HANNAH FITZHARDINGE is a Councillor at the City of Fremantle. Growing up in North Fremantle, she has always loved the port and had hoped there would be containers and cranes on our horizon for generations to come. But if the winds of change are blowing the harbour south, then she believes we need an economic Plan B.
IT may not have come as a complete surprise, but this week’s announcement of the WA Government’s intention to move port operations to Kwinana over the next few decades leaves a rather big question unanswered.
What does the future hold for Fremantle’s economy?
Announcements about new hospitality venues and the like on Victoria Quay are nice, but do nothing to address the real issue of long term, sustainable job creation to replace the thousands of jobs that will be lost not only at the port itself, but in the supporting maritime industries that base themselves in Fremantle.
The economic contribution made by the port to the economy of Freo is one of the key reasons council has maintained a position that retaining a working port at Fremantle is an absolute must. Unfortunately, the Westport decision means we also need to start working on a Plan B.
My deep concern is that the City of Fremantle has been overlooked too often by state government (partly due to our much-cited lack of marginal seat status) and that the very significant question of what to do with more than 150 hectares on North Quay, and around 30 hectares on Victoria/South Quay, when the port moves, may not get the attention it deserves.
For comparison, the Subiaco Oval redevelopment covers less than 10ha. The former port development site of Barangaroo in Sydney is relatively tiny 22ha. We’re talking a seriously large amount of land.
Freo people have had a complicated relationship with the port. In general, we love its aesthetics – the cranes, the patchwork of containers, the monolithic movements of the ships coming and going. We will happily say goodbye to the sheep ships and aren’t fussed to keep the vehicle and bulk steel cargoes. We’re a bit lukewarm on some of the impacts, for example the freight trucks, but we’re heartened by the increase of freight on rail (apart from those who are awakened at night by the rail squeal). We could do some interesting planning that would see the city connected better to the coast if we didn’t have the freight rail line. But then we think of our kids getting so excited as the train goes past the playground, and sigh. It’s complicated.
Of course, pre-Covid-19, we also had a successful and growing tourism element to our port operations, with cruise ship numbers increasing. The Rotto ferries are back in business, but it’s hard to say when we will next welcome a cruise ship with open arms. Maybe if it has only been to Broome and back?
No matter how you spin it, hospitality and tourism – while already strong industries in Fremantle – won’t be sufficient to counter the loss of long-term, skilled jobs at the port. And if we learned anything from Covid, it should be that you don’t want to put all your eggs in one economic basket. We need significant employing industries, and the necessary education and training for local people to be able to participate in them. If we get it right, we could benefit from the trend towards making things locally rather than overseas that we are starting to see as part of pandemic economic recovery initiatives.
So what can give us hope that we will be able to adjust?
Perhaps we can suggest a comparable situation, as a template for the state government to follow.
When the WA government announced the scaling back of the Muja coal-fired power station, it committed to a “Just Transition for Collie”, with a focus on investment attraction, economic transition and job replacement – led by no less than the Department of the Premier and Cabinet, and with a timeframe of at least five years.
On a question of scale, the issues faced by Freo are an order of magnitude larger than Collie. Fremantle Ports attributes 6000 direct and indirect jobs to its operations, whereas around 1000 people are employed in the coal industry. Spatially, the planning exercise that will be required to re-imagine the port land as a connected, vibrant development, which complements the existing Fremantle CBD, makes the development of Elizabeth Quay pale in comparison.
We could do well to learn from examples overseas – Rotterdam redeveloped its former port areas to become vibrant entertainment and residential areas that were re-integrated into the urban fabric of the city. Gothenberg in Sweden went from being considered a grungy “courtyard to hell”, in the words of a former Mayor, to become one of Europe’s most desirable green tourism destinations – courtesy of a transformational port redevelopment. Successful projects of this nature build on the best bits of a city’s character, using them to create new opportunities and experiences that complement, rather than compete with, the existing city.
Thinking for a moment about the massive land form that is North Quay – could we imagine it as residential? A seaside suburb with a harbour crossing to bring people over to Fremantle to work, play, shop, commute? Could it be our state’s future technology precinct, with a campus-style headquarters for a global technology company? A truly huge beachside park? The ideas we could generate about the best way to use this land to the economic and social benefit of our city haven’t even begun to be explored.
A clear, committed government focus is important – but so is process. If there’s one lesson we can learn from history, it is that Fremantle people want to have a say in issues that impact their future. A genuine dialogue about planning, land use, and future industries is essential.
As a community, and as a Council representing our community, we must demand a seat at the table and a process which genuinely re-imagines our city – and our opportunities for future growth and prosperity.
If we’re not going to be a port city – what will we be?