The runway extension show, edition 2021

Earlier this year, the Wellington City Council started discussing the Long Term Plan which went out for consultation in April-May. While preparing the draft, one point received a significant amount of scrutiny: the zombie runway extension. It’s a zombie because everyone believes it’s dead, but the airport tries to keep it alive. It’s also a zombie because most Wellingtonians know how much of a bad idea it has always been, especially in a climate emergency, but the airport keeps pushing for it. The last attempt to attract ratepayers’ money to fund it failed, thanks to the good work of some City Councillors. Before this sad episode disappears completely from our collective conscience, let’s document one last time, in chronological order, how it started, how it went, and how it ended.

It all began on the 25th of February when the City Council had its first Strategy Meeting to discuss the LTP. Privatising the Central Library was at the heart of heated debates, but something else went seemingly off the radar. To make it more obvious, Councillor Paul took on Twitter to announce the runway extension had, at last, disappeared from the LTP. Councillor Pannett also touted this win for the climate. But then, City Council Officers coughed quietly and told them this was not completely accurate and the runway extension was still probably in the budget. The tweets were deleted and the following ones were published:

This got the community quite agitated and it was quickly pointed out that indeed, the (now infamous) project 1083 could be a trojan runway. In 2018, this code was used to register costs against an explicitly called out “runway extension” (a project supported by the then Mayor, Justin Lester). In 2021, the same project code was used for a mysterious “seawall”. The project code was lodged in the operating costs section, was labelled as a $75M loan to the airport, and yet, no repayment from the airport was to be found anywhere in the LTP.

The City Council was being asked to use ratepayers’ money to be the bank for the airport. This seemed fishy, and quite outrageous too when the Council was searching in every pocket crease for money to fund essential infrastructure work (mostly to stop unintended geysers from popping in random streets of the city). Wellington had been warned it should brace itself for a steep 13.5% rate increase, and yet, an undocumented, unbalanced $75M loan was floating its way in the budget.

So for a week, Councillors tried every avenue, internal to the Council but to the airport too, seeking clarification on this “seawall”. For a whole week, Councillors were unable to get answers to these crucial questions. Until the 4th of March, at 8:32AM, the chair of the airport board sent an email to all Councillors. It was about time: 28 minutes later, the Councillors and the Mayor would have their second Strategy meeting to vote on the draft LTP, the version that would be released for consultation. In this email, Tim Brown detailed how the loan requested by the airport would be used. Rather than paraphrasing it, here it is, in full:

At least, that email had the merit to clear the confusion: the loan would be used for protection AND extension. How Tim Brown believes GHG emissions can decrease when the number of flights increase is a truth that belongs to a parallel universe, but let’s not digress. With good information at hand, the City Council voted Project 1083 out of the LTP, and Councillors Pannett and Paul could finally rejoice.

On the 5th of March, on the following day, the Airport went into damage control. Steve Sanderson, CEO of the airport, apparently hadn’t been briefed the day before by Tim Brown and explained to whoever wanted to listen that the loan was for seawall protection only. He also said the airport had wished to clarify the purpose of the loan, but was never asked or contacted on that matter (maybe the cell phone coverage is not that good at the airport since the City Council tried to get answers for a whole week prior to the vote).

A week later, on the 13th of March, the airport went further and argued the loan saga was just a small setback and took to the DomPost to reassure its shareholders, stating development plans were on track. It was probably alluding to the expansion to the East, over the golf course, an expansion currently out for consultation.

Finally, on the 16th of March, when airport staff visited the City Council (and probably experienced the horrendous traffic they contribute to creating), they came with some clarifications. Instead of a loan (which, pinky promise, was only for a seawall), the airport would have preferred a grant. A grant? Here is Google’s explanation of the difference between a loan and a grant: “The main difference between a grant and a loan is repayment. A loan requires you to repay the money you borrow, whereas a grant does not. Grants are, essentially, a gift.”. That’s right, ratepayers, the airport was asking for a $75M gift, probably forgetting the fact Valentine’s Day is in February.

Of this debacle, a mystery remained: how come a 10 year local government budget could contain such a nebulous line, for such a significant amount of cash, when money was so scarce? The question was asked on the 10th of March to Council Officers via Twitter. It will be up to the reader to decide how convincing their explanation can be.

Generation Zero also made a request under the Official Information Act and asked for reports or assessments on the financial implications of this loan, including the return on investment and the impact on the rates, how the sea wall project would benefit WCC’s assets including transport and three waters infrastructure, and how it aligned with WCC’s commitments under Te Atakura – First to Zero. The response from the City Council was … mystifying! The City Council refused to provide the information on the ground that it didn’t exist! In conclusion, no report, no assessment had been undertaken by City Council Officers to ask elected members to vote for a $75M loan to the airport, at a time of great budget uncertainty!

The energy, the time, and the money this debacle has cost the community are hard to quantify, but it’s not small. When will the airport understand that because of its location, the community will always come first, and the community does not want this extension? Is this the end to this show that the airport and the City Council gave the city to be sorry about. Unfortunately, it is probably not over and we will leave the last word to Councillor Calvert, who said, closing the 16th of March meeting: “I’m sure this won’t be the end of the topic.”

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