GAUGING public opinion on any issue, let alone something as complicated as the planning decisions being made for the former Newcastle heavy rail corridor, will always be a matter of approximation, if not guesswork.
At its meeting on Tuesday night, Newcastle City Council voted to rezone the bulk of the corridor between Worth Place and Newcastle station, in order to allow a program of re-use to commence.
Only two councillors spoke before the vote was taken. Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes was in favour of the rezoning.
Greens councillor John MacKenzie criticised the way material had been presented to councillors, saying a 60-page report by un-named council staff was open to accusations of bias, and left the council’s decision open to legal challenge.
In her contribution, the lord mayor raised the results of a telephone survey of 955 residents living within the Newcastle council area, which was conducted on the evening of November 20.
This survey, the councillors were told, showed that 57.5 per cent of respondents supported “renewal” on the land, while 37.5 per cent wanted it maintained as a corridor.
As the Newcastle Herald reported before the meeting, these findings were in stark contrast to the outcomes generated when the council put the rezoning proposal on display for 40 days during September and October. In this process, submissions opposing the proposal substantially outweighed those in favour.
Explaining why the council had embarked on the November 20 telephone poll, council chief executive Jeremy Bath said it was to seek feedback to an August 22 notice of motion by then-Greens councillor Therese Doyle, who wanted the idea of light rail on the corridor – with buildings over the top – included in the community consultation.
If that was the case, it should be noted that the telephoned questions made no mention of the concept of light rail running through buildings, giving weight to Cr MacKenzie’s description of the exercise as “push polling” designed to elicit a particular response.
Mr Bath is correct when he says the construction on Hunter Street means the argument over the heavy rail line has been “fought and lost”.
Much of the responsibility lies with the state government, rather than the council. But if there is one thing that all these years of rail line debate have taught us, it’s that opinion is still sharply divided when it comes to this grand re-imagining of the city.