Tuesday, 10 December, 2019

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What factors help Newcastle and the Hunter to realise our best future? How can we cultivate collective effort within the region and investment from outside the region?

Addressing these questions has been at the heart of the Hunter Research Foundation (HRF) Centre’s efforts in research and engagement. For example, our 2019 forums and events have enlisted numerous expert speakers to provide insight on leading practices nationally and globally. We have also shared research insights via this column and various, publicly released reports.

That includes contributions to Australian Community Media’s special publications including Hunter: Our Backyard and future Focus. There is the recently released Gateway Cities report, highlighting the economic potential of Newcastle, Geelong and Wollongong. That work resulted from collaborative research conducted by the HRF Centre in partnership with Deakin University and the University of Wollongong.

The report included a section on population growth as an important enabler of economic growth. The Hunter region has benefitted from trends in Australia’s internal migration, which were outlined by the HRF Centre’s Lead Economist, Dr Anthea Bill, at our November Hunter Economic breakfast. She explained that Newcastle and the Hunter are attracting an increasing share of out-migrants from Greater Sydney. Of the 97,000 residents who left Sydney in 2017-18, 7,000 went to Newcastle and Lake Macquarie, the biggest share moving to regional NSW. A further 5,000 went to the rest of the Hunter.

Dr Bill compared the Hunter’s rate of population growth to that of Geelong, now one of Australia’s fastest growing cities. ABS data show a 2.7 per cent rise in its population between 2017 and 2018, above the 2.5 per cent for Greater Melbourne. Melbourne is considered to be one of the fastest growing cities in the developed world.

“A number of government agencies have re-located to Geelong in recent years,” Dr Bill explained. “It has also developed transport infrastructure to improve its links to Melbourne and further. It has an active Committee for Geelong and secured a City Deal in March of this year. That virtuous cycle of investment and advocacy seems to be paying off for Geelong.”

Development of the Committee for the Hunter has been supported by the HRF Centre with research, advice, facilitation, and engagement over the past two years. The Committee now has 40 members, with commitments of more than $300,000 per year for membership. It is currently finalising selection of its first CEO.

The value of such bodies to foster collaboration was addressed by Lucy Turnbull AO at the Hunter economic breakfast in July. She is a former Chair of the Committee for Sydney and current Chair of the Greater Sydney Commission.

“Organisations like the Committee for Sydney, and the Committee for the Hunter, have a huge role to play in championing and articulating what is important for the city or the region,” she stated. “It is where everyone has a common purpose: to make their city, or their region, work as well as it can. Having that multiplicity of voices is really important.”

The unity of purpose, offered by the Committee for the Hunter and other representative groups including the Hunter Joint Organisation of Councils, has been shown to drive regional development. It has been a common element in the Australian regions awarded City Deals, according to research from Regional Australia Institute.

The need for a multiplicity of voices was reinforced by delegates at the Smaller & Smarter Cities International Symposium organised by the HRF Centre in Newcastle in October. It was one of three priority areas that they identified to strengthen Greater Newcastle and the Hunter as a place to live, work, invest and visit. An Outcomes Workshop at the conclusion of the Symposium identified needs to: experiment and innovate; offer everyone a role and a voice; and bring it all together with clarity about who is doing do what.

The Symposium drew 350 participants to hear from more than 35 speakers and panellists over 30+ sessions. The outcomes build on those from the inaugural Symposium in 2018, such as a need for a clearer identity and positioning of Greater Newcastle. This topic was the focus of workshops in March and November of this year. The effort engaged the HRF Centre with Enigma and Aurecon, with support from state government via the Hunter and Central Coast Development Corporation.

Identity and positioning for the region were taken up by four teams of young professionals in the HunterNet Future Leaders program. The HRF Centre supported the teams with data, connections and insight. The winner made a case for ‘HealthPort’, a regional health and innovation ecosystem emerging from redevelopment of the John Hunter Hospital precinct.

The HRF Centre has been informing conversations and facilitating action by stakeholders on the region’s current challenges and future options. In 2020, we will continue to support the Committee for the Hunter and other collective efforts, while collaborating on research to reveal paths forward for Greater Newcastle and the Hunter region.

This opinion piece by Professor Will Rifkin, HRF Centre Director, was published in the Newcastle Herald on 7 November, 2019