Media: By Matthew Kelly February 25 2023

The University of Newcastle’s NuSpace building. Picture by Marina Neil

HOUSING, transport, education, infrastructure, clean energy and innovation are among the top issues the Committee for the Hunter has identified for the incoming state government to address after next month’s election.

The independent think tank said while the Hunter faced significant challenges, there were enormous opportunities for social and economic growth as the region undergoes a massive transformation.

The committee has today launched a set of advocacy priorities, which it has invited the incoming state government to partner with the region to achieve. Hunter 2023: A New Energy.

The priorities have been chosen for their capacity to create secure jobs and diversify the region’s economy.

“These priorities could form the pillars of a new partnership between governments and the region, with the diversification of the Hunter at the centre of this deal,” Committee for the Hunter chief executive Alice Thompson said.

Effective planning for and management of population growth is at the heart of the region’s economic and social evolution. But while the Hunter is experiencing a jobs and population boom, new homes are not keeping up with demand. This is driving higher house and rent prices and increasing inequality. It is also undermining the region’s competitive advantages.

The committee has called for government investment to increase the stock of social, affordable housing and crisis housing as a priority.

It has also proposed a $500million Hunter fund to unlock 40,000 homes held up by transport infrastructure delays and the introduction of streamlined planning and approvals pathways for the development of student accommodation at the University of Newcastle’s city campus.

“Without intervention, we are seeing a key competitive advantage of the Hunter eroded,” Ms Thompson said.

“It’s frustrating to see, limiting our ability to accommodate much-needed workforce and do more heavy lifting for NSW, while increasing the gap between the haves and have-nots.”

“This requires immediate funding for enabling infrastructure to get on top of the housing backlog.”

As the Hunter’s population and economy continues to grow and diversify, several key pieces of transport infrastructure are lagging behind.

The committee has called for the acceleration of transport projects including upgrades of Mandalong Road, Morisset and Hillsborough Road, Cardiff. Also on the list is the M1 to Raymond Terrace link, the Singleton bypass, the Lower Hunter Freight Corridor and planning for high speed rail.

“Instead of a predict and provide approach that ensures we will always be behind the eight ball, we should be planning for that population over a million that we will soon reach and the services and infrastructure to support that growth,” Ms Thomspon said.

The Hunter’s smart and skilled workforce, along with a world-class university, are among the state’s best assets. Despite that, there is unmet demand for tertiary educated workers across all sectors.

Compounding the problem is the fact that high school completions and tertiary education rates remain stubbornly below NSW and Sydney averages.

The committee has called on the incoming government to urgently partner with industry, business, education and research institutions to bring educational outcomes of Hunter communities on parity and build the workforce the region’s changing economy needs.

“The disparity between the educational outcomes of Hunter communities and Sydney cannot be explained by the region being particularly remote, small or lacking in resources. It’s just not good enough, and when the States future depends on a smart and educated workforce there needs to be urgent attention to lifting the rates of tertiary education in the Hunter,” Ms Thompson said.

The Hunter’s communities and businesses are more affected than most as the world moves to a low carbon economy. With the right support, these communities and their local economies will strengthen and become more resilient through change.

The committee argues that valuable assets including precincts, buffer land, infrastructure, transport, water licences can be strategically harnessed to grow local business and jobs in industries the Hunter is good at. These include clean energy and resources, manufacturing, education and research.

‘There is already so much good work underway on transitioning workforce and local economies. However the scale and speed of change exceeds local and national experience, and we need all investments made by the NSW government in the Hunter pivoting to that problem in a joined up plan,” Ms Thompson said.

The State Government has committed to the planning and development of key precincts in the Hunter that target industries of competitive advantage including defence, health and destination.

These keystone precincts are catalysts to a stronger and more diversified State and regional economy, providing certainty to attract investment and jobs while improving vital services for citizens. The committee believes these “down payments” are not being leveraged to the full extent of the opportunity offered or enabled by the government’s standing commitments.

It has called on the government to release the master plan and commit funding to the first stage of Hunter Park. It also wants master planning finalised for the Williamtown Special Activation Precinct along with the commitment of funding for infrastructure and catalytic development.

Another key priority is the allocation of $400 million for the next stage of the John Hunter Health and Innovation Precinct. The project will free up more than 25 hectares of land for complementary industry development including education, research and advanced manufacturing.

‘Government-owned land and leadership on precincts are incredibly powerful levers to deliver on the broader goals we want for our region. It’s about economic development, not just property development,” Ms Thompson said.