17/06/2010 - 00:00

Common agenda provides impetus for Pilbara

17/06/2010 - 00:00


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After years of crying poor the regions are now flush with government largesse, none more so than Pilbara.

Common agenda provides impetus for Pilbara

COULD a soon-to-be-launched Office of the Pilbara Cities offer the north-west the same kind of cut through that the East Perth Redevelopment Authority has provided for Perth’s former inner-city wasteland?

Regional Development Minister Brendon Grylls told WA Business News that the OPC would be a one-stop shop that would coordinate the activities of his nearly $1 billion spending program in the Pilbara.

Mr Grylls is hesitant to liken the new office to the powerful and long-lasting EPRA, a style of governance some observers think is necessary to overcome the potential conflicts arising from the interaction of four local governments, a regional council, the Pilbara Development Commission, the Pilbara Planning Commission and various state and federal government departments.

In its early days, property developers and councils disliked EPRA because the authority appeared to be a law unto itself. Two decades on, EPRA has survived, thrived and been replicated because it managed to circumvent many of the troublesome bureaucratic impediments to coordinating planning and development.

“There’s been a lot of talk about an EPRA-type organisation,” Mr Grylls said. “The essential difference is a redevelopment authority is set up to bypass local authority obstacles.

“We don’t have local council opposition in the Pilbara; they have embraced a once-in-100-years opportunity.

“That is probably quite a unique situation where there is no local rearguard action trying to stop what government is doing.”

In shying away from a direct comparison to the EPRA model, Mr Grylls points to the success of the Ord River expansion coordinated by Peter Stubbs – as a smaller version of what he wants to achieve across the Pilbara.

Whatever the blueprint, Mr Grylls knows he has a big task ahead of him now that the easy work of moving to undo decades of neglect is underway.

Local authorities have already unveiled millions of dollars of patch-up work, re-engineered town centres and housing developments needed to bring key towns in the area up to the standards expected by communities in the state’s south.

More money is also being put into developing water, energy and lifestyle assets that will help the region cope with massive population growth expected in the next 20 years, especially in the key cities of Karratha and Port Hedland, which are expected to double in size within 15 years.

Port Hedland, for instance, is expected to have 40,000 people by 2025, from about 19,000 today. This next phase will test the capacity of the state and local government.

A posse of planners and urban designers (see story page 9) is helping government, business and the community deal with challenges and possibilities that come with such growth. Most note that allowing population growth along the lines of the current demographic composition of the Pilbara would be a disaster.

Resources will remain the backbone of the region, but experts say cities of 50,000 people or more need more diverse economies to remain sustainable and deliver longer-term benefits to the area.

If the Pilbara is to grow as expected, it must do more than truck in every item of value up from the south.

The nearly $1 billion Pilbara Cities program is provided for in the Royalties For Regions funding program led by Mr Grylls, the Nationals WA leaders who won the balance of power on the back of this very policy.

Mr Grylls is adamant that the program is delivering on his election promise, especially in the Pilbara where most of the royalties are derived.

He has announced a host of initiatives across the region, including projects that have been won by major businesses, notably in the accommodation and housing developing fields.

National Lifestyle Villages, for instance, has won a $30.4 million contract to provide 100 service worker dwellings in Karratha. In the same city, a consortium including Adrian Fini’s FJM Equities, Rapley Wilkinson and the Leo family’s Raydale Holdings will develop a 10-hectare medium density housing project. And a family company of mining magnate Andrew Forrest, Minderoo Pty Ltd, has been nominated to deliver a 72-apartment project there.

There is also a 10-storey apartment block, which Finbar is to construct in Karratha.

In South Hedland, Sunview Nominees, a joint venture between indigenous group IBN Corp and Geraldton-based property player Humfrey Land Developments, will build a 1.2ha mixed-use development. Also in Port Hedland, Auzcorp will develop 400 temporary and permanent dwellings. Auzcorp has also won the right to the 228-dwelling Baynton West Housing Development at Karratha and a 140-room, 4.5-star resort at Tom Price, near the Karrijini National Park.

There are plenty of other opportunities arising for business, including locally based contractors.

The state is funding underground power and looking at ways of developing more sustainable water supplies, including resources currently wasted in mine dewatering.

There is even potential funding for the development of marinas, with the state government prepared to match investment from the federal government or private players. It has budgeted $471 million to match submissions to the federal government for funding from Infrastructure Australia.

This leveraging is something that Mr Grylls is fond of.

He also sees it in the ability of local authorities to squeeze more from the funds they are given, pointing out that far from being wasteful, shires and councils make money go further than it would if spent directly by the state.

“Local government has never had a dollar, when you give them one they know what to do with it,” Mr Grylls said.

“It is value for money.”

Nevertheless, the perception of waste in the federal government’s stimulus spending has jarred many who watch government.

“That is one of the risks we run, but you avoid that by decentralising,” Mr Grylls said, adding that relevant state agencies are mandated to keep a close on eye on spending.

Nevertheless, Mr Grylls is aware that the current program, soon to enter a period of significant funding, is already stretching the capacity of local government to deliver.

The state has brought in WA Planning Commission chairman Gary Prattley to head the Pilbara Planning Commission – with the challenge of breaking down some of the traditional delays to development.

Much of what prompted the Royalties for Regions spending is simply the result of years of neglect as the major companies of the region handed over their responsibilities for managing the towns to local councils, an incomplete process started in the 1980s called ‘normalisation’.

That left a funding vacuum, especially as in many cases the companies still don’t have to pay rates as per their state agreements. They argue they pay more than their fair share of what is needed in the north.

Ashburton Shire president Greg Musgrave highlights the $10 million revitalisation of Tom Price as a much-needed injection to bring some modern day amenities into the heart of the former company town – including retail and office space.

It is often the little things that count. Mr Musgrave is particularly fond of a big plasma screen inside a sound shell that has provided a point of focus for the community to watch movies and big televised events together on a balmy Pilbara evening.

His counterparts in the Shire of Roebourne, president Nicole Lockwood and Port Hedland mayor Kelly Howlett, are both equally positive about the funding scale and delivery.

“For the Pilbara I believe it has been handled and run very appropriately,” Ms Howlett said. “It is making a substantial difference and I see it every day.”

Pilbara Development Commission chairman Tim Shanahan acknowledges that any activity in the region is challenging, due to the high costs and potential for delays.

“There are all sorts of risks you have to manage,” Mr Shanahan said.

The former minerals industry lobbyist, who has moved into academia, believes that the expansion of the Pilbara can take place on the back of what is a substantial but nearly monopolistic mining sector.

“The key to that is to address housing and land issues. If you do that you go a long way to growing a more normalised economy,” Mr Shanahan said.

“There are a whole range of other opportunities for diversity, such as tourism, but they still have to get over hurdles of decent accommodation and affordable accommodation.”

State opposition MLA for Central Kimberley and-Pilbara, Tom Stephens, admits the Pilbara Cities program has good features but is concerned that policy changes in areas such as infill sewerage and a regional electricity network will not help the region deal with growth.

“It is one thing to shout slogans but it is what is beneath that that has to be of substance,” Mr Stephens said.

“At the moment, everything in the Pilbara has to wait until a Perth-based minister flies in to announce another block of land has been released.”

He worries how the smaller inland cities will fare with all the emphasis on the coastal hubs of Karratha and Port Hedland, wondering if the road system will provide adequate connections as the population grows.

Mr Stephens is also concerned about the indigenous population being left further behind as the cities urbanise.

He points to the extreme example of Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea where foreigners live in compounds, fearing that the proposed new style of apartment living in the north might add more barriers between the haves and have nots.

Business organisations that have links to the service side of industry have yet to see significant flow-on effects from the mini-stimulus planned for the Pilbara.

The Pilbara Aboriginal Contractors Association said it was early days and not much of the spin-off work from the Royalties for Regions projects had yet ended up with its members.

The Master Builders Association said it was in a similar position.

However, MBA director of housing and economics Gavan Forster said there was an expectation that the expansion taking place up north would help balance the loss of commercial work as big metropolitan construction programs wound down.

Nevertheless, the value of the Pilbara Cities scheme and Royalties for Regions is not lost on politicians. Even Prime Minister Kevin Rudd appeared enamoured with the idea, especially hoping that Western Australians would see the opportunity just as regional voters had in the state election.

In Perth last week to sell the state on his proposed resource super profits tax, Mr Rudd provided something of an echo of Mr Gryll’s words during the state election of 2008, which delivered him the king’s maker position in state parliament.

Mr Rudd is proposing to spend $2 billion of his $6 billion infrastructure fund in WA.

“It is not right that the regions and towns producing so much of Australia’s wealth should suffer from a poverty of investment,” Mr Rudd said.

Sound familiar?



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