IS Newcastle a regional centre or a metropolitan area?
It depends who you ask.
Earlier this week, in a move that has devastated staff in ABC 1233’s Newcastle West office, the decision-makers determined the station would no longer be included in its metropolitan stable. Instead, it would be regarded as a regional station and its staff would be slashed by a third. ABC’s media manager, Nick Leys, told the Herald the move from metropolitan to regional was ‘‘based on Newcastle’s position in standing along with other regional centres’’.
A day later, Premier Mike Baird announced Newcastle, ‘‘part of metropolitan NSW’’, would not receive one cent from his ambitious $20billion infrastructure strategy.
Herald journalist Michelle Harris reported Baird’s spokesman cited spending on the city from the proceeds of the Port of Newcastle lease as the reason.
‘‘What you’re seeing here is a political decision about the allocation of money,’’ Phillip O’Neill, a Herald columnist and a professor of economic geography at the University of Western Sydney, told me. ‘‘It’s not as if Newcastle has been eliminated by any geographical categorisation. It’s been eliminated because of political expediency.’’
It strikes me, though, that because Newcastle is not clearly defined as either a regional centre or metropolitan area, we are far more vulnerable to political expediency. This is a well-worn issue, but it is worrying that contradiction reigns among state government departments and tiers of government.
Why does it matter? Well, it is not just about geography: it is about access to funds as well as shaping a cohesive plan for a bold future. In case you haven’t noticed, a substantial chunk of state government funding, including for the arts and infrastructure, is heading to western Sydney. The Premier said this week he wants the inner-city Powerhouse Museum to move to Parramatta. It is a silly idea and Baird is better off following the Museum of Contemporary Art’s lead: the MCA is eager to have a presence in the west, but will not be shutting the doors of its Circular Quay base.
Parramatta City Council, which services a population of 184,000,has had a strong, consistent leadership and its economic development program has a very clear and ambitious goal – to make Parramatta ‘‘Australia’s next major CBD’’.
Its impressive independent advisory group includes the NSW executive director Property Council of Australia, Glenn Byres, University of Western Sydney chancellor Peter Shergold, the MCA’s director, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, as well as heads of business.
Parramatta is unashamedly defining itself as Sydney’s other metropolitan area.
Based on 2011Census figures, Newcastle City Council services a population of 148,500, about 40,000fewer residents than Parramatta, which isn’t insignificant.
Like Parramatta, though on a much smaller scale, Newcastle attracts workers, but the vast majority live outside the local government area and therefore don’t contribute to the city’s coffers other than via parking fines. While Newcastle is seen by many as a metropolitan area in comparison to other large towns in the Hunter Region, the city itself is also viewed as a large country town.
The council’s manager of tourism and economic development services, Jan Ross, reckons ‘‘we’ve got a foot in both camps, depending on what we’re doing and who we’re dealing with’’. ‘‘It’s almost like we’re not quite grown up enough to be seen as a metropolitan area and yet we are the centre for the region and the second-largest city in NSW.
‘‘Maybe it’s convenient to be considered a regional centre, but we need to take a leadership role and step up and start talking about ourselves as a metropolitan area.’’
O’Neill has a similar view. ‘‘The challenge for Newcastle is it wants to enjoy the romance of a late 19th-century Victorian city in partial decay with small bars in laneways, all of which is very appealing to inner-city gentrifiers, but it’s not necessarily the type of urban environment major firms and government departments want to locate to.’’
It is an issue that is bigger than geography; it is about having a clear identity – and destiny. We also don’t want a convenient definition of this city to be used to force good people out of jobs.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.