Renew Newcastle founder Marcus Westbury used the inaugural Margaret Henry Memorial Lecture on Wednesday night to argue that his former home was a “uniquely under-resourced” and powerless city in Australia.
Mr Westbury, who has lived in Melbourne for much of the past 15 years but is still a regular visitor to the Hunter, told the Newcastle Herald before the lecture that the region’s lack of autonomy in decision-making had left it divided and under-funded.
“Some of the arguments, the really divisive ones that take place in the city, are the product of the fact that the city doesn’t really have the capacity to do much about the things that affect it,” he said.
“We rely a lot on the largesse of state governments. We’re not given much and we’re not consulted on it. We’re expected to be grateful for it, and I don’t think that’s how it should work.”
Mr Westbury, an arts and culture broadcaster and now the chief executive of Collingwood Arts Precinct in Melbourne, said he had visited many cities in Australia and overseas in the past decade and had an “insider-outsider” perspective of Newcastle.
“This polarised idea that you’re either for or against progress in this city is a symptom of a wider and deeper set of challenges this city’s got that have to do with its status as a second city, the level of political neglect and under-investment that all parties on all sides share some responsibility for over the years and a lack of capacity for Newcastle to influence and control its own destiny,” he said.
“When you consider it’s larger than Canberra or Darwin or Hobart, the relative investment and relative capacity to control our own destiny is something that is really broken here.”
The state government is spending about $650 million from the proceeds of the Newcastle port privatisation on urban renewal in the city centre. It also has started planning for expensive overhauls of the John Hunter Hospital and Hunter Stadium precincts.
Mr Westbury said this current and proposed investment might “potentially” address part of what he regarded as a long-term funding shortfall.
He agreed the former rail corridor had been a “Berlin Wall” in the city and welcomed recent investment in inner-city Newcastle, especially the university’s growing presence and an influx of residents.
Nevertheless, he believed the money could have been spent more efficiently and Newcastle would remain behind other cities of comparable size unless political leaders changed the dynamics of decision-making.
“Local governments in Australia don’t have any power. They don’t get to actually make decisions, and too often when they try to make decisions state governments sweep in and assert the authority they have.
“I don’t think that’s a system that serves Newcastle well. It affects Newcastle very specifically because of its relative size and its relative alienation from the people who make decisions.
“Who’s actually doing the strategic planning? Are we building a little toy train that goes nowhere or are we actually investing in a plan which is about building infrastructure and then planning population growth around that, which is what any serious policy-making should be trying to do.
“This community, despite its often polarised nature, does have the capacity to think about those sort of questions.
“I feel like so much more could have been achieved with those resources. And so much more resources would be proportionate with what the city deserves.
“Because things are happening doesn’t mean the best things that could be happening are happening.”
Mr Westbury recently ended his association with Renew Newcastle, a non-profit he started in 2008 as a means of matching creative entrepreneurs with vacant commercial space.
The organisation has won a state government tender to reactivate the restored Newcastle Railway Station with a cafe, bar, markets and other activities.
A crowd of about 400 was at City Hall for the Margaret Henry lecture, presented by Newcastle Writers Festival. Ms Henry, who died in 2015 at the age of 81, was a former deputy mayor and a long-time advocate for heritage conservation in Newcastle.
Mr Westbury said she had been a mentor and passionate supporter of his early projects in the city.
“At times I feel like she’s someone who was unfairly stereotyped as being negative and against things, and in my experience nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.