Newcastle Herald May 9, 2020
The immediate response to COVID-19 has been swift, decisive and unprecedented in scale. Almost of equal magnitude, is the required response to the longer-term economic fallout from the virus that many are comparing to the Great Depression.
When that crisis hit, governments turned to infrastructure to provide jobs and kick-start economies. In our region, the ocean baths at Merewether is an example of a depression era project designed to keep people in work during tough times.
Almost a century on, infrastructure will be a focus for the nation’s economic recovery. Governments are moving quickly to identify shovel-ready projects and scrutinising their infrastructure pipelines to determine which can be brought forward.
This presents a significant opportunity for investment in the Hunter. While there is an urgency to get our projects into the hands of decision makers, recovery from the economic impacts of COVID-19 will take years, not months. It is critical to take the time to get the planning right and promote projects that contribute to long-term wellbeing and productivity, as well as providing the short-term construction jobs that politicians seek.
The Hunter offers a pipeline of projects that will provide thousands of jobs, boost the economy in key sectors affected by COVID-19, and leverage private sector investment to deliver long-term public benefits.
Newcastle Airport is seeking support for works to turbo-charge international airfreight capacity, tourism and regional industry. Defence owns the runway and will undertake maintenance works soon.
Upgrading the airfield during this time will deliver savings, but there is a limited window to capture these benefits. Design is advanced and the project is ready to start in early-2021 subject to partners coming to the table.
COVID-19 has highlighted Australia’s vulnerability to global supply chain disruptions. The University of Newcastle’s STEM building will accelerate advanced manufacturing and technology industries in the Hunter.
Students will be learning applied research and development skills in partnership with industry. This project is shovel ready, but may be put on ice given impacts of the virus. Investment will arrest any delay, underwriting jobs in construction and supply chain, and the long-term benefits to our community and industry.
Funding is not the only answer. Discussion is shifting to the need for reform to remove inefficiencies and barriers that hinder development.
Our region’s second major gateway, the Port of Newcastle, is ready to build a two million TEUs capacity multi-purpose deepwater terminal, subject to the removal of a penalty that applies to containers over a threshold. The project offers a ready solution to Infrastructure Australia’s call for the development of a network of east coast deep water ports to accommodate large ships.
This is an opportunity to think beyond the major transport projects, precinct developments and local roads. Projects that can be delivered cheaper and faster with opportunities for local jobs and contracts. When treated as a portfolio, some of these will offer more bang for buck than major projects.
This includes tourism infrastructure – for example car parks, picnic shelters, public toilets, paths and rail trails, public transport – that improve accessibility and visitor experience. These works would be complemented by upgrades to public domain in town centres, benefiting residents and visitors.
Other opportunities include upgrades to our suite of smaller regional airports; digital and telecommunications connectivity; investments in social and affordable housing; active transport; renewable energy production and storage; water security; emergency management infrastructure; and shared facilities to capture waste as a resource and promote a circular economy.
There is strong competition for a limited pool of funds. Having sat on the government side of the table in Canberra and Sydney, I know it can be difficult to navigate what the Hunter needs when advocacy proceeds by interest group, LGA and electorate.
We need all those voices and perspectives fighting for the Hunter. We also need a cohesive, coordinated approach to advocacy that leverages the synergies of projects across sectors and political boundaries, and puts the long-term interests of the Hunter first.
When siloes are broken down, we view the problem and opportunity differently, and new solutions emerge.
The City of Newcastle Taskforce is a major step in that direction, bringing civic, industry and government together to support the recovery of the city.
We need the Hunter’s leaders to come together with a regional view to reach consensus on the infrastructure – economic, environmental and social – that will be crucial to our recovery, sustainability and prosperity.
Now more than ever our communities expect us to work together to deliver for the region.