We have submitted the following to the WCC’s Annual Plan – as they were asking for ‘good ideas’ from the community of how to spend our money better. It may be largely lip-service, seeing the Council has gotten a lot of flak recently over their public ‘consultation’ (or lack thereof) processes, but we felt it was important to continue to engage with the Council and to use this democratic process.

Dr Sea Rotmann, our Co-Chair spoke to the submission and Clive Anstey had also sent it round to every Councillor with a cover letter beforehand. Councillor Andy Foster, to his credit, replied with an immediate and thoughtful response, outlining the many caveats that would still need to be met before the Council would decide to spend the $90m that were already earmarked for this proposal in the Long Term Plan. He also spoke to Dr Rotmann and Mr Anstey during the break, which may have been a bit of a mistake: He told them that his mind was still completely open (good!) but that he wasn’t sure that emotions (on both sides) weren’t getting in the way of the facts (our main emotion is frustration that the airport’s ‘facts’ are largely based on obfuscation, spin and misinformation, but OK). As example, he gave the issue that was raised very eloquently by a previous speaker who asked the Council to ensure that they would get the dividends they deserve for their shareholding, not the peanuts they actually got from the airport once its creative accountants were done with it. Councillor Foster also said that the Council would be satisfied with little more but a ‘handshake’ commitment from airlines instead of an actual signed contract, which would be needed in order to get a proper business case through the Treasury guidelines. We clearly told him that the public (and the Central Government who is meant to co-fund this White Elephant) certainly would not be happy with such a ‘nudge, wink’ deal seeing the amount of public money that was at stake – and the many airports in NZ and overseas that have failed to materialise the promised planes after extending their runways.

When Dr Rotmann went to speak, she had the 2015 WIAL Annual Report figures open on her phone. In response to Andy Foster’s claim that the Council was getting its fair share of dividends from the airport, here are the actual numbers: WIAL made $108m in profit; has $842m in assets; $438m in equity and the Council got a measly $12m in dividends. We reminded the Councillors that they had paid 50% of ratepayer money towards the airport’s resource consent reports and the Region said it would put up half of the cost of the runway extension ($150m – $90m by WCC and $60m by the other Councils, none of whom have put any money for it aside in their long-term plans, however). That is despite the (widely discredited) cost-benefit analysis by Sapere claiming that only 1/3 of the benefits would actually stay in the Region.

Dr Rotmann also raised some very good questions about what the Council’s actual job was: Was it to use public money for the common good, e.g. ensuring that the Commons and infrastructure issues such as sewerage, traffic congestion, earthquake strengthening and mitigating climate change impacts such as rising sea levels were taken care of? Or: to throw public money at a private company with billion dollar assets  – without a business case, without proper consultation and without transparent oversight – because politicians regard it as a ‘sexier’, vanity project that will make them look like they’re doing something for ‘economic growth’ during an election year?

She then asked the very pertinent question that all Councillors who had read the 27 airport reports should raise their hands. Unsurprisingly, not one hand went up. Dr Rotmann had read the reports and reminded the Council that, as a scientist holding a PhD on environmental impacts on the marine environment, she was rather uniquely qualified to comment on some of them. She reiterated some of the many failings and holes that the reports clearly showed: insufficient data collection; the inability (due to ‘adverse Cook Strait conditions’) to complete even one of the seismic boreholes that needed to be undertaken to establish that the geomorphology in Lyall Bay was actually capable of taking the 3 million tonnes of rubble safely; comments on the (apparently minor) impact on the marine habitat without knowing the actual quality and composition of the infill that was to be dumped into the bay; the design not having been locked down; different runway lengths being given etc. The faces of the Councillors did suggest that some concern was raised when she said that these reports would not stand up in Court, as they were.

Dr Rotmann implored the Council to insist that independent (i.e. by including community groups such as the Guardians when choosing the experts) peer-reviews and more data collection had to be undertaken before heading to a resource consent hearing. She also reminded the Councillors that their own cost-benefit analysis showed that if we waited ten years, we would get almost the same amount of benefits but without taking many of the risks. For example, we’d then know how well the (Council-subsidised) Singapore-Canberra route was actually going; we’d know of any technological advances that could mean we may be able to fly long-haul without an extension; we’d know further impacts from global climate change decisions such as including aviation emissions in carbon trading schemes etc. Even if we put just our $150m into the bank, by 2060 (when the cost-benefit analysis said we’d be $2b better off, NZ-wide, after spending at least $300m) we’d get over $2b in interest and the whole amount would actually go to the Region! So, for half the cost and none of the risks, we could get the same benefits! Maybe Justin Lester should start talking to Kiwibank about long-term deposit rates instead of handing out secret sweeteners to airlines?

The main point that we are making is this: the Council does not have the mandate to throw public money at a private company without very clearly being able to show that the benefits stack up (this includes a full business case and contractually committed airlines, as well as all costing and funding issues being ironed out); that the benefits far outweigh the many social and environmental impacts of a project such as this; that public consultation and due diligence has been undertaken at all the steps, including independent peer reviews; and that the facts and data are collected following the scientific method and not wishful thinking, grossly overstated assumptions and a fantasy that if ‘we build it, they will come’. Politicians like sexy projects, they like big projects that show that they are ‘getting things done’. Dealing with our massive sewerage, traffic and natural disaster preparedness issues may not be anywhere near as sexy as the ‘Lester/Wade-Brown runway extension’, but are what the actual mandate of the City Council and its elected officials is. Incidentally, all these isseus (sewerage, traffic and natural disaster preparedness) are NEGATIVELY impacted upon by the proposed extension!

So please, dear Councillors: Stop the corporate handouts (including throwing almost $10m of ratepayer money from a non-transparent slush fund at the world’s third largest airline with a Singapore head quarter) and stop calling opponents asking for transparent processes and proper facts and figures as being “Anti-Wellington” in the media. This is unbecoming of a Councillor’s job – it is hard enough to fight the spin and willful obfuscation of facts when it is coming from a billion dollar multinational. But it is an outrage when community groups looking out for the ratepayers’ interests get treated so unfairly by their elected officials. You can do better, City Council(lors)!

The esteemed Wellington City Councillors during the Annual Plan hearings

Our written submission to WCC in full:

The Wellington region faces significant infrastructure and environmental pressures which require huge investment and the proposed $150 million of regional money would be far better directed towards any of these. Such as:

  • Replacing stormwater and sewerage infrastructure and carrying out further earthquake strengthening in our CBD.
  • Addressing traffic bottlenecks – which would be exacerbated by the extra ‘truck a minute’ which would be using SH1 for three years if the runway extension proceeds.
  • Preparing for the forecast sea level rises on large parts of our coast. An issue supported by significant scientific data – and which is predicted to affect both main access roads to the airport.

These, and other issues, are already having significant negative impacts across the region – and will only worsen if not addressed.

By contrast, there are many factors regarding the extension plan which are still very much unknown quantities. These include:

  • Adopting a “build it and they will come” approach to a proposal when no major airline has suggested they will fly long-haul to Wellington.
  • It is not yet known how well the Singapore-Canberra flights will perform without subsidies such as the waiving of landing fees, marketing support and the direct subsidy by ‘Destination Wellington’. The precautionary principle would be to wait for firm results from this before pressing ahead with an extension proposal.
  • It is highly likely that aviation and shipping emissions will finally be taken into carbon accounting. This will have a huge impact on the aviation industry, especially on such a far-flung minor destination as Wellington.
  • The MBIE surf impact research is yet to be undertaken at Lyall Bay. The results of this need to be available before ‘solutions’ are offered to surfers. If not, the outcome could be a potentially unsatisfactory solution that may destroy the recreational value of this bay forever.
  • To date, the airport has only carried out a single seismic borehole to determine the geomorphology of the bay. We understand further boring was prevented by bad weather. Further boreholes should be undertaken before more ratepayer money is committed to a project that may be deemed too unsafe to proceed with.
  • The actual infill sediment composition needs to be tested before any assessment can be made on possible impacts on the marine fauna.
  • To date, all serious independent economists that have reviewed Sapere’s report have concluded the benefits are likely to be negative. It is essential to have realistic numbers for the market catchment and thus passenger forecast of the Wellington region before progressing with an extension plan.

Furthermore, the airport itself requires attention in other areas, particularly the Southern end of the runway. Much could be done to make the runway tunnel and breakwater safer. The flimsy ‘build it and they will come’ approach that is currently being taken to the proposed extension project should also be a cause for great concern. Even the New Zealand Airline Pilots’ Association – and let’s face it, no organisation is better placed to comment on the proposed extension’s safety – has stated that it would not be safe for long-haul flights without the entire bay being filled in. This would cost around half a billion dollars and surely be seen as uneconomical for one extra flight a day.

Singapore Airlines seems to be coming anyway – although, as mentioned previously, it’s a case of ‘wait and see’ regarding operating without the airport and Council subsidy. It can also rely on extra numbers from Canberra and has obviously not regarded either Capital as being a valid business case to fly to directly. So why is an extension deemed necessary?

We call on you to listen to public concerns, listen to the Pilots Association, read all the reports which are available – not just those prepared by the airport – with a critical eye and get them peer-reviewed. Stop repeating airport ‘spin’ as fact. It is essential to take into account that the airport’s mandate is to make money by getting the public to pay for this extension to their asset base. Your mandate is to protect public interest from private machinations. Public money should not be spent on corporate welfare, particularly one built on flimsy foundations which currently do not stand up to scrutiny.

How else will Wellington benefit from your idea:

Using the money currently earmarked for the extension on issues such as stormwater, traffic and natural disaster resilience, would result in a safer, more liveable and smarter city. Wellington could then be promoted as a smart, green liveable city, encouraging new residents and greater visitor numbers.

The alternative is potentially a huge white elephant on the South Coast and a vast waste of public money, the damaging effects of which would reverberate for generations to come.