THE HERALD'S OPINION: New industrial plan for Newcastle Airport

NEWCASTLE Airport is to be congratulated for its determination to press ahead with plans for a new industrial hub on land south of the complex, as outlined on Thursday at a parliamentary inquiry in Newcastle.

Various proposals to expand the industrial base in and around Newcastle Airport have come and gone over the years, and while some progress has been made, the gains have been arguably more incremental than spectacular.

That said, defence contractors including Lockheed Martin have been attracted to establish a presence at the airport, and the impending arrival of the Joint Strike Fighter – the F-35 Lightning II stealth aircraft to be based at Williamtown RAAF – should sustain the employment of a large number of technicians for many years to come.

Earlier this year, BAE Systems Australia – one of the major maintenance contractors for the F-35 – said that revenues from the contract, including work at Williamtown, could hit $100 million a year from 2025.

The trick for Newcastle Airport is to leverage off these defence contracts, to convince employers that a move to regional NSW, away from the capital city, has its advantages. To this end, the Hunter Business Chamber and the industrial business network HunterNet have long worked to promote the region’s defence capabilities.

If Newcastle Airport’s plans eventuate, and it converts its option over the land in question to an outright purchase, then the potential to open a new industrial park will help – as airport chief executive Peter Cock told the inquiry – to “restore confidence” in Williamtown.

And thanks to the ongoing saga over firefighting chemical contamination in and around the Williamtown “red zone”, that confidence is understandably lacking. Dr Cock told the inquiry that any PFAS contamination would not affect plans to develop the site commercially, but as the slow take-up of land at the Steel River industrial park – a former BHP steelworks waste site – has shown, such legacy issues can be hard to dispel.

Hopefully, the PFAS expert health panel announced by the federal government this week will give those living in the red zone more clarity than they have at present. The panel is taking public submissions until November 19, and is to report to Health Minister Greg Hunt in February.

Its members have a lot of work to get through in four months.

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