A conversation with Tamatha Paul

One year, to the day, after the vote on Te Atakura – First to Zero implementation plan, I met with Tamatha Paul, Councilor at the Wellington City Council to discuss climate change, airport expansion and other developments in the East. In this conversation, Tamatha and I reflect on Wellington’s journey to become a carbon neutral city. After the release, earlier this week, of the IPCC report, the call for action has never been louder and more pressing.

Music: https://www.bensound.com


Benoit Pette: Kia ora! Today is the 11th of August, 2021. And I am sitting with Tamatha Paul. Tamatha is a New Zealand activist and politician who currently serves as a Wellington City Councilor. At 24, this is your first term. And you are Councilor for the Lambton ward. Prior to this, Tamatha was 2019 President of the Victoria University of the Wellington Student Association making you the second Maori and first female Maori to be in that role. Today, we will be discussing the City Council, climate change, Airport expansion and Shelly Bay/Mount Crawford. Good morning Tam. How are you?

Tamatha Paul: Good. How are you?

BP: I’m really good. Thank you. Do you feel like you had a good break?

TP: Yes, I had a great break, spent time with the family, which is really important.

The City Council

BP: Yeah. That’s important. (…) I actually wasn’t aware that half way through the year the Council was going in recess. I was trying to reach out to you guys and couldn’t! So do you feel like the vibe around the table is better than earlier in the year?

TP: Yes. The vibe is a lot better. And I think that the Winder report, which was produced, you know, a few months ago has given us some really good direction on how we need to clean up our act and be better at doing our job on behalf of people. So, yeah, I think it’s better. And the other thing too is with having the Mana Whenua reps around the table, I think that gives people even more of a responsibility and obligation to behave themselves.

BP: Yeah absolutely, it’s important. What do you think are the most significant things that the council, and you, have achieved over the first half of this term?

TP: I would say that for me, my two most significant – it’s not even two – but I would say as a newbie, I’m really proud of the work that I’ve done in the climate change space, acknowledging that there is still far to go in reaching our targets. I think I’ve tried and tested different mechanisms to affect change. So, one would be, you know, what the airport loan, and withholding that from them. That’s trying out a method of accountability for those who pollute. I’ve tried investing through bringing forward the $200 million for cycleways and also public transport advocacy to look at mechanisms, to encourage alternatives, to polluting activities such as driving a petrol car. I’ve tried working on policies and strategies and seeing how that works. In helping with the Te Atakura implementation plan, and I’ve tried with notices of motion.

So bringing forward that notice of motion on the banning fossil fuel free vehicles in the CBD. So I’ve tried a range of different tools on one issue. And just as a newbie, I’ve been testing what works and what doesn’t work, but then also returning to my grassroots foundation and organizing protests. So helping with organizing the protest on Courtenay place, around city safety and managing to secure $10 million to improve the city safety, which was another portfolio of mine prior to the restructure. I think it’s been going well. And I think like personally, I’ve been trying every different tool and lever possible to see which ones are the most effective and which aren’t and I think that’s resulted in quite good change, and I think I’ve really hit the ground running. And I really reject this idea that your first term is about learning. And then your second term is about action. Actually, we’ve got just nine years to significantly reduce our carbon emissions and to radically transform the way that we live out everyday lives and to enable Wellingtonians to make the right choices by the environment. So you know, you don’t actually have the privilege of three years to learn. You have three years to act significantly, you know? So that’s what I’d say about my first bit of my term. Yeah.

BP: Having lived through this first part of your term, politics is actually quite gruesome. How has it been going for you? Do you feel this has been painful at times? How’s the experience been for you?

TP: I think it’s been really rewarding and actually finally seeing some good representation of young people and students and Maori voices around the table, for me, that’s been really special and important. I think, like I’m able to handle the kind of more petty parts of this role, because I feel a sense of obligation towards the environment, and to people who need their political representatives to be making future facing decisions. I guess the only kind of time that was personally really challenging for me during the last two years would be the Shelly Bay decision, because either side of that falling on either side of that, neither the decision felt particularly good. And I have strong feelings about Maori land and preserving that. So that was personally very challenging seeing colonization so deep in personally, and I guess, contributing to the grief of that whole process was personally really challenging. So I think aside from that everything else has been super manageable and exciting, I would say.

BP: Exciting enough to run again next year?

TP: Well, if the people want me and need me to do that, then I, of course I would. That’s the space I operate from as a deep sense of gratitude, because, you know I shouldn’t be around the council table. Like I’m not your typical counselor around the country. And I wouldn’t have won if it wasn’t for a super grass roots, super engaged campaign. And so, you know, I feel super grateful for those people who sacrifice their weekends and time to door knock and all of those things to get me here. So, if they want me to do it again, of course, I’ll do anything to serve their interests in their aspirations for the future.

Climate Change and Te Atakura

BP: So watch this space, I guess. Speaking of climate change, it is everyone’s top of the mind at the moment. The climate emergency was declared by the Wellington City Council two years ago. And a year ago, to the day on the 11th of August 2020, Te Atakura First to Zero was being voted in. And of course over the past few months, we’ve seen a lot of extreme weather events throughout the world. And closer to home, we’ve got the South coast which got flooded in March this year, and in April last year. And of course, very topical, we had the IPCC report was released on Monday, which is a very, very bleak. Do you think that we are seeing a shift in the climate now, that this is happening now?

TP: Without a doubt, without a doubt. You just go for a walk around, our forests and our beaches, and you can just see signs that the environment is not able to sustain frequent extreme, these extremes that we’re getting. And it’s really upsetting.

BP: And so communities, businesses and central government there’s a lot of pressure on them to change societies, the way we live etc. What do you think the local government can do to take part in the change that is needed towards climate?

TP: I think the main … there are lots of different … The really positive thing I think about tackling climate change are there are so many ways that you can tackle it. And it really, every decision that everyone from local to central government makes needs to have a climate lens over it and not just a climate lens, but we actually actively have to be making decisions based on what is the best outcome for the climate. So from a local government perspective, I think you have to look at what your country or your city, or, regions emissions profile and work from there.

There’s a lot of different levers that local government can pull in terms of addressing climate change. I think the major ones are looking at spatial form and where housing is in looking at density and making sure that you have as many people packed into spaces where there is good access to public transport, so they don’t have to rely on private vehicle use. And it’s also about looking at the provision of alternatives to private vehicle use. So really good active transport infrastructure and really good access to public transport as well, and really, affordable and reliable and efficient public transport systems as well.

You can also look at the kind of green side of things and making sure that you’ve got lots of indigenous biodiversity and planting in green space and water sensitive, urban design, because all of these things contribute to climate change.

But also waste as another major issue. So looking at the way that people dispose of and consume and their daily lives. So I think that’s the really positive part of it all is that there are so many ways that you can tackle climate change and theoretically, if everybody does their part in that there is really exciting potential there, I think.

BP: Yes but Tamatha, all those actions you talk about are listed in the Te Atakura implementation plan. And what’s worrying is that targets being set in that document, which if we roll out all the actions that are being listed (and some of it derives from the central government actions), we still don’t meet, in Wellington, our targets by 2030. So there’s a gap of 19 points, if we look at the projection. So if we look at the document, there are still gaps, and so we need to find ways to reduce more or Wellington wouldn’t have done it bit to achieve carbon neutrality. What will be done to close that gap?

TP: So the first thing to acknowledge is that Te Atakura, when it was adopted last year, didn’t take into account lots of different decisions that we have made now. So a lot of the measurements are based on kind of middle of the road status, almost status quo decision-making. For example, investment in cycleways, as Te Atakura stands, that was not taken into account that we would do a three years of rapid rollout of the temporary connected cycleways across the city, nor that we would invest in the full package of cycleways across the city to the value of $200 million. Same with the Spatial Plan. It’s not taking into account that we would go above and beyond officer’s recommendations in terms of density. And we’ve actually, I think, gone straight quite a way, from the recommendations and have been more ambitious and how much density we might be able to enable throughout those plans.

So the first thing to acknowledge is that Te Atakura, when it was adopted last year, didn’t take into account lots of different decisions that we have made now. So a lot of the measurements are based on kind of middle of the road status, almost status quo decision-making.

TP: So yes, your point is correct. And that there’s that 19% that we that we haven’t identified. However, I think there’s two parts to that. One part is that the private sector and Wellington contributes significantly to our missions as a city. And at the time that that document was created, we didn’t have a plan for how we would work with the private sector to support them towards carbon neutrality. So that’s currently being worked on and that will give us more of a concrete pathway towards carbon neutrality, but also we, as decision makers are being more ambitious than the actions that are set at in Te Atakura, such as the cycle ways, such as the Spatial Plan. Because those are the two key levers, transport and housing that will get us to carbon neutrality.

So Te Atakura, as a document, because it’s made by officers and the institution, of course, it’s going to be not as radical as we might think because the reality is it’s contingent upon politicians to actually action those things, which  is not the most reliable thing in the world. But the reality is that politicians have been even more ambitious than their plan.

BP: Which is great. You would find a lot of people being satisfied with this. Should we expect, then, a revised version of Te Atakura implementation plan with the new measures you just cited, for example, cycleways and all that? So should we expect a newer version of the implementation plan?

TP: So what’s exciting about the long-term plan that we’ve just passed is that the full investment in Te Atakura is that we have got space to significantly level up our ability to measure carbon and to put that into decision making (…) because if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it, which is I think the point that you’ve made consistently over the last few years. So having that is really important alongside all other actions, we can’t just wait on getting that measuring, we have to be acting in the meantime. But I think once we’ve got that measurement framework in place, that means that when we make decisions on investing in the central library rebuild, or strengthening buildings and civic square, or giving money to the airport, or all of these major decisions, we will actually have a figure that looks at how many tons of carbon might be emitted in each decision we make and have real details in terms of the climate implications.

The level of detail I would like is actually almost in a budget sense: in order to stay on track with our targets, how much carbon can we actually afford to emit a year and almost have it as a budget. And so every decision that we make tracks along that [for example] “oh, we’ve just committed to remediating the Central Library, that means this many tons, that means we only have this much more to work with over the next decade”. So I’d like to see really pinpointed accuracy and that decision making, otherwise we’re just taking stabs in the dark.

BP: Okay. So in terms of reporting to the community, if Te Atakura implementation plan is not updated with those measures and the actions …

TP: That’s not necessarily Te Atakura being updated, that’s just something that’s happening as a consequence of the implementation.

BP: Okay, so what as a community can we expect to see to ensure that we are on the right track?

TP: Before we go onto that, the implementation plan, I think there will need to be a real big concerted community push if people want that to be updated I guess it’s provided a blueprint and we’re getting on with it, but I’m not sure that maybe rejigging it as the most useful use of energy at the moment. But, you know, there’s potential there. Like if people really want it, we can definitely organize around it and get that done.

But, in terms of keeping the community up to date, I think that’s really important to see the progress that we’re making. You know, how many people are not using their cars anymore? Obviously you’d get the basic measures, how we’ve tracking along in terms of our targets, but you want that real detailed look at how things are going.

And I would hope that we would be able to develop a dashboard. So we’ve been talking heaps about how do we communicate the story to  Wellington about how we’re progressing in our journey together. Because that’s the journey we’re going on together. It’s not just Wellington City Council. You know, people have to actually want us to be making these decisions and then want to make those behavioral choices. And I think we’ve been doing really good in trying to enable people to make different choices, lifestyle choices, but there’s still so much more that we need to do. So, I think a dashboard would be a really cool way to communicate that story to everyone.

BP: Well, especially since the City Council in general, I think it’s actually quite good to communicate. I mean, there’s a lot of tools you can actually use to get information out of the Council. But surely there must be a channel just laying out the plan and how we are tracking along that plan.

You talked about one of the ways to reduce emission is to create a more compact city. You’re obviously very aware that construction is far from being carbon neutral or even having a roadmap to be carbon neutral. Concrete is an extremely high emitter. And if we need to learn anything from COVID, working from home worked. Life was going on, even if we were all spread in our homes. How does this Spatial Plan where we build more houses fits with the reuse, reduce, recycle philosophy that applies to housing, where we could actually reuse the office buildings and repurpose them into housing, thus avoiding transport needs, construction emissions, boost businesses in the burbs, even while maintaining an income for businesses in the CBD? So I guess my question to you Tamatha is: “do we need a CBD?”

TP: I think it works for Wellington. Definitely. I think you’re right in that building more houses, undoubtedly has impacts on the environment and it affects the natural environment. But I think from a climate perspective now, even before we add in that climate lens, we know that New Zealand as a country, the whole picture as a country, more and more people are moving to the cities. So we’ve got an urbanization trend and that’s positive for climate change in that when you have people living in cities, it’s easier to put in place lifestyle options that contribute positively towards a climate safe future. I’ve just read a massive article about this.

The more houses that we can build or the more housing we can provide, not necessarily build within a city is positive, because it means that you can have an impact on more people’s like travel behaviors and work behaviors and all of these things. So that’s, I think the first thing to say.The second thing is you’re absolutely right, and that there are increasingly more organizations or businesses moving out of the CBD or the central city and there’s our surplus of office space that should be, and could be turned into houses. I think it’s an awesome idea, I think it’s an excellent idea. And I know that Wellington City Council, I think last triennium began experimenting with that idea. So we’ve repurposed one building on Willis street into Te Kainga: 50 offices were converted into apartments and they have been reserves for low to middle income workers and families, which I think is really awesome.

I think that offers a really cool and unique opportunity to be repurposing those buildings, as you say, and there’s going to be a surplus amount of carparks that we don’t need anymore. There’s heaps of car parking buildings around the city. So how might those be repurposed into … maybe not necessarily housing, but something more useful, a 21st century view of things as opposed to car parking buildings. I think it’s a really good opportunity and one that we should be making the most.

The second thing is you’re absolutely right, and that there are increasingly more organizations or businesses moving out of the CBD or the central city and there’s our surplus of office space that should be, and could be turned into houses. I think it’s an awesome idea, I think it’s an excellent idea.

Expanding the Airport in a climate emergency

BP: It it seems to me, listening to what you’re saying, it’s one of the lever that the City Council, which is in charge urban planning, can actually leverage.

Thinking of change of habits and in the way of living … the Airport expansion, what do you think of that? Do you support this project?

TP: To be totally transparent with you: in the case that we have to vote on this, I’ll not give you a black and white answer, but I think expanding an airport and at the middle of a climate crisis is reckless and irresponsible. And that’s why the Airport needs to be held to account. It’s been extremely frustrating reading – because I’ve read the whole expansion proposal, the full-length document – climate change is not mentioned once! Like just the two words are not even, they don’t make an appearance at all throughout the document. So that’s very frustrating, especially because they are aware that there is a massive concern for us as a city. And especially the people living in the area, that’s a major concern, so I just found it quite frustrating. It’s quite reckless.

… expanding an airport and at the middle of a climate crisis is reckless and irresponsible.

BP: It was interesting, yes: they do talk in this particular document on the project about the constraints that the community is placing on them, the legacy, their location, that is an asset, and at the same time, a constraint. It’s an interesting read. So what can we do then? By the way, to step back a little bit, the Airport expansion we’re talking about is the airport transforming half of the golf course – which in the District Plan is a buffer between the Airport operations and community – they want to convert that buffer into a plane park. What can the Council do to get in the way of the Airport expansion?

TP: There’s actually not a lot that the Council can do because of the way that the statutory environment is set up. You’ve got like, it makes no sense to me, but you’ve got, people like the airport who are Requiring Authority who can designate land to their operations. And simultaneously a massive part of the process, the consultative process with the community. And there is very little room for Councils to, you know, the consenting authority and the planning, the people who are planning, doing the plan, their annex, the designations to actually oppose it. And that’s a way that capitalism is upheld by structures … because it removes community’s ability to actually oppose something in the interest of the environment. There’s actually very little way that Council can intervene in that process.

BP: Well, actually – I’m just throwing an idea out there – the Council being the community, do you think Councilors could issue a public statement to say, we, as a city, we oppose this project? Is that something you think the Council could do? Because actually it would be quite powerful. It would at least clarify that, within Wellington, we are against, or for. Do you think it’s something that could potentially make a difference?

TP: It could do. I don’t know if the numbers would be there around the table, but I think it’s definitely the …

BP: It is a good test!

TP: It is a good test! To see people’s commitments to tackling climate change and being realistic about it. And I think the only thing that’s stopped me from doing that is I’m just not sure if we will have to make another decision on it at all in the district planning process. Because I wanted to make a submission during the process in April on the expansion, to say that I thought that expanding any airport in a climate crisis, I see it as irresponsible. I sought information about whether I could or couldn’t make a submission and whether we would, or wouldn’t make a decision in the future that might be impacted by me making a submission, whether it’s a conflict in that I’ve got a predetermined decision that I would already make and I didn’t get a very clear answer back on that. I was chasing around looking for an answer. I couldn’t really get a decisive answer. So I’m not actually sure.

BP: That’s crazy, right? I mean, as a politician, not being able to express your opinion in a free fashion is mad, right?

So speaking of the district plan, and maybe it’s a bit technical here, but there are actually at least two chapters just dedicated to the Airport and the noise it can and can’t do. So yes, on one side of the Airport has the potential to overwrite the District Plan and potentially be even more destructive to the social fabric in the East. But putting that aside, could, should [the District Plan] be the place to put a cap on emissions and say: “We’ve measured emissions at the Airport. You’re emitting 100,000 tons of CO2 per year. You just can’t go beyond this. You can expand if you want, but you cannot emit more than that.”?

TP: I’m not actually sure. Because the additions to the RMA around carbon emissions are relatively new, I’m not sure exactly what the application of those look like. And I’m not even sure if they are into effect yet. So I’m not actually sure what the scope of how that might apply, but surely that’s something that can be considered, as a rule in the District Plan, but that’s still quite unclear. But it’s definitely something I will investigate throughout the process. And that’s why I really wanted to be the deputy chair of the planning and environment committee, because I know that it’s all the subject matter of that committee that matters the most for climate change. So your transport, your housing, your District Plan, all of that is super important. And being in that position, you have more access to information and the technical advice and expertise working on these plans, I’ll find out for you. I’ll just commit publicly to doing everything I can to really holding people to account for the contributions to climate change.

Shelly Bay and Mount Crawford

BP: That’s very important. There are other developments, of course, in the East: Shelly Bay, Mount Crawford is another one, potentially. 650 homes, being built over there but back to what we were talking about earlier, first of all, none of those developments align with the Spatial Plan. It says we should be building close to the inner suburbs, along the main transport spine and greener. Well, you can argue the greener, maybe they’re going to do it, but who knows? But these two simply don’t align. Back to what we were saying earlier around the reuse, reduce, recycle in housing, and I appreciate it’s not an easy answer there, but did you think this was like the best approach to let Shelly Bay happen? And will you support the plan of 300 homes being built on Mount Crawford?

TP: That’s is a hard one to answer … I don’t think that the infrastructure is there currently to support that many people living out there. So obviously, like we need to look at the provision of three waters infrastructure, but also transport infrastructure as well. And I don’t mean roads, I mean reliable, decent, affordable buses and all that kind of stuff. I think that that’s a really hard one to answer because obviously there’s the concerns that you’ve outlined. But I think there’s a whole lot of other considerations in there that played into a lot of people’s decision-making for example, things that I’ve heard from people who are a part of that iwi about the things that ambitions or aspirations that they have for that particular area. My understanding is that Mount Crawford might not even necessarily be a development and that actually, as an iwi, there hasn’t been a conversation about whether that land should be housing developments or not. So that’s why I said potentially.

BP: Do you think that, like Shelly Bay where most of the community inputs has been shut – it is an Special Housing Area – consultation really never happened. Do you think that perhaps there should be more consultation for Mount Crawford?

TP: Well, I think consultation can be tricky because you do get a lot of nimbyism. Whether you agree or not, I think that nimbyism can overtake some of those public participatory processes, which isn’t a reason not to do it. It should definitely be done, but I understand why you would have those concerns out in the East, because like I said before, the infrastructure is just not there to support more growth. That’s why I advocated so strongly for density and growth in the inner city, because we have access to public transport. We are, for most people, in walking distance from town and workplaces in educational institutions and all of that good stuff. I think the intensity in the inner city, and like you say, ideas like repurposing existing buildings is really important before we look out to those areas.

I don’t really have a stance on developments out there. But particularly with Mount Crawford, because that is actual really viable land in comparison to Shelly bay, which might be super vulnerable to sea level rise, Mount Crawford itself is viable and you might do a number of different things with it and it will probably be there for a long time. And so I think it’s really important that whatever happens there truly honors what the aspirations of the iwi are, because it’s stolen land, that land was actually stolen for crown defense purposes, which is also not all good.

BP: What can we do to fight nimbyism? What can we do to create better engagement? What can we do to create a better consensus across between the different parties?

TP: I think they would be less nimbyism if more creative solutions were explored. I think that’s where people’s frustration is. It seems like there will be drastic and significant change in the neighborhoods as opposed to first exploring the alternatives, like repurposing office buildings or upgrading our social housing and building more of it, or you drive along Kent and Cambridge terrace, or walk along, it’s just all car yards. So it’s really frustrating for people to see all of the space being wasted by car yards and stuff like that. Prime land that would be perfect for housing, that potentially light rail might run alongside one day soon, hopefully, that’s being used to sell cars! I can see how infuriating that is for communities and it’s not even looking good.

So I can see where the frustration comes from. Absolutely. But again, that grip of capitalism that protects places like this car yards and stuff from being used and, you know, towards the needs that really exist out there is so entrenched through a lot of different systems. And so that’s why I say we need to try really hard to explore different and creative ways of doing things. There’s no silver bullet in this whole situation. And we can’t say just because we’ve enabled density in the central city that the housing will necessarily come, we have to be actively exploring alternatives, state provision of housing through things like Te Kainga, rebuilds and conversions and all types of different creative ways to look at the provision of housing.

BP: So this will be my last question: Do you think there’s an opportunity perhaps in the District Plan to provide those suburbs, where more developments will eventually happen, that what what’s coming their way will be of good quality, well thoughts, well integrated with transport, with greeneries? For example, I am a big fan of ensuring that for whatever new developments that’s coming, there’s 10 to 20% of the surface area dedicated to green space. Do you think there’s an opportunity there to actually create a better consensus?

TP: Yes, there’s always an opportunity through planning processes to do all of those things into capture and honor people’s aspirations for the places they live and their homes. And I know that cause I’m halfway through my master’s and planning. So I’m learning all about the different ways that you …it’s not just about tokenistic public participation at the end. It’s actually about understanding what those aspirations are and understanding how to enable them, but also honoring the fact that we are in multiple crisis, the biggest of which is climate change. So the answer is yes, there is a lot of potential to do lots of different things, but the District Plan is just one part of enabling all of that. And you actually need decision-makers with really good relationships with central government and Chief execs at different ministries and people in the private sectors and developers and architects, and people that specialize in green spaces and all of these different connections in relationships to create an ecosystem of people who want to create a vision for Wellington.

That’s really important. This conversation on the district plan, it’s so important and we do it so rarely that, of course we have to nail it. But it’s just one part of that vision. And so I would encourage people next year. You know, when you’re making the really important decision about who you’re going to elect, or reelect that you really take a look at what relationships they’ve built and what conversations they’ve started or are having with all of those different players. City building and city making as all about the art of relationships with different people and being able to realize those dreams using a number of different levers. So I think that’s the most important thing. And the District Plan, we need to nail that. That has to be on point as well.

It’s actually about understanding what those aspirations are and understanding how to enable them, but also honoring the fact that we are in multiple crisis, the biggest of which is climate change.

BP: That’s a beautiful way to close the discussion. Thank you so much, Tamatha, for your time and your availability and good luck with the District Plan.

TP: Thank you so much.