Forget freedom, it seems eternal vigilance is also the price of keeping Newcastle’s railway station and lighthouse out of the grasps of profit hungry developers.
Battles over both these issues have already been fought and won by the Newcastle community organised into the Save Our Rail and Hands Off Our Nobbys campaign groups, but it seems the developers are just not prepared to accept when the community says NO! Of course when developers demand, governments quake and listen.
Last year (see article May 08) a development proposal for Nobbys Lighthouse which included a restaurant, viewing platform and accommodation, was knocked back by Environment Minister Peter Garrett due to heritage concerns. Now the same restauranteur / developer has submitted fresh plans which seem to vary little from the previous proposal apart from the removal of the viewing platform.
Proponents of the private redevelopment plan continue to play upon the fear that should their plan not go ahead, the site risked falling into disrepair the way so many of Newcastle’s vacant historic public buildings already have, due to vandalism and lack of council funding for maintenance. This is a complete furphy as the site, although being currently closed to the public, is maintained via Commonwealth funds.
Local campaigners against the redevelopment plan such as Parks and Playgrounds Movement activist Doug Lithgow, agree the area should be open to the public but as he put it, “This myth that you have to . . . lease it out to a developer to allow public access is a nonsense”.
There are also fears that this partial privatisation of the control and management of a Commonwealth Heritage listed site may just be the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ with the private operators later demanding more land for car park facilities for rich paying guests not keen on leaving their cars unattended in the beach car park (10 minute walk away) overnight. Any further development of the road would be detrimental not only to the heritage site itself but also to the well used public walkways at the base of the hill, further limiting access for the general public in the area.
A better plan would surely be to open the site to the public with the present cottages adapted for use as a publicly run kiosk / café and an information and historical / local arts centre with proceeds going to the upkeep of the site and its surrounds, thus providing benefits to locals and tourists of all economic stratas, not just the rich.
Meanwhile just down the road from Nobbys, the Newcastle railway has once again come under attack, despite Save Our Rail (SOR) having not long defeated the last attempt headed by the then NSW Treasurer and Minister for the Hunter, Michael Costa, to have the line pulled up and stopped at Broadmeadow.
Now it is a private development lot, GPT, who has demanded the line be stopped at Wickham in order to better fit their $650 million major redevelopment plan for Newcastle CBD. GPT have threatened to pull the pin on their investment plans if they don’t get their way over the removal of the railway.
The very idea of destroying a railway that allows the elderly, disabled and youth of the entire region to travel directly into the city and within walking distance of our beaches is so short sighted it would be laughable if it were not a real and present threat. Many elderly residents of the Hunter travel into Newcastle via rail for doctor and specialist appointments etc.
To have to change from the train at Wickham to buses to complete their journey to the end of the line, would be prohibitive for many elderly and disabled travellers, not to mention those with boards, prams and small children.
No one would challenge the fact that something needs to be done to improve the present state of the Newcastle CBD. To this end, SOR has after much research put together an alternative plan for the beautification of the railway corridor with increased public crossing points to solve the so-called ‘connectivity’ problems with the harbour and foreshore. This alternate plan was launched at a well attended public meeting (over 300 people) in December and may be viewed via their website.
Another SOR meeting in January pointed to the major errors contained in the transport section of the GPT proposal and the costs of maintaining the rail from Wickham to Newcastle. Around half the costs quoted for this are apparently ‘termination’ costs that would merely be transferred to Wickham should it become the terminating station.
The environmental impact of extra buses was another obvious concern. The meeting also put out a call for more ‘experts’ in fields such as transport planning, architecture and urban renewal etc to assist their work and join SORs new Strategic Planning Committee
This meeting was attended by Jodi McKay, state MP and Minister for the Hunter, and Craig Norman, CEO of the Hunter Development Corporation which now has the task of reviewing and costing all options put before it for the revitalisation of the city and proposing which should go to Cabinet for possible federal funding.
In response to on-going concerns from many at the meeting that developers were after the rail corridor for the land, Jodi made the bold claim that should the line go, there would be “No development on it whatsoever!”. This claim was met with more than a little derision from many, some of whom reminded her that they had also once been assured that much of the Honeysuckle development would be public parkland, before all that development took off!
So it will be up to the people of Newcastle to remain vigilant, organised and active if our heritage sites and services are to be preserved and improved for the benefit of the whole community and not hived off for the profits of a few.
By Robyn Hohl