By Matthew Kelly March 20 2023

Nicola and Justin Holl and their daughter Remy. The couple searched across the Hunter for an affordable first home before eventually settling in Cliftleigh. Photo by Max Mason Hubers.

Nicola and Justin Holl spent almost a year in their search for an affordable first home in the Lower Hunter.

In the end, a soaring property market meant the young couple settled at Cliftleigh on the outskirts of Maitland.

Their story holds true for thousands of Hunter residents struggling for a foothold in the property market.

With the region’s population nearing a million, new homes aren’t keeping up with demand. This is driving higher house and rent prices, increasing inequality. It is also undermining a key competitive advantage the region has over other places, impeding access to workers and impacting on the Hunter’s capacity to meet strong job demand.

The Committee for the Hunter has listed the issue among its top regional priorities and has called for a $500 million Hunter fund to unlock 40,000 homes held up by transport infrastructure delays.

Subdivisions such as the one pictured here are estimated to provide at least 40 per cent of housing additions in the Hunter Region.

“Reforms to planning and infrastructure are under way to prevent this situation in the future, but urgent funding is needed now to reduce the backlog of homes,” Committee for the Hunter chief executive Alice Thompson said.

A long road

Concerns about a lack of infrastructure resulted in the Joint Regional Planning Panel rejecting plans for the latest stage of the $200 million Minmi Estate on the outskirts of Newcastle late last year.

The project has the capacity to create 2231 housing lots and boost the area’s population by an estimated 5621 people over 12 years.

The estate is also opposed by residents who argue it would result in loss of priceless biodiversity habitat and contribute to the Lower Hunter’s urban sprawl.

Geoff Rock, chairman of the Urban Development Institute of Australia’s Hunter branch, said the challenges that emerged during the Minmi Estate assessment reflect an all too common scenario.

In particular, it highlights how land identified for housing in regional planning documents is usually devoid of adequate public transport or road infrastructure.

“There’s a lot of concern in the industry that that regional transport plan does not link directly with the regional plan,” Mr Rock said.

“We will end up in this same position again and again because we can’t deliver housing because of infrastructure constraints.”

Balancing housing and conservation

The second, perhaps more challenging issue, is an increased environmental awareness and expectation within the wider community.

“It’s getting much harder to develop land for housing because of people’s attitudes about the environment and environmental impacts. We’ve got to try and get the balance [between housing and conservation] but it’s becoming increasingly difficult,” Mr Rock said.

A key part of the solution, Mr Rock says, is improved strategic corridor mapping, which clearly identifies land for housing and conservation.

Such a project could be used to protect land for the proposed Hunter Green Corridor project, a biodiversity corridor stretching between the Watagans and Stockton Bight, as well as new housing developments.

“We need to have some mechanism by which we can get the supply in the right locations, but also bring that environmental balance to it. We keep coming back to the need for some strategic corridor mapping and priority identification of areas to say that these are no go, they are for conservation,” he said.

‘Constant gridlock’

Ms Holl said she, her husband and their 18 month-old-daughter, Remy, have settled into their new community well. But a lack of transport links to surrounding areas and the strain on existing Lower Hunter road infrastructure remained a challenge.

“My mother in law lives in Maryland and the whole [transport] situation is insane. There’s a lot more people moving into that area and nothing can support it, even the roads. It’s just constant gridlock,” she said.

Social infrastructure is also underdeveloped. While a childcare centre was part of the subdivision’s plans, it was never built.

“The need for schools and daycare in this area is crazy; I put my name onto two different waiting lists when I was 16 weeks pregnant and I still couldn’t get her into daycare by the time she was nine months old,” she said.

“A new centre opened and I was able to get the last spot for three days, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to go back to work.”

The need to pick up and collect her daughter means that Ms Holl now drives to work in Newcastle rather than catching the train, which she previously did.

Ms Thompson is optimistic about the region’s growth potential and believes ongoing population growth can be achieved without widespread environmental destruction or loss of lifestyle opportunities.

“Population growth in the Hunter continues to exceed NSW projections. There is capacity for further growth that doesn’t rely on high rises or cutting down every tree,” she said.

“But growing pains such as housing affordability, congestion, overcrowding and inadequate services must be managed so we get the benefits that come with scale and resident’s quality of life is not diminished.

“After several years of planning and infrastructure reform in Sydney, we know the NSW Government understands how to do growth better, and what happens when we don’t.”

A region in growth

The Hunter Regional Plan 2041, released in December last year, predicts the Hunter’s population of 860,000 people will increase to nearly 950,000 people by 2041. This will require planning for an additional 101,800 dwellings across the region.

“The plan is about sustainable growth. It looks at housing choice and lifestyle opportunities to cement the Hunter as a leading regional economy,” the document’s forward states.

But Ms Thompson argues the Hunter’s community should be striving for a “far bolder vision for the Hunter economy and population than current planning documents indicate”.

“Instead of a ‘predict-and-provide’ approach to planning and infrastructure, there is an opportunity to set an ambition for a bigger, better Hunter and prioritise what is needed to achieve this,” she said.

“The Newcastle to Sydney fast rail project may not be the most urgent project on the Hunter’s list of priorities. But if planned and delivered smartly, fast rail will not only reduce travel times.

“It can be truly region-shaping and set the structure for a population of over one million in the Hunter and more diversified economy.

“That’s what makes it one of the most important projects on the agenda.”