Matthew Kelly reporting for the Newcastle Herald
Updated September 19 2023 – 7:03am, first published September 18 2023 – 7:00pm
Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy talking about Australia’s new air and missile defence system at Williamtown
Newcastle Airport says it is disappointed the Williamtown Special Activation Precinct will not go ahead, but it has vowed to work to ensure equivalent benefits are realised for the Hunter through the development of Astra Aerolab.
At the time of its launch in 2020, the SAP promised to unlock hundreds of millions of dollars of private sector investment and create 4300 new jobs over the next 40 years.
But a recent Labor government review found the precinct was “undeliverable, unfair and outrageously expensive”.
It found the project would have cost a minimum of half a billion dollars before any development of the 135 hectare site could be undertaken and in excess of one billion dollars to complete.
Newcastle Airport has marked a major milestone with the planning approval for development applications of the first two building projects on Astra Aerolab.
A Newcastle Airport spokeswoman said on Monday that the Newcastle Airport expansion and Astra Aerolab precinct activation remained on track and were not dependent upon the SAP.
“We will be seeking to partner with the NSW Government, to foster the continuing growth of the defence sector around Williamtown and nurture the emerging energy industries in the Hunter region,” she said.
“There are a number of key catalyst projects we would like to see proceed as a matter of urgency, along with numerous promising commercial opportunities which we have on foot,” she said.
Committee chief executive Alice Thompson said the resources freed up as a result of the project’s cancellation should stay in the Hunter.
“We still need a plan for how the economic anchors of the Newcastle Airport and RAAF Williamtown will be maximised to turbo charge new jobs and industry as the Hunter economy changes, especially with federal investments in the base, airport runway and international terminal,” she said.
“This includes public transport access, freight connectivity and securing international airlines and tourism. Resources freed up from the Williamtown SAP could stay in the Hunter to progress these priorities.”
Committee for the Hunter chief executive Alice Thompson
The Property Council of Australia said it is “deeply disheartened” by the news that the SAP had been cancelled.
Hunter Regional Director Anita Hugo said the decision would divert much needed economic development funds away from the Hunter.
On the other side of the fence, residents who had been told they would need to move to make way for the SAP were celebrating.
Cabbage Tree Road resident Jenny Robinson was advised in February that her property would be compulsorily acquired under the Just Terms Act.
She said she was ecstatic the project was not proceeding.
“We didn’t want to go because we knew we wouldn’t get enough money to replace what we have got,” she said.
Jenny Robinson said she was delighted the Williamtown SAP would not proceed. Picture by Marina Neil.
“The amount of money that was wasted is appalling. Anyone with half a brain could see there were too many constraints on what they were trying to do.”
But land owner and developer Ed Crawford said the decision to cancel the project wreaked of political hypocrisy
“There is presently seven and half billion dollars being spent on schools and hospitals in western Sydney, which is obviously just pork-barrelling. But in the good old sea of red Hunter, $500million for enabling infrastructure to support 5000 jobs seems to be too much to spend. It’s just bullshit.”
He described the cost estimates used to justify killing-off the project as “ludicrous”.
“Anyone in development would be laughing at that number [$500million]. It’s absolute rubbish.”
Mr Crawford said he would resubmit a planning proposal to Port Stephens Council that he had prepared in 2019.
“It cost us hundreds of hours to get to that point and then it was shelved because the SAP was going to be the great white knight. I’ve already spoken to senior people in council and said ‘let’s rewind the clock four years and pick up where we left off.”