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A ‘‘MASTER Planning Group’’ composed of developers, property investors, elected representatives and public servants held meetings to plot the future of Newcastle, according to newly released documents.
The documents appear to show that members of the group included then lord mayor Jeff McCloy, city general manager Ken Gouldthorp, Hunter Development Corporation chairman Paul Broad, Hunter Development Corporation general manager Bob Hawes and representatives of government development corporation UrbanGrowth and private investment giant GPT.
Greens planning spokesman David Shoebridge said it appeared as though a ‘‘shadow government’’ had been guiding Newcastle’s rebirth from behind the scenes.
Mr Shoebridge, who is deputy chair of the Upper House parliamentary inquiry into Hunter planning matters, said the papers released to the inquiry by the Hunter Development Corporation revealed the existence of the “Master Planning Group”.
The group met regularly through 2013. Cutting the heavy rail line seemed to be a major priority, with other issues high on its agenda including ways to reuse the “redundant” rail corridor.
The committee, previously known to few people in Newcastle, appears to have no official or statutory foundation.
The Newcastle Herald tried to quiz the Hunter Development Corporation about the Master Planning Group, but was told no comment could be made while the parliamentary inquiry was still going.
A source said the Master Planning Group had been superseded by state government initiatives and had stopped meeting some time ago.
Mr McCloy denied the group was a secret society. He said he only attended ‘‘two or three’’ meetings of the group, which essentially guided the briefings which UrbanGrowth and GPT gave to Newcastle councillors, the business community and then the public.
‘‘There were no deals being done,’’ he said. ‘‘They were courtesy briefings given to me as lord mayor, Ken Gouldthorp as general manager, and then to others about their [UrbanGrowth and GPT] plans.
‘‘There was nothing sinister or secretive about it. It’s not as if we were plotting the demise of Newcastle. It’s these sorts of conspiracy theories that are holding the city back.’’
The Herald also tried to talk to Mr Hawes about allegations, aired in the inquiry last week, that he had a conflict of interest because of his property holdings near Wickham Railway Station.
It emerged from the inquiry that Mr Hawes owns a 7per cent share in 780 Hunter Street (west of Stewart Avenue) and a 50per cent share in 1-9 Beresford Street (across Beresford Lane from the other building in which he holds an interest, and adjacent to the current rail line).
With the removal of the heavy rail, the value of these properties is likely to rise substantially.
Mr Hawes said he could not comment, but at the inquiry’s public hearing last Friday week he denied having any conflict and stated that he had declared his property interests as required.
Mr Shoebridge told the Herald he was “gobsmacked” that the head of an organisation that was “aggressively promoting” the cutting of the rail line had personal property holdings close to the proposed new transport interchange.
“The property appears to me to be fairly C-grade, but if the rail is removed from behind it I can see the value would likely soar,” Mr Shoebridge said.
Access would be created to the harbour and activity would be generated by the interchange.
Mr Broad assured the committee that any perceived conflict of interests had been appropriately managed at all times.
In a statement issued to the Herald after the inquiry’s public hearing, Mr Broad said the Hunter Development Corporation Renewal Report ‘‘was completed and published well before Mr Hawes joined [Hunter Development Corporation] and there have been no changes from HDC since he became general manager’’.
‘‘He had land well before he joined HDC, so clearly no conflict of interest,’’ Mr Broad said.
Mr Shoebridge said the committee had requested minutes of all meetings to satisfy itself this was the case.
Also released by the inquiry was a 2012 letter from developer Jeff McCloy – after he made controversial donations to Liberal candidates in Hunter seats but before his election as lord mayor – to planning minister Brad Hazzard.
The letter warned that tens of millions of dollars worth of developments by his companies were on hold until the government committed to cut the heavy rail.
“McCloy Group purchased these sites on the basis we felt certain the previous Labor state government would proceed with removing the heavy rail line through Newcastle’s CBD and the major GPT Group project would also proceed,” Mr McCloy wrote.
“We have four current projects on hold until a decision is made on the heavy rail line. These projects include a $10million revitalisation of the Lucky Country Hotel which has been shut and dormant for the last three years, the development of a $6million project on a vacant site in Bolton Street, a $2million redevelopment of the facade of the Telstra Civic Building opposite Newcastle City Council offices and a $4million project with the redevelopment of the Blackwood site in Hannell Street Wickham.
‘‘The rail line decision will also underpin the success of other buildings we already have developed where street access from Hunter Street to the harbour is currently not possible.
‘‘For the future, our company has no further desire to add to its property portfolio whist the current heavy rail line is in place.”
A draft reply for the minister to send to Mr McCloy was forwarded with a covering letter under the name of Hunter Development Corporation general manager Mr Hawes, advising the minister that the government was being lobbied by landowners, developers and investors to cut the rail, and that the corporation supported cutting the rail west of Stewart Avenue.
Mr Shoebridge said he was surprised that Mr Hawes did not declare in the correspondence that he owned properties likely to benefit from the rail truncation.
Mr Hawes was also a member of the Hunter Infrastructure and Investment Fund board in 2012 when the organisation gave the NSW government $60million to help its deliberations on the future of the rail line.
This article first appeared on www.theherald.com.au
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