In June last year the Herald reported on the ‘unprecedented’ billion-dollar construction boom changing the face of Newcastle. More than $900 million in private investment has followed the state government’s $650 million investment in the city’s revitalisation. And still it comes, with Newcastle City Council forecasting the value of development applications lodged in this financial year to again exceed $1 billion. Every dollar of those private DAs represents investment by business or work to be delivered by business.
In that article, the Lord Mayor is quoted as saying growth had come because council had fostered ‘strong partnerships’ between various levels of government and the private sector. ‘No other council has been able to do it, but this council has’, she said. So, what has changed to devalue the worth of these partnerships in just a year?
Last week, Newcastle Independent councillors sat embarrassed in the chamber while the Lord Mayor led a coordinated attack on two respected business people who had been invited to tell us about projects delivered by the organisation they represent, Newcastle Now, one of the city’s leading Business Improvement Associations (BIA). The Newcastle model of business improvement associations is considered best practice. Through it, property owners in commercial areas of the city pay a special rate, over and above the already high council rates they contribute. These funds are set aside, to be used on projects to directly benefit their community. Board members, who direct where these funds are spent, volunteer their time and expertise to give back to the city. Business plans, budgets and financial reports are presented to and approved by council. In the bigger organisations, audit reports are provided regularly. Council officers attend meetings. This is an efficient and transparent model.
But last week, we heard the Lord Mayor pillory the representatives of one BIA for its collaboration with council projects. This collaborative approach was portrayed as ‘duplication’. They were criticised for investing in ‘place-making’ – known in some places as beautification or public art or community gardens or activation. Reserving capital was criticised as a failure to fully spend current operational budgets. Most businesses would see it as prudent planning. Even more difficult to understand was the criticism of the organisation’s track record in securing external grant funds to invest in projects such as developing Nobby’s lighthouse as a sustainable tourist attraction or improving the city’s night-time safety. Dwight D. Eisenhower said ‘You don’t lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership’. The misuse of power seen in the council chamber last week was unedifying. It was business bashing.
In a national newspaper last year, Bernard Salt said Australia was a nation of farmers, tradies, professionals and shopkeepers – a nation of small business. These people work hard, earn their living, pay rates and create jobs. Many of them own commercial property. They are people to be respected and people with whom council should be working closely for the betterment of our community. Government investment comes and goes, driven by political imperative, but long-term business success is central to our city’s prosperity and jobs for our kids.
A council that goes to war with the business community is a council that is happy to work with one hand tied behind its back.
We can do better.