POLL: Port sale plan rush criticised

THE state government has been criticised for seeking to push through Parliament legislation enabling the lease of the Port of Newcastle before it has completed a scoping study setting out the transaction’s details.

Labor and Lake Macquarie MP Greg Piper labelled it an attempt to avoid scrutiny.

But the government said a lease won’t be signed unless it is a good deal for the state.

The legislation was debated in Parliament’s lower house yesterday, when Mr Piper called it the ‘‘height of arrogance’’ for the government not to allow a few days for consultation.

The government announced in Tuesday’s budget it would seek to lease the Port of Newcastle for 99 years, and use $340million of the $700million it expected to earn to build light rail between Wickham and Newcastle.

Another $120 million had already been promised to improve the city centre.

Details of the lease are not expected for at least six months while a scoping study is done.

Labor Treasury spokesman Michael Daley said the government may quietly impose new charges on port tenants to ‘‘fatten up’’ the port for the sale, and questioned if it would confer planning powers on a private operator.

Treasurer Mike Baird said the same legislation that applied to Botany and Kembla for their lease would apply to Newcastle, including that freehold title to land would remain in state ownership. Details about whether the government would retain land remediation liabilities would be confirmed after the scoping study, a spokeswoman for Mr Baird said.

Minister for the Hunter Mike Gallacher said the announcement was about delivering the region’s fair share of spending where Labor had failed.

The budget had also allocated $33.3million for the remediation of the BHP steelworks’ waste emplacement facility on Kooragang Island and $13.7million would prepare it for redevelopment ‘‘as an important employment hub’’, he said.

Greens MP John Kaye said the lease would kill off opportunities for a high-tech manufacturing future for the Port, by effectively locking it into coal exports.

The Maritime Union of Australia and Australian Maritime Officers Union wrote to Mr Baird yesterday seeking a meeting to discuss the impact for employees. Mr Baird told Parliament workers would be given a two-year job guarantee.

Design tender delayed

THE state government was poised to issue a tender for a Wickham transport interchange design but says it is revisiting the details following its budget announcement of light rail in Newcastle.

Treasurer Mike Baird said on Tuesday the government was confident light rail and the interchange could be built for the $460million it has committed to the city, including $340million from the proceeds of the intended long-term lease of the Port of Newcastle.

The government would explore public-private partnership funding models.

Last year, Planning and Infrastructure Minister Brad Hazzard said NSW would seek federal support for transport changes in the city.

Yesterday, a spokeswoman for Mr Hazzard said it was still hoped the revitalisation of the city would be supported at a federal level.

‘‘Discussions with the relevant parties will continue as the project unfolds,’’ she said.

This week, Mr Hazzard told Parliament that last year’s decision to remove heavy rail from the city centre had already generated ‘‘major private investment’’.

The Department of Planning is considering whether its draft urban renewal strategy will need to be re-exhibited.

A Transport for NSW spokesman said it was working with Planning and the Hunter Development Corporation on the details of the changes.