Keeping the Council and the Airport honest, or will Tangaroa have the last word anyway?

Over the last couple of months two important developments occurred regarding the proposed Wellington Airport Runway Extension:

  • Its $90m co-funding by Council found its way into the LTP – despite significant opposition against it, but with some very important caveats
  • Nature has shown us on several occasions just how insane the proposal is to put such vulnerable infrastructure into the Cook Strait.

In addition, WIAL met with the directly affected residents of Moa Point to update them about the work they’re doing in relation to the airport extension. We will discuss these two points in separate blogs, so let’s have a look at how the Long-Term Plan consultation went first…

Despite being touted as a great success by its proponents, with apparently only a ‘noisy minority’ of people opposing the $90m for the runway extension that was ring-fenced in the LTP, this really doesn’t stack up on closer scrutiny.

Strathmore Park blog has written about this extensively, eg here, here and here, but it was clear during consultation that both the Council and WIAL got quite rattled once submitters started asking some difficult questions. The WIAL CEO went as far as swearing – twice! – during his oral submission when he commented on the report by NZIER reviewing EY’s economic impact statement  that they prepared for BARNZ, the Board of Airline Representatives. However, upon reading the EY report’s full page of caveats it becomes very clear that the content cannot be relied upon as a fair representation of the truth, not that that stopped Justin Lester from insisting that ‘the numbers are sound’.

When the Councillors were asked if they had actually seen any plans or designs so far for the $90m of ratepayer money they were willing to put forward, they looked on rather blankly. It is a sad indictment that you even have to ask a public official if they would pay a builder millions up-front for building their house without having seen any designs or plans, but as we suspected, the answer to that question was a resounding ‘no’.

However, despite all of this, and the fact that the submission process may well have violated Section 93B under the Local Government Act as well as there being questions about whether the Mayor and Deputy Mayor fulfilled their own code of conduct in relation to giving at least the appearance of open-mindedness and independence during a public consultation process, the majority of Councillors signed off this mad plan to ring-fence almost $100m of our money for this ‘white elephant’ (according to John Key).

On a very positive note, however, our and many other submitters’ strong objections did lead to some extremely important caveats and amendments being included. The LTP now says that the Council will make a final decision on this project and whether to commit funding to construction once:

  • WIAL has obtained resource consent for the project
  • The Council has received and considered a cost-benefit analysis and business case from WIAL
    • that will be independently reviewed.

Other key considerations that the Council has said will need to be considered before it makes its final decision relate to:

  • The resilience of a runway extension to weather and climate change
  • The proposed investment vehicle and any revenue agreement
  • Satisfactory airline commitments
  • Funding arrangements for construction and confirmed construction costs
  • The governance and management structure to oversee construction.

The Council has also said it will undertake further public consultation before making a final decision on whether to commit funding to construct the runway extension.

It is our expectation that it won’t ever get that far as the business case simply won’t stack up, but at least we now have some protections in place to stop the Council from just gifting a private company several million dollars more on top of what ratepayers have already given without setting out some clear requirements first. By the way – to this date, it seems not a single report (other than the EY statement) or progress update has been received by Councillors from WIAL for the almost $3m they gifted the airport for undertaking the resource consent application (back in May 2013 and then again in December 2014), which may be a breach of contract.

Presumably, the Mayor would have received updates during board meetings in her role as Director but it does not seem as if this information flowed on to the rest of the Council. This again raises the potential conflict of interest of the Mayor who sometimes seems to take her position as a WIAL Director more seriously than her mandate to the city and its ratepayers. Why has no one wondered about this lack of progress or at least started asking some hard questions before signing off the money in the draft LTP?

All this makes it clear that it is really important to make sure that the Council will stick to what it has approved in the LTP in relation to the runway extension instead of rolling over again and doing WIAL’s bidding based on no more than one-sided, overly optimistic and inadequate information and PR spin. It is also really important that all, but especially the most severely affected residents, have a fair say during this process which to date has been intransparent and inadequate. So far, the involvement and conduct of the Council has not led us to believe that they are overly interested in due diligence but we hope that the new caveats will ensure that we are protected against pushing ahead with a project where the main benefit seems to go largely to the airport company, but the main costs, risks and impacts sit squarely on the ratepayers and residents.

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