Compared to other regions and cities around Australia, Newcastle is a relatively close knit community with deep rooted ties to Newcastle’s immediate and past history. The region is also often recognised for its remarkable character and spirit that is so often tested by disaster – natural or not.
Ready or not, it is becoming increasingly evident, that Newcastle is also undergoing significant structural, economic, social and cultural changes, and it is therefore vital that Newcastle residents, and also those in the surrounding areas (LGA’s), play an integral part in the future plans for this wonderful, constantly changing and increasingly dynamic city of ours. For this reason Council established a programme known as ‘’Newcastle Voice’’
The programme came about as a way to increase community participation in Council's consultation activities and to provide residents with a choice in how they want to participate in Council's decision making process’’ explains Nuatali Nelmes – Lord Mayor of Newcastle.
‘’Newcastle Voice also came about to centralise coordination of Council's community consultation and to improve the consistency and quality of that consultation’’.
Encompassing both online and face-to-face consultation activities, the Newcastle Voice programme commenced in late 2008, and in 2011 Council resolved to maintain the programme as a permanent, ongoing in-house service.
Anyone over 16 years of age and older, who is a resident or ratepayer of one of the Lower Hunter Councils (Newcastle, Lake Macquarie, Cessnock, Maitland or Port Stephens) can join to have their say on a range of projects, events and initiatives in the Newcastle local government area via surveys, quick polls, workshops, focus groups, and information sessions.
Newcastle Voice currently has 2,700 members of which 32% are around the 40 to 54 year old mark, closely followed by 25 to 39 year olds who make up 29% of members and those aged between 45 and 69 representing 28% of members.
One of Council's key priority projects, Blackbutt Reserve, has already benefited from the results of Newcastle Voice becoming engaged.
Seven years ago, the future of Blackbutt Reserve was under threat when the popular park, along with its animals and birds were almost destroyed by the Pasha Bulker storm. Unfortunately, it came at a time when Council was trying to reduce costs and there were calls from some Council members to close the park altogether.
What followed was extensive community consultation over a 14 month period (from 2009 to 2010) to determine community opinion on current and future services and facilities at Blackbutt Reserve. A second survey was conducted with Newcastle Voice members to identify the top 10 priorities for Blackbutt Reserve. Based on this feedback, a master-plan was developed and shared with the community.
The result was the introduction of paid parking to offset its running costs and keep entry free and a master-plan developed to upgrade the animal exhibits and facilities.The first major stage of that work was unveiled in May last month, with the opening of the new amenities building and Wildlife Arena – a large outdoor learning area featuring a huge television screen and audio system.
Lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes said she was thrilled that the park could now continue to be one of the city’s favourite attractions. ‘‘The arena and the new amenities at Blackbutt realise a vision to protect and enhance the unique qualities of this treasured community asset,’’ she posted on her Facebook page.
‘‘Having championed the protection and investment in Blackbutt since 2008, I am pleased to see long-held plans coming to fruition.’’
The completed work forms only the first stage of the park’s revamp with a further $550,000 allocated to the next stage of work which includes construction of an all-age adventure playground at Ritchley Reserve, improved pathways and car parking to compliment the new facilities.
Of course this is only one of many projects utilising the resources of the Newcastle Voice programme. Demonstrating the impact of Newcastle Voice remains a key priority for the team, and they will continue to ensure that the results of their engagement activities are adequately communicated to decision makers and to the community.
In future, Newcastle Voice plan to engage a broader cross section of the community, with the Newcastle Voice team focussing on growing the size of the panel.