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The federal government gave $8m of $20m earmarked to progress high-speed rail to a consortium led by a man who has no expertise in major infrastructure projects, who had been a bankrupt and who was once a National party candidate.
The Consolidated Land and Rail Australia consortium, better known by its acronym Clara, is headed by Nick Cleary, a would-be property developer from the southern highlands of New South Wales.
Cleary is a man with big dreams. Clara has sold bureaucrats and ministers on a vision so large it’s almost eye-watering: a high-speed rail network between Melbourne and Sydney that would open the way for not one but eight new cities, each between 200,0000 and 600,000 people, to be constructed along its route.
They would rise from the paddocks over the next 50 years, taking the pressure off Sydney and Melbourne as workers moved to the regions, but still with access to highly paid jobs just an hour away by rail.
Some of the new centres would be planned for the outskirts of existing regional towns, helping to revive their economies.
“The policy on population has failed because we have failed to overcome the tyranny of distance,” Cleary says. “Between now and 2061 we are going to grow the population by 15 million. Our plan is to build cities at scale connected by high-speed rail.”
Proponents say the “value uplift” of turning rural land into city and suburban blocks – generating billions for Clara – would more than cover the cost of the rail line, well north of $100bn, plus the estimated $5.5bn of infrastructure such as roads, water, waste services, schools and hospitals needed in each new city.
It’s a vision to transform the settlement patterns of Australia entrenched for more than 200 years. And all to be achieved by the private sector, with only minimal government involvement.
“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time,” Cleary says.
But can Clara deliver on the vision?
This article first appeared on www.theguardian.com
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