Lower Hunter and Greater Newcastle City as part of the Greater Cities Commission

Ms JODIE HARRISON (Charlestown):

I contribute to debate on the Greater Cities Commission Bill 2022. The object of the bill is:

to repeal and re-enact the Greater Sydney Commission Act 2015, in substantially the same form, for the following purposes—

to reconstitute the Greater Sydney Commission as the Greater Cities Commission (the Commission),

to replace the Greater Sydney Region with the Six Cities Region (the Six Cities Region) and define its boundaries and the boundaries of the 6 cities within it, being the following—

(i)the Eastern Harbour City,

(ii)the Central River City,

(iii)the Central Coast City,

(iv)the Lower Hunter and Greater Newcastle City—

That is why I am speaking on the bill—

(v)the Western Parkland City,

(vi)the Illawarra-Shoalhaven City.

The Bill also amends the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 to provide that each district strategic plan for a city within the Six Cities Region must, and each other district strategic plan may, include targets for net additional dwellings in local government areas within the district. The Bill also makes savings and transitional amendments …

At the outset, I say that the intention of the bill is good. The move to expand the New South Wales Government's three cities strategy to six recognises the importance of major hubs outside Sydney in the ongoing economic and social development of the State. My electorate sits in the Hunter region and can be considered within the greater Newcastle area. It is an important area of industry as well as becoming a tourist and lifestyle destination. It is certainly fitting that the Hunter be included in a plan for what Chief Commissioner Geoff Roberts, AM, called "a series of interconnected, dynamic and resilient places, each with their clear and unique identity".

It has to be remembered, though, that the area outlined as the Lower Hunter and Greater Newcastle City is an extremely diverse region. Its communities range from urban city-dwellers through to small urban centres and farming communities, and it is important that the services currently offered to regional communities in the Hunter are not lost because they are being lumped into a Greater Cities region. Being named a Greater Cities region certainly does not automatically deliver increased access to services or decreased waiting times for people to access key services, particularly specialist health practitioners. It will not automatically provide better education for our kids or better transport, but it will hopefully create some better linkages between our cities.

Another concern I have with the inclusion of the Hunter in the Greater Cities Commission Bill 2022 is whether my local area is a region or a city. There may be unintended consequences, and older people and seniors in my electorate are very keen on the regional seniors travel card. Seniors are eligible to get a regional seniors travel card in the Lake Macquarie local government area but not in the Newcastle local government area. I will keep fighting for Newcastle people to be able to get it, but I certainly do not want to people in Lake Macquarie to lose access to the card. It is helping them carry out their vital travel and, with the current cost‑of‑living crisis, it will only become more and more important that the service is maintained. I would like an assurance from the Government that the changes will not lead to those in areas currently receiving the benefits of the regional seniors travel card missing out in the future.

It has been suggested during the debate that the boundaries of the districts included in the Greater Cities Commission may be amended in the future. That process can be achieved through regulation rather than legislation, and it certainly needs to be a nimble process. But it is important that it occur in consultation with the affected communities. My local community and my local government areas would certainly want to be consulted on where they sit. The community consultation is key to ensuring that the arrangements that will come into effect under the bill roll out in a way that is beneficial at a State and a local level. The Minister for Infrastructure, Cities and Active Transport has rightly recognised that one of the greatest strengths of the commission would be its membership, and it is really important that the membership of the commission and the commissioners have a local perspective. It is suggested that three new city commissioners will be appointed for the three new city areas, including Lower Hunter and Greater Newcastle. Strong local council representation has been promised in the recruitment to those positions, but it is not clear whether that means that the appointment of a city commissioner will be made by a consensus of local councils within each district or by the Greater Cities Commission following consultation with councils.

It also remains to be seen how the existing regional plans for the Hunter, both active plans and draft plans, will be worked into the new plan. The Minister noted in his second reading speech that there would need to be clarity about how the draft Hunter regional plan would transition into the new commission model. That is of particular concern to local government in my area, which notes that, going forward, the Greater Cities Commission and not greater Newcastle will be responsible for the regional plan. That decision has been made in spite of the area for the Hunter regional plan extending far beyond the boundaries of the new city district. The section of the bill dealing with the existing and draft Hunter regional plans makes mention of theHunter Regional Plan 2036 continuing to have effect until a new plan is prepared, but there is no mention of how the new Hunter regional plan would be adopted. That is of significant concern considering that this is supposed to be only a few months away.

I wonder whether that suggests that the revised plan will effectively be scrapped ahead of the creation of a new plan, consistent with the requirements of the bill. I seek some clarity on that. If so, it may leave areas of the Hunter without a forward planning document. In bringing together State and local governments to attempt to achieve a more coordinated governance model, as the bill does, communication will be absolutely essential. I have already heard from one council in my local area that it has concerns about the lack of consultation in the creation of the bill. The City of Newcastle was disappointed that the first glimpse that they had of the bill was when it was tabled in Parliament, rather than being consulted prior to that. Councils will also need certainty that the new bill will not bring with it a requirement for local planning panels to be introduced, which are currently required in areas covered by the Greater Sydney Commission Act.

Councils will need to know how their resources may be used and whether there will be ways for them to recoup their expenses as part of that process. We often hear about joint regional planning panels being expensive for councils to support. As the Minister has noted, local government already has significant fiscal constraints on its service provision. No additional responsibilities or costs should be placed on councils as a result of the bill. Having said that, there are significant opportunities to be found in a cooperative and collaborative approach to promoting the wellbeing of major regional hubs in New South Wales, as proposed by the Greater Cities Commission Bill 2022. To ensure its success and effective delivery between State and local government stakeholders, a focus on communication and transparency is required.

On the face of it, the intention of the bill appears to be good. The devil is always in the detail and the implementation. Certainly I will continue to work with my local community and local councils to ensure that the bill does what it is intended to do and to ensure that their concerns are raised about any unintended consequences. I do not oppose the bill but will certainly support the proposed Opposition amendments.

You can read the full transcript of the debate here: https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/Hansard/Pages/HansardResult.aspx#/docid/HANSARD-1323879322-123657/link/102