08/04/2009 - 22:00

Pilbara city a chance to overturn 40 years of missed development opportunities

08/04/2009 - 22:00


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A CITY of 1 million people located in the Pilbara.It's the sort of idea that makes people stop and think and, more often than not, baulk at the immensity of the proposal.

A CITY of 1 million people located in the Pilbara.

It's the sort of idea that makes people stop and think and, more often than not, baulk at the immensity of the proposal.

Given the current resident population of the whole region is about 40,000, there is no doubt that establishing such a major city would be a leap of grandiose proportions.

For businessman Ken Perry, however, the concept is achievable, and necessary if the state is to truly take advantage of the bounty the Pilbara holds in minerals riches.

Rather than seeing a mountain to climb, Mr Perry turns to the past for motivation.

He points to more than four decades of mining in the Pilbara, which has resulted in little in the way of significant social infrastructure and relatively small population growth for a region that drives the state and is the future of the nation.

The resources industry has created a largely fly-in, fly-out workforce that has, in the main, not put down permanent roots there. Many of those who do live there send their kids to high schools in Perth.

"It is quite seductive, the fact that we have wasted 40 years is pretty powerful," Mr Perry said.

In comparison, inland mining centre Kalgoorlie went from a population of virtually zero to 30,000 in the 10 years to 1903, part of a regional boom that prompted the massive investment in the Goldfields pipeline to sustain the population and the growth that came of it.

What is needed, Mr Perry contends, is a major city that can house the specialist population required to run the complex mining and resources projects. That metropolis has to offer amenities in health, education and recreation that will encourage people to live there for the long term.

He points to Perth in 1970s, which already had a flourishing football league, major teaching hospitals and a high-quality education system - not to mention its own orchestra, ballet and opera. He takes a stab at the number of people who lived there at that time.

"I picked 1 million as being enough to have a self-sustaining population," Mr Perry said.

In fact, Perth grew from about 650,000 people to near 800,000 in that decade. Of course, many argue Perth lacks many cultural aspects even today, at more than 1.5 million.

Mr Perry is, perhaps, uniquely placed to understand the issues behind the idea he has seeded.

Qualified in business and chemistry, he is a former director-general of the Department of Minerals & Energy in Richard Court's Liberal government, and currently runs listed drilling and blasting contractor Brandrill.

From his perspective, he's seen how hard it is to get the right people to live in the region where Australia's wealth is being generated.

He points at the failure of BHP Billiton's hot briquetted iron plant as a case in point.

"In order to run a complex process like an HBI plant you need a permanent workforce and not have high turnover," Mr Perry said.

"You need people who look after each other, who take ownership."

It's hard to achieve that with fly-in, fly-out, he reckons.

"How do you create the critical mass needed (for a permanent workforce)?" Mr Perry asks.

"There are enormous problems, but if you can promote the benefits maybe people will find a way."

The concept goes beyond servicing the mining community and huge LNG production facilities.

Committee for Economic Development of Australia state director Tom Baddeley is one who sees a big population providing the ability to sustain other industries in the region, such as agriculture, especially if the water resources of the Kimberley were better exploited.

"If you open up an otherwise barren land for agriculture it would become a food bowl, not just for Australia but for Asia," Mr Baddeley said.

He said creating a service hub would overcome many of the issues created by fly-in, fly-out, especially for the small population that already lives in the north.

There are some big buts, though.

"Where is the money coming from?" Mr Baddeley asks.

"In the current environment it is a valid discussion.

"There is the big issue of getting access to finance no matter who you are. This is when you need some lateral thinking.

"If you have governments prepared to spend like they never spent before, then may there is an opportunity."

Another issue is location, with Port Hedland and Karratha likely to be jockeying for position. Or should the city be started afresh?

Where do you decide is going to be the central hub of north WA? And what of the danger that 'Pilbara City' conjures up a sort of Canberra, because it has been started from scratch?

A backer of the concept is businessman Dan Smetana, who is a confidante of Premier Colin Barnett.

Mr Smetana believes the Pilbara needs a big service centre to create the population scale required to add value to our mineral wealth.

"I believe that we need manufacturing," he said.

Mr Smetana also notes the lack of population in the north-west creates issues for the nation in terms of sovereignty and security.

"Our strategic weakness and our economic opportunity are aligned, that is rare," he told WA Business News.

Mr Smetana adds that another issue a big city might help solve is servicing the indigenous population, which is even more isolated than those who work in the resources sector.

No-one, however, appears to be thinking as big as Mr Perry, yet.

A recent State Planning Commission document raises the idea of a Pilbara city, but proposes a population of 50,000.

Roebourne shire president Brad Snell points to the recently launched Karratha 2020 strategic plan for his part of the Pilbara.

"We are looking at the next 10 to 12 years where we are hoping to get the population of Karratha to 30,000," said Mr Snell, who envisages the Pilbara coast as developing several smaller cities, much like Townsville, Cairns and Rockhampton on Queensland's northern coast.

"We're looking to increase the population so more and more people see Karratha and Port Hedland as home."

"To build a big city? As long as there is water and services there is capacity for that but that is a long-term thing."

Mr Snell points to Darwin as an example of a regional centre that does not have a population anywhere near 1 million.

"A big population centre in the north has been a dream of many people," he said.

Port Hedland Mayor Stan Martin thinks more people are important to provide the skilled workforce required.

Like others he welcomes the power broking position of the Nationals and its leader Brendon Grylls.

"They need to put money back into the region and allow us to expand and meet that demand that is coming from Asia," Mr Martin said.

He also sees opportunities in agriculture from the Mid West to the Kimberley. But when it comes to scale, current thinking is much smaller than Pilbara City.

"I believe in both Karratha and Port Hedland we need to build 1,000 houses in each town for at least the next three years to anywhere near keep up with new demand," Mr Martin said.

Mr Perry admits he hasn't gone into any detail on his proposal for good reason. Sparked into action about two years ago when he heard a radio report of Pilbara woman flown down to Perth because of medical complications that could not be handled in the region, he has done little more than scrawl the concept on a few pages.

He said he has deliberately taken a softly, softly approach to the subject, letting it grow as an idea and adding to his concept when provided feedback.

The state government is aware of it, though Mr Perry admits that was a stroke of luck rather than genius that he briefed Mr Barnett about a year ago, when he was a retiring backbencher.

Mr Perry does not believe the economic crisis is a setback for the Pilbara City concept.

"It is an opportunity. You have nation building projects going on," he said.


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