NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes addressed a meeting of business and community leaders this week in Newcastle where he was grilled about some key and controversial Hunter issues.
Mr Stokes, who was in town to announce the government had declared a proposed gas import terminal in Newcastle as critical state significant infrastructure, responded to audience questions about light rail extensions, the region's transition away from coal, the port's contentious container terminal and a range of other matters during a 40-minute question-and-answer session on stage at Wests City.
Mr Stokes was asked if the state's light rail project had been a positive or a negative for businesses, many of whom have suffered through building works and the loss of parking.
"It's clearly a positive, but I think a lot of the change is yet to come," he said. "I think a big part will be a shift as more residential product comes to the market within central Newcastle, and also I think student housing will be a big part of that as well. Again, why I'm so keen to see the university's plans for student housing progress. That'll revolutionise the way in which central Newcastle works.
"Overall, I know it's been a tough road and a long road, but I think we're only just starting to see the benefits and it'll continue to escalate."
He could not say when the government would commit to extending the tram line but reiterated the government position that it was "always designed as a spine ... for future expansion".
Asked to name three projects "close to your heart" that the region could look forward to in the near future, Mr Stokes nominated the University of Newcastle's expansion into the CBD, diverse energy projects and Maitland Hospital.
"Certainly one thing I think will be incredibly transformative is the university bringing all of its business, law, creative, education, all those sorts of, I suppose, the humanities and social sciences all together in the city itself.
"I have seen the transformation that bringing a university into an urban core can achieve, and the city of Newcastle should be enormously excited about what that can unlock."
The government has come under fire for once-secret deals with the state's private port operators which constrain the city's ability to develop a container terminal.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has launched Federal Court action over deals it regards as anti-competitive.
Mr Stokes left the door slightly ajar to a compromise.
"There was a deal there, and a deal is a deal, so there are always opportunities to revisit things. But clearly there were commercial arrangements that were agreed upon, and they have to be honoured.
"And, if there is a reason to change, by all means we'll look at it, but it has to be understood in the context that there was an agreement reached at the time."
Newcastle Airport is seeking $147 million to upgrade its terminal and runway to allow for larger planes capable of flying to America and into major Asian destinations.
Mr Stokes said it was a "terrific idea" and the airport was a "tremendous catalyst for the future of this area".
"Of course, having decided that it's important, the next thing is to work out how we get there, so things like the special activation precinct that's under active consideration by government now is one of the key things, and collaborating with the Commonwealth will be another.
"Obviously there's a funding challenge there, but, as a principal, it's a no-brainer."
Metro or regional?
Mr Stokes initially missed the context of this question, which has been a bugbear of the city as it has bounced between metro and regional funding classifications.
"I think you're a metro region. I really do," he said.
"I think sometimes people make the mistake of saying that there's a conurbation stretching from Wollongong to Newcastle with Sydney somewhere in the middle. I don't believe that for a moment. Sydney, yes, is a city region, and Newcastle is also an emerging city region."
Pressed on if this meant Newcastle should be eligible for metro funding streams, Mr Stokes demurred: "Yeah, well, it's a tough one. I might leave that to my colleague, the deputy premier."
Mr Stokes is officially the Minister for Planning and Public Spaces and now heads a mega department taking in industry and the environment.
He has a PhD in environment and planning law from Macquarie University and a Masters in science from Oxford.
He offered Wednesday's audience a global perspective to highlight what he saw as the Hunter's ongoing success in diversifying away from mining and heavy industry.
"The one thing that can kill a city or a city region is a fundamental shift in the economics that brought that city to exist," he said.
"The enormous resilience of this city region is that it has been a region that traditionally focused on one or two industries. Newcastle itself is a steel city. The Hunter is a coal region. And these are industries which have gone through enormous transition over recent decades.
"When we look at similar city regions across the world, they have not weathered this transition nearly as well as Newcastle and the Hunter.
"You only need to look at the rustbelt steel cities of the north-west US, for example, places like Gary, Indiana, proximate to Chicago in the same way as Newcastle and the Hunter is proximate to Sydney.
"Gary, Indiana, today is effectively a ghost town. Gary, Indiana, was a great steel and coal port. There's not much going on in Gary, Indiana, today because it's been unable to reinvent itself, to find new tertiary industries to take over from the secondary industries. Newcastle and the Hunter, however, has been able to diversify. The innovation spurred by the university has been at the core of the capacity of the city and the region to continually reinvent itself."
The need for a rapid expansion in social and affordable housing has been high on the list of priorities for Hunter councils and charities.
Mr Stokes said Landcom and the proposed Broadmeadow redevelopment could provide some answers.
"There are opportunities in the Hunter to collaborate with Landcom. There are significant government land holdings in areas, frankly, right across the Hunter where the government could use its land assets to increase the feasibility of affordable housing projects working together with some of the excellent community housing providers you have.
"The Broadmeadow precinct offers huge opportunities. I know the government, together with council, is looking at a couple of those opportunities right now. Part of that, given land values and the changing nature of the area, are great opportunities for a mix of different housing types and tenures, including affordable housing."
Mr Stokes said the Hunter's richness of natural resources were a legacy of its indigenous communities.
"When I look at the Hunter, I mention the Awabakal and Worimi people, we have a great debt to our indigenous peoples in this area because they were the custodians of the natural resources of this place for tens and tens of thousands of years, and we have inherited an incredible legacy of natural resources to share and to exploit in productive ways to enrich people's lives. So we build upon that.
"Ever since the 1790s we've got the convict heritage, we've got the incredible built heritage right across the region, incredible natural resources, incredible human resources, so there is so much we have to use."
Mr Stokes argued mine rehabilitation had come a long way in 30 years.
"You look at some of the efforts today in relation to mine rehabilitation and some of the extraordinary ecological restoration projects that miners have been able to achieve today, and you can see there is capacity in this region to truly restore environments and improve them on what they were before.
"A classic example, a tangible example, just outside the door here is the rail corridor itself. An area that was highly contaminated is now a parkland that joins a city with its harbour and forms a context where a city can come together and enjoy some incredible created spaces.
"What I don't accept is that it's OK to have a final void used for nothing at all. That is not in the public interest."