In this series, we will dive into some of the Lord Mayoral candidates’ policies, priorities and plans. Find out what they believe are the city’s greatest assets, what they think needs improving and why they want to be your Lord Mayor.
In this second instalment, we meet Independent candidate for Lord Mayor and Ward 1 Councillor John Church.
Along with his councillor commitments, John Church is the managing director of Newcastle marketing and communications company ChurchComm. He is well known for his previous work as an NBN journalist and news presenter for 25 years.
Q.Tell us about your history with Newcastle. How long have you lived here?
A. I am a born and bred Novocastrian. I went to school here, as well as university. I’ve opened businesses in Newcastle. My children also grew up here, and all attended the University of Newcastle. We live in a beautiful part of the world, and I think most of us recognise that. Newcastle is a great place to work, live and play, which is why I’m so passionate about it.
Q. What did you do in your early career?
A. As a young man in my 20s I embarked on a radio career. I was a radio announcer and newsreader working in country radio stations in Gunnedah and Tamworth. In Launceston, Tasmania, I started my career in television news reading and then came back home to NBN in Newcastle, where I worked for 25 years as a news presenter and journalist.
Q. What do you like to do in your spare time?
A. I am a great user of the Bathers Way walk. I regularly walk from Merewether to Strzelecki or Strzelecki to Nobbys. It’s an absolutely beautiful walk. One of my policies I will be announcing shortly is that I want to extend the Bathers Way walk from the harbour at Carrington Bridge on Cowper Street and create a shared pathway up to the pump house. So that would mean you have the potential to go from the Carrington Pump House all the way to Merewether. That would just be a wonderful circuit and would showcase the very best of Newcastle.
I also think the yacht club precinct is very exciting and has really added another dimension to our city. I love having breakfast there with friends or dining in Darby Street. So they are the things I like to do in my spare time. I also recognise that we have some fantastic communities with some really interesting offerings like Lambton, New Lambton and Wallsend, which has a vibrant business community and needs to be supported. So while I have been a Ward 1 Councillor, I am also focused on some of those western suburbs.
Q. What changes have you seen in Newcastle and its development as a city?
A. Over the years, there have been some massive changes. The CBD has shifted from Newcastle East to Newcastle West. We now have high-density high rises and a lot more residences around the centre of the city. We have also seen the growth of the corridors out west at Fletcher and Minmi, which are very important communities to the city. They also pose challenges where we need to create infrastructure and more services for that western corridor.
There has also been a diversification of our economy over that time. We were very much heavy engineering, manufacturing and mining-focused, and now I think our economy is much more diverse, and I think that diversity makes it more robust. Jobs, particularly youth unemployment, remain in our focus, and I think the council has a role in promoting small and innovative businesses.
Q. What areas of the city do you think need attention and improvement?
A. Over the last four years, there has been a focus on some big new infrastructure projects, which were supported, but it has been at the expense of what we call our infrastructure backlog. So, the council has a large list of assets that it needs to renew and replace because of ageing. We see that in the inland pools, in particular, Lambton Pool, which is one of our most popular and utilised assets, and yet it has been largely neglected for capital works over the last four years. We would like to see a refocusing on that.
We would like to see more money spent on some of the basics like potholes, footpaths and cycles ways.
One glaring example is some of our amenities at sporting fields where those buildings and facilities are very old. Some of them are no longer fit for purpose because of the growth in women’s sport particularly.
Q. What would be your number one priority for Newcastle if you did become Lord Mayor?
A. The city has asset management plans in place that have been developed by the very highly skilled team that we have at the council. These plans have a list of projects that have been prioritised based on utility, need, areas of growth, and proximity to schools, aged care and childcare centres. I would like to see a refocusing on those existing plans. Let’s go back and review them, make sure the priorities are still right and current, and then get on with the job.
Q. What do you think is Newcastle’s biggest asset?
A. Well, the biggest asset is the people of Newcastle. We’ve had everything thrown at us over the years, from the closure of the steelworks, earthquakes, floods, and now the looming COVID crisis. Yet, the spirit of Newcastle has always been very resilient, and we are a community that cares for each other.
The biggest asset of the council is more than 1000 very hardworking, highly skilled staff who do a great job, day in and day out, and often under challenging conditions.
Our biggest physical assets are things like our roads, bridges, ocean baths and inland pools. All of those need attention. They aren’t sexy, they aren’t glamorous, but it’s essential that we get back to some of that vital municipal work.
Q. Why do you want to be Lord Mayor?
A. I work with Labor and Greens councillors all day long, and we have a very strong collaborative working relationship. But there is a constituency out there that would like to see politics out of local government, and as an Independent, I can provide that. So we can get back to the job of working collaboratively with our community without following a political agenda.
Q. Newcastle could be labelled as a traditional Labor-voting city. So why should people vote for an Independent candidate?
A.I’m not going to tell anyone how to vote, and that’s their own decision. They can look at our policies and decide on that merit.
We are well represented by Labor in terms of our state and federal members, but this notion that the council has always been a Labor council is not backed by history. Of the last 10 lord mayors, I think five have been Independent, and I think it’s actually a good thing for local government to be depoliticised.
We are right at the coal face of delivering essential services, like garbage services, improving our roads, kerbing, guttering, and great resources like libraries. These are all very important, grassroot services that the council provides. We don’t need a political party to get the job done. Frankly, we are probably better off not having politics involved, with our main focus on the community’s needs.
Q.Newcastle is in transition from coal to renewable energy. What is your plan for this transition and your stance on the matter?
A.The council has a strong track record of environmental initiatives that have been supported by both Labor, the Greens and the Independents. For example, we have the policy to put as many solar panels on council-owned buildings as we can. We have a real focus on water recycling and looking after our water assets. We also focus on investing in Summer Hill as our waste management centre in recycling and improving efficiency.
My view is, though, we are going to be a community in transition. We will need to rely on coal for many years to come, and there’s no need to demonise it, but we need to recognise the transition and get ready for it.
Q. There’s been a large council focus on the culture and arts community of Newcastle, for example, New Annual that was held in early February. Is this something you would also focus on if elected?
A. I know that our arts, musicians and performance industries have done it really tough during COVID, and we need to do what we can to provide opportunities for them to earn a living and do the things they do well.
The city needs to balance a strong night-time economy and the right of quiet enjoyment of the many residences that live in the CBD. I know that this has been a friction point in the past. We need to resolve that issue with collaboration, negotiation and mediation.
But I am concerned about the way that this council has decided that it should be the event manager of a major cultural event. I discovered that the New Annual event lost $619,000 of the ratepayers’ money. Now, is that a worthwhile subsidy? Is that a worthwhile investment for the arts community? Well, that’s for others to decide.
We used to support cultural events that would come from the community in a bottom-up approach. The community created the events and cultural activities, and we would partner with them for support. Let us give the control back to the community, and the council can become a willing and active partner. We can help these events in terms of in-kind support by providing venues and also help by injecting some cash into the events.
For more information on the policies, plans and priorities of the Newcastle Independents visit their website at newcastleindependents.com.au.
Read our Q&A with Greens candidate for Lord Mayor and Ward 1 Councillor John Mackenzie here.