Disappointment, anger and elation as project deactivated

Matthew Kelly reporting for the Newcastle Herald

10 September 2023

NEWCASTLE Airport is disappointed the Williamtown Special Activation Precinct will not go ahead, but 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 2023, the SAP was toured to unlock hundreds of millions of dollars of private sector investment and create 4300 new jobs over the next 40 years.

But a Labor government review found the precinct was “undeliverable, unfair and outrageously expensive” and the project has been cancelled.

The review found the project would have cost a minimum of half a billion dollars be 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 more than $1 billion to complete.

A Newcastle Airport spokeswoman said yesterday the airport expansion and Astra Aerolab precinct 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”.

The Committee for the Hunter had been a vocal advocate for the SAP.

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”.

The Property Council of Australia said it was “deeply disheartened” by the news the project had been cancelled.

Hunter Regional Director Anita Hugo said the decision would divert much-needed economic development funds away from the Hunter.

On the 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 know we wouldn’t get enough money to replace what we have got,” she said.

“The amount of money that was wasted is appealing. Anyone with half a brain could see there were too many constraints on what they were too many constraints what they were trying to do”.

But landowner and developer Ed Crawford said the decision to cancel the project reeked of political hypocrisy.

“There is presently seven and a half billion dollars being spent on schools and hospitals in western Sydney, which is obviously just pork-barreling,” he said,

“But in the good old sea of red Hunter, $500 million 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 projects as “ludicrous”.

“Anyone in development would be laughing at that number [$500 million], It’s absolutely 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,” he said. “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”.