A coalition of Newcastle business groups has launched a new campaign called "fix our city".
The campaign — involving full-page advertisements in the Newcastle Herald, a glitzy launch at a Newcastle Knights rugby league match and the distribution of thousands of petition postcards — is demanding the NSW government adopt the Hunter Development Corporation (HDC) Newcastle City Centre Renewal report.
The catalyst for the report was in October 2008 when, one month after local government elections had shifted Newcastle city council to the right, developer GPT decided to ransom the state government.
It announced that its plan to build a huge shopping centre in the mall — which was made public just three days before the election — would not proceed unless the train line was removed.
Released in May 2009, the HDC report has three main recommendations:
* cutting the last 2 kilometres of the train line, making Wickham the new rail terminus and associated bus stop;
* relocating the legal precinct from Newcastle to Civic; and
* relocating 60,000 square metres of university facilities into the city, mainly around Civic.
The focus is on cutting the rail line and replacing it with buses.
The grassroots campaign group Save Our Rail (SOR) has produced a detailed critique of the plan, which can be seen at www.saveourrail.org.au.
SOR noted that the Newcastle Law Society is opposed to the proposed relocation of the legal precinct. A representative of the society said: "No one has put forward any logical reason for moving the precinct."
The HDC report claimed that the University of Newcastle would not be interested in developing a CBD campus unless the rail line is cut. However, university vice-chancellor Nick Saunders denied this in June, saying: "The university has not taken a position on the fate of the heavy rail line in Newcastle nor will it."
The HDC report didn't mention peak oil or climate change in its supposedly "balanced" and independent analysis of the rail line's usefulness.
The report's supporters obscure its true nature by focusing on the urgent need to reverse urban decay. But the reality is that the main goal of the "fix our city" campaign is to cut the rail line.
The rail line sits on prime land. Developing this land (especially the last 500 metres of it) has been the goal of a 25-year push by developers to get rid of the line.
Despite property developers' claims, the rail line's presence isn't what has led owners to leave buildings vacant and in disrepair. Property developer Jeff McCloy bought the Lucky Country Hotel and boarded it up after new curfew laws bankrupted it. The March 23 Herald said McCloy had vowed not to spend 6 million dollars renovating and reopening the building unless the state government cuts the train line.
Labor on the nose
SOR defeated a plan by former minister for the Hunter, Michael Costa, to cut the line in 2005-06, and is again building the community campaign to save the line.
The group wants to see new level crossings achieve connectivity. It says it does not oppose development, and supports both the GPT development and university relocation proposals.
Newcastle MP Jodi McKay was "parachuted in" to the safe seat of Newcastle against the wishes of the local ALP membership, which had pre-selected pro-rail, left candidate Bryce Gaudry. Mackay will further soil Labor's Newcastle nest if she oversees the adoption of the HDC plan.
If the plan to cut the line proceeds, Newcastle may follow in the footsteps of another Labor safe seat — that of the now Greens-held seat of Fremantle — and swing away from Labor … to the left.