Labor split in Newcastle rail corridor vote

PROGRESS: Light rail construction work near Stewart Avenue and Beresford Street on Tuesday. The state government wants to push ahead with the rail corridor rezoning at the same time. Picture: Jonathan Carroll
PROGRESS: Light rail construction work near Stewart Avenue and Beresford Street on Tuesday. The state government wants to push ahead with the rail corridor rezoning at the same time. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

THE state government’s frustrated plans for the rezoning of the former heavy rail corridor in Newcastle have, after months of delay, finally progressed to the next stage after the city’s lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes used her casting vote to push ahead with the plan at the final meeting of the current term of council on Tuesday night.

The rezoning proposal for the former corridor land between Worth Place and Watt Street has laid on the council’s books since the Labor-Greens majority decided in May that it wouldn’t agree to place the plan on exhibition until the government committed to a number of traffic and public transport plans for the city.

But at Tuesday’s meeting, a divided council voted to approve placing the rezoning on exhibition after assurances from the government that the commitments the council had asked for would be met.

Cr Nelmes was forced to use her casting vote to push ahead with the plan, after her fellow Labor councillor, the outgoing Stephanie Posniak, voted with the Greens and independent Allan Robinson to oppose putting the plan on exhibition.

Cr Posniak told the council she was not satisfied by the state government’s commitments, saying they were “vague at best” and argued that by placing the rezoning on exhibition the council was giving up its major bargaining chip.

“This is our one and only chance to hold [the government] to account [and] it’s important that we don’t rush this process because the government decides they’re in a rush,” she said.

The government’s rezoning proposal includes a public square at the end of Darby Street, a link between the Civic Theatre and Honeysuckle with shop-top housing and affordable housing properties between Merewether Street and the former Civic Station.

In May, Labor and the Greens had called for a traffic report on the impact of the proposal on the city, an overall transport plan and a “legislative commitment” from the NSW government that “all proceeds from Newcastle Urban Transformation Project will be reinvested into the revitalisation of Newcastle”.

The decision prompted a fierce backlash from the government and its developer arm in Newcastle, the Hunter Developer Corporation. At the time Michael Cassel, the HDC chief, accused the council of “changing the rules” and warned it had “put in jeopardy new open public space, sensible development including housing and commercial space for new jobs, retail and tourist attractions”.

On Tuesday Cr Posniak alluded to the pushback, saying it undercut commitments to giving the city “autonomy” over its future and suggested the council “couldn’t trust” the government.

Decision ‘gives community a say’

But Cr Nelmes said that by agreeing to place the state government’s rezoning proposal on public exhibition the council is “asking the community what it thinks” about the plan.

“This is a very, very important issue and I really, really want community feedback,” she said.

“I want to know exactly what the community thinks about this rezoning.

“We are not making a decision about what should or should not be on the the corridor, we are going and seeking genuine feedback.”

The government is yet to deliver a long term transport plan or legislate to ensure proceeds from land sales on the corridor are reinvested in Newcastle, but Cr Nelmes said the government had “played catchup” and that she was satisfied with the commitments the council had been given.

She said that if the commitments weren’t delivered – or the community expressed overwhelming opposition to the government’s plan – then the next council could vote not to proceed with the rezoning. 

Among the commitments the government made to the council included a letter sent from NSW Planning Minister Anthony Roberts to Cr Nelmes in May to ensure the council the government was “committed to reinvesting all former heavy rail corridor land sales” into Newcastle.

In the letter Mr Roberts estimated the sales would be worth “approximately $15 million”.

And in June transport official Tim Raimond told the council in a briefing that a draft of the 40-year “Greater Newcastle Future Transport Plan” would be released in the fourth quarter of this year.

But it wasn’t enough to convince the Greens, with councillor and mayoral candidate Therese Doyle arguing the rezoning shouldn’t go ahead.