is one of the loveliest places in Australia, but it is ageing rapidly.

Since 2011, the local population grew from 19,645 to 21,019 with almost all the increase in the 65 years and over bracket. Meanwhile, the number of its pre-schoolers fell from 978 to 873, the contents of around five kindy classrooms.

Yet, this is only half the story. On census night, August 9, 2016, about 4000 dwellings – about one in three – on the peninsular were empty. Of course, these are holiday dwellings. In summer they are filled with young families. And because of the safe beaches all around, summer means the place is teaming with toddlers.

When holidayers and day trippers arrive, Nelson Bay’s population triples.

In winter, though, it is quiet. We ventured there recently on a day trip with Tasmania visitors and walked to Mount Tomaree. The weather had been surly all morning, but when we topped the climb the sun broke through and we joined a small group on the viewing platforms in awe of the coast. Back in town, a good craft beer and a hamburger for 20 bucks were a bonus and we rocked home with an esky of fresh seafood.

All that said, the day out lingers in my memory as an example of neglect by the NSW government of its non-metropolitan constituents.

When our kids were young, we often enjoyed the summer delights of the Nelson Bay area. The marina was newly built and the bayside shops and cafes were fresh and buzzing. Peppers at the Anchorage had opened, controversially sure, but offering world class accommodation.

Today Nelson Bay looks tired, rundown. Renewal plans by Port Stephens council are commendable. They rightly seek better links from the shopping centre to the waterfront, mostly through zoning measures. However, Nelson Bay needs grander plans involving expensive marina and foreshore upgrades and road relocations. But, like non-metropolitan councils across NSW, Port Stephens council doesn’t have any cash. So it has no choice but to tinker.

Nelson Bay should be a thriving Lower Hunter township offering quality sustainable tourism while remaining a good place to live and retire. The entire Port Stephens shire with its wonderful destinations hosts fewer than 2000 jobs in the tourism sector. It should do much better than this.

To be sure, the worst thing that could happen to the Nelson Bay peninsular would be to make it easy for white shoe developers to pack the place with cheap and nasty high rise.

Development controls are hugely important. But so too is direct government financial assistance.

Then there is the road problem. Nelson Bay Road is notorious for traffic snarls. But here we see another case of Macquarie Street arrogance. In this version, on 18 March 2015, Premier Mike Baird promised a four-lane road from Stockton Bridge – past Newcastle Airport – to Anna Bay at a cost of $70 million if his Coalition is returned, which it was. But Labor candidate Kate Washington was elected. So the promise has been forgotten. Three budgets on and not a penny has been allocated to construction. When will our politicians grow up?

Phillip O’Neill is professor of economic geography at Western Sydney University.

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