Newcastle Herald Opinion: By Alice Thompson

Hunter stakeholders want swift and coordinated action on regional priorities. Picture by Shutterstock

The announcement of major projects with their sod-turning and ribbon-cutting ceremonies seize the attention of politicians and the public.

But it is often quieter reforms to governance that offer the most benefits to a region, an economy and communities.

Get the thinking and priorities right along with a streamlined structure to deliver, and the rest flows from there.

That’s why the Committee for the Hunter has supported the entrance of the Greater Cities Commission to the Hunter, and the region’s inclusion in the Six Cities plan.

As an advocate, we fight for regionally-significant projects to secure government funding. However, an ad hoc approach to the Hunter’s development, subject to politics of the day, will never be sufficient for the task of steering a $63 billion economy through structural adjustment and coming out stronger on the other side.

The region will receive more funding and benefits when it is locked into a normative cycle of planning, whole-of-cabinet consideration, and government budgets. And that’s what coming under the Greater Cities Commission could bring.

We need to recognise what this important governance reform offers the Hunter, and what it won’t.

This is not a decentralisation of powers for planning and infrastructure to councils and communities.

It is top-down reform, cutting through the fragmentation of LGAs, electoral boundaries and cycles, and departments to provide a connected and long-term vision for growth.

It should identify the transformational infrastructure and precincts that bring the vision to life, providing strong signals to councils and the private sector to coordinate investments and multiply resourcing.

The Greater Cities Commission has the hard and soft powers to work across agencies to align their priorities and budgets with this cabinet-approved plan.

It will provide a path – where before one did not exist – for Hunter priorities to go to the centre of policy and decisions.

The appointment of a Hunter City Commissioner is an important first step. But this is a difficult role.

The commissioner must bridge expectations of being a local champion while being an agent of the state. There are natural tensions between Hunter and NSW priorities. Decisions involve trade offs, and the appointment of the commissioner could be considered the first of many.

The commissioner will be challenged to navigate these powers and avoid anodyne positions that threaten their authority and credibility on both sides.

Evidence and expert advice will be a critical part of the toolkit, providing defensible and objective advice on priorities, while progressing areas of alignment to build the capital to confront more complex decisions presented by the bigger picture.

There is stakeholder support for the Hunter being part of a bigger plan and good will to make this work. We recognise that success lies in partnerships.

But there is cynicism towards adding another layer of government, and an aversion to spin. After all, we know what the Hunter’s priorities are and how these align with NSW state priorities. This demands cut through, because the slower things take the more the region misses out and the more expensive it becomes to catch up.

The brief from Hunter stakeholders to the NSW Government to retain and increase support for reform is simple.

Don’t slow things down.

Coordinate the things you are already doing to get better outcomes, including the Hunter Regional and Metro plans with the state and regional transport plans.

Focus on the gaps and opportunities that fall through boundaries and are only identified through a higher order lens.

Tell us your intentions with a longer-term horizon so we can back in our resources, including private investment.

Strengthen the role of expert advice and evidence in picking project winners, because, when priorities are based on merit, the Hunter will always be at the front of the queue.

Above all, minimise the noise of politics, which only undermines the credibility of decisions, the long-term interests of the Hunter and NSW and appetite for reform.

This is an important lesson for both teams that should have been learnt through local government amalgamations, NSW trade commissioner roles, and regional grants rorts.

These are problems the Greater Sydney Commission, the Greater Cities Commission predecessor, was an answer.

Collaboration is hard. But being part of an ambitious vision for NSW is the Hunter’s opportunity for gravitas on the global stage, and to transform our region’s economy through the challenges ahead – if we all get this right.

Alice Thompson is the CEO for the Committee for the Hunter