Le Cahier Bleu

The mystery of $75m for the airport – part 2

L'aeroport - lui encore - a une derniere fois essaye de faire passer l'extension de sa piste dans le budget du conseil municipal. Mais cette fois, c'est la democratie, et le climat, qui ont gagne.

Le 15 Mars 2021 - Tags: opinion, scoop, airport

Despite a pandemic, despite significant concerns about climate change, and despite already having a significant footprint over the eastern suburbs, Wellington Airport has been pushing for growth and showing it couldn’t care less about these issues.

And while the communities, activists, lawyers and climate experts were submitting against the eastwards expansion plan, another project, thought to have been abandoned, resurfaced a couple of weeks ago: the runway extension.

It came as a surprise since the Mayor had committed to remove Council funding towards it (although he also said he wouldn’t oppose the Airport doing it on its own, but let’s not digress).

Following the rocky Strategy & Policy Committee meeting to discuss the draft LTP (which was followed by the Mayor appointing an external commissioner), confusion reigned on the runway extension.

Initially, Councillors believed it had gone for good and celebrated on Twitter.

iona tweet

Yet the following day, things weren’t so sure:

tamatha tweet

Indeed, a mysterious line in the budget was not explained: in the economic development section, under Project code 1083, a loan of $75m was meant to be offered to the Airport … for sea walls. This was weird: in the LTP 2018, in the same section, the same project code was named as runway extension.

The following week, Councillors and the community were scrambling for more information. Was this sea wall a new name for the runway extension? Or was it for maintenance purposes? If so, why was it under economic development? Why would the Council be the Airport’s bank? What would be the benefits received by the Council for doing such a loan? Despite multiple attempts and much efforts, no information was made available.

The risk of a disguised runway extension was too high. Councillors Paul and Pannett moved an amendment to have this line removed from LTP. With the support of the many groups and lawyers who made an oral submission, the amendment passed and the “sea wall” was removed from the budget.

Following the meeting, more details were publicly requested from the Council. The response came back in 24 hours:

benoit tweet 1

benoit tweet 2

It will be up to the public to decide if this explanation answers all the questions.

What is certain, however, is that, in voting this budget line out, the Council has at last drawn a line in the sand against the Airport’s expansion plan. It is courageous for the Council to state it will not muck around with the city’s biggest polluter any more.

One has to hope the same level of leadership will be displayed against the airport’s appetite for growth, until flying sustainably is a reality, and also to preserve some level of wellbeing in the eastern suburbs.

For example, a close look at the Airport submission for its eastward expansion does not provide any guarantee that the road south of the runway will remain, or that noise limits over weekends will be reduced.

The runway extension, the expansion plan over the golf course, the recreational traffic – by voting to remove the runway extension from the budget, the Council showed leadership in addressing climate change. Let’s hope this will encourage it to divest its investment in an asset that contributes to 20% of Wellington’s GHG emissions, and to define, once and for all, a framework for the Airport to work under with the community at its heart.

PS: And to make the story complete: the Airport, which claimed it never had the opportunity to clarify that the budget line was effectively for a sea wall, sent an email to Councillors a few days BEFORE the vote to say the loan was effectively for runway protection/extension. The email was tabled by Councillor Tamatha Paul (page 88).

- Benoit -