A gas-fired power station at Loxford near Kurri Kurri, $600 million of taxpayers' money, 10 jobs? Just build it, say the local federal MPs, Joel Fitzgibbon and Meryl Swanson.
Climate change impacts? No problem. The greenhouse gas emissions will be minimal given the plant is expected to be switched off 98 per cent of the time. But not so for the massive development at Loxford that will surround the power station. Welcome to the next edition of Westward Ho the Wagons!
Up to 20,000 square metres of bulky-goods retailing (four undercover footy fields) and 2000 homes will rise across the surrounding hills, walling in the sensitive Swamp Creek wetlands. These wetlands were preserved as a buffer around the old Kurri Kurri aluminium smelter. Now the buffer will become industrial sheds and grey-roofed houses.
Emissions from the Loxford plant will pale into insignificance compared with the permanent greenhouse emissions from all these new cars, the air-conditioner units, all that concrete, a new urban heat island in place of rolling pastures.
It has become a familiar story in the Lower Hunter.
Leading into the COVID-19 downturn, according to data supplier REMPLAN, the Lower Hunter councils were approving, on average, 3500 new house constructions per annum.
Maitland led with a yearly average of 800 new house approvals, then Lake Macquarie with 700, Cessnock with 500, Newcastle with 300 (plus around 1000 new apartments annually) and Port Stephens with 200.
COVID-19 saw the construction sector blink. Now the bulldozers and concrete trucks are full throttle once again.
The car-dependent estates are leaping well beyond the urban fringe.
The NSW Government's Lower Hunter's planning strategy states this as a guiding principle for the Lower Hunter: "Greater Newcastle is framed by an arc of lifestyle centres from southern Lake Macquarie to Cessnock, Branxton, Maitland and Raymond Terrace. People living in these centres live by the water or the bush, which creates a strong identity and sense of place."
Whoever wrote those sentences no doubt saw the Lower Hunter as a rare place, a fluvial landscape of pastures, farmland, forests and wetlands, historical villages and district townships.
But the planning strategy is failing. New housing developments and bulky goods retailers and their car parks are annihilating this landscape at pace, with the department of planning nowhere to be found
Each of the Lower Hunter's five councils runs its own race, always with an eye on improving rates income. But consideration of the cumulative effect of their rollout of greenfields housing estates is ignored. Currently, Lake Macquarie council approvals eat into bush in the Cameron Park corridor. Cessnock council approvals crowd out connecting roads to the Hunter Expressway, and suburbanise the Pokolbin vineyards. Maitland council presses the commuter belt further and further up the New England Highway through Rutherford and the valleys beyond. Port Stephens wrestles with a giant township proposal along farmlands across Kings Hill Road north of Raymond Terrace.
The NSW Government now seeks to turbo charge the Lower Hunter's sprawl with its Hunter Expressway Strategy. Business and industrial zones are proposed for interchanges at Cameron Park (again), Buchanan, Kurri Kurri/Loxford, Allandale and Branxton. There will be more bulky-goods retailers, fast-food drive-throughs, giant servos.
Every new housing boom redefines where an urban area ends and the rural landscape starts. Fields become housing estates. The next valley is threatened. What we are witnessing now, however, is much more than this. The car-dependent estates are leaping well beyond the urban fringe.
Then there are the government's planning panels, a small group of government-appointed experts, one for each planning region in the state. Their job is to manage more significant development applications. The Hunter and Central Coast panel considered more than 460 cases in the past six years. That's a lot. Some, not many, proposals are rejected, some rejections are successfully appealed in the land and environment court, on their individual merits.
The problem in all this is the lack of consideration of whether a development proposal is good for the region as a whole. No one is assessing the cumulative impact, asking what will the Lower Hunter look like when all these new houses are built?
It's the question that should have been asked for the Upper Hunter when the first open cut coal mine was approved.