OPINION: Time to bid adieu to Hunter’s tough year

2012 has been a year of change, from ripped figs and railways, to ageing, writes Phillip O’Neill.

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

IT was always going to be a tough year for the Hunter. My first column for 2012 recorded the struggle to fund renovations to the city’s art gallery while outside chainsaws and protesters went head-to-head over the fate of the old figs. By year’s end, not a fig for the gallery but $120million from the O’Farrell government towards the cost of ripping out the city’s downtown railway service.

Last month I was in the UK. I was laughing at how confronted the Poms are by travel distance. Yes, the British think 100miles is a long way, my polite host responded, but you Aussies think 100years is a long time.

It was a clever retort. New figs can grow tall and shady in a few decades. But ripped-out rail lines are usually gone forever.

The start of the year was also dismal for aluminium workers at Kurri Kurri. Their Norwegian masters announced severe job cuts, and a review of the future of the plant. Then closure news came in August, and this time it was the federal government that couldn’t give a fig.

In July, I wrote about my train ride from London to Edinburgh and what has happened to once-great industrial cities, now full of boarded-up factories surrounded by razor wire, or converted to shopping malls and bulky goods retailing.

Local youth are unimpressed. Around 1million in Britain between 16-24 years-old, are neither in work nor active education. Across Europe 23million young people are similarly idle.

We can say how lucky we are in the Hunter, but we are fools if we allow our future to be decided by those whose interests lie elsewhere.

In May, I wrote of the need for Newcastle to stake its place as a key economic node along a north-south axis between Sydney and Brisbane, while acting as the custodian of the valley to its west. Crucial to this, I argued, was the way Newcastle became connected and what it connected with.

By year’s end, the O’Farrell government released its infrastructure plan, its transport plan and a Newcastle urban renewal plan. We now have a clear idea of where we are situated.

The number one priority is the exploitation of coal in our valley and further west, and its haulage to East Asia. The world’s biggest coal mine will be clawed out of the ground at Maules Creek, and the giant trains will make their way along an upgraded old wheat route to the world’s biggest coal port.

The valley must be connected for the export of coal, the plans say. But other connections are not so important.

And all these decisions are made for us elsewhere.

This year also gave us a procession of government reports and statistics. In April I reported on our growing dependence on the motor vehicle and the rising costs of fuel, congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. When we depend so much on cars, by choice or not, we erode the quality of our local schools, and the charm of our town centres in favour of airconditioned malls. We strangle local food suppliers as we drive to ever larger supermarkets selling food from anywhere, and we choke our roads driving to jobs scattered like fielders in an under-12s cricket match.

In October, the Bureau of Transport Statistics gave us job projections for the next few decades. Inner Newcastle is pencilled in for 20,000 more jobs, for a total of 66,920 by 2046. But am I the only one wondering if government decision makers ignore this information when they announce policy?

We also received lots of census news. In July I reported on the arrival of ageing across the region. Sure, there are still plenty of kids in our midst but the most significant population growth is in the 50 years-plus bracket. Growing concentrations of old folk now hug the coast all the way from Gosford to Port Stephens.

No doubt this trend will continue as new residential apartments in downtown Newcastle are snapped up by cashed-up retirees relocating from Sydney and our own ’burbs and townships. And then will the CBD become known as the Central Baby-boomers District?

And so it is Christmas, the time when even old Scrooges break into a smile. I hope you get to share the joy of being with those you love. Have a good one.

CHOPPED: A man walks past the figs lying on Laman Street last February.  Picture: Simone De Peak

CHOPPED: A man walks past the figs lying on Laman Street last February. Picture: Simone De Peak