A conversation with Sarah Free

Mid-July, I wrote an article called “A mid-term City Council assessment and the Eastern mega developments”. This piece was an opportunity to look at our city, its issues and its opportunities. I also looked at how our City Council had navigated these troubled waters and is sailing towards the approaching icebergs (namely climate change, housing, transport or how to restore faith in our local democracy). I drifted to the East where mega-developments are lining up, seemingly without community input.

I closed the article in inviting the Mayor and the three Eastern ward Councilors to react and comment. Below is the transcript of my conversation with Sarah Free, Deputy Mayor together with the recording.

It is the first in a series of three (maybe four) conversations which, I hope, will give the readers of this blog a sense of how their elected members are faring the challenges the city is facing.

Music: https://www.bensound.com


Benoit Pette: Kia Ora. Today is Friday the 6th of August and I am joined by Sarah Free. Sarah you are an engineer in the Energy sector by trade. You have been Councillor for the Wellington City Council since 2013. This is your third term and you are also Deputy Mayor. You are a member of the Green Party. Sarah, how are you?

Sarah Free: I’m good. I do have to point out that I did an engineering degree, but I only worked as an engineer for a limited number of years before I actually retrained as a secondary school teacher and then subsequently retrained in a public health and worked as an energy advisor for the sustainability trust. So most of my career has probably been spent either as a teacher or working with the community to make, um, housing healthier, but I still have an engineering background and I think a lot of that early trainings mean I think with an engineering kind of framework around things.

BP: Yeah. Um, you mentioned to me the other day that you installed solar panels on your house. Did you use that background to take part in the installation?

SF: Well I’m really interested in energy. So both my husband and I actually have an engineering background. He has one as well, so it was something we were kind of interested in exploring, and we have the technology to monitor it and see how we can use it to save ourselves some money and also not draw as much power from the grid, leaving it for other people to use.

BP: No, that’s very good. And then you run to become Councillor in the Eastern ward back in 2013. Why did you decide to enter politics?

SF: Yeah, people have asked me that. I think I had become quite energized and upset over the sale of electricity assets, actually. The power stations, I saw them as really critical infrastructure. I was really upset about that and it all tied back into feeling that we were making a lot of decisions that weren’t necessarily in the interests of the country as a whole, or really interests of people. And through my work with the sustainability trust, I’d also seen how difficult it was for people on low incomes to do anything much to improve their situation because all the odds were stacked against them. So I started to feel like the work I was doing was that the was a bit like the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff rather than the fence at the top. And I guess I got interested in seeing if I could make a different set a different level. And about that time, the Green noticed the work I was doing in the campaign against the asset sales and, you know, sort of other things that I was involved in. And I guess someone asked me if I was interested in standing for council. And it turned out that they were quite keen for me to stand in the Eastern ward, they saw an opportunity there and, and I was successful.

BP: That’s very interesting. And I guess we will be discussing whether you feel you have been able to make a difference and still feel you can. What I didn’t know is that half-way through the year, the Council goes in recess and you guys all part ways and have a break. Do you feel you had a good break?

SF: I had a really nice break, but only for about three weeks. And then back to work towards the end of July now, it’s like we never had a break at all. But anyway, it was nice. And I think that break does give our staff a little bit of time too, without the constant pressure of meetings and Councilors around to get on with some work.

Engagement and the Council

BP: And do you feel like the vibe is now a bit better around the Council table?

SF: I do. We have had, of course we had the Winder report when we were brave enough to go and say to somebody who does a lot of work with local government come and have a look at us and tell us where we can or need to improve, how bad are we really? And it was reassuring in that, the feedback was that, although our council’s a bit was … there were some difficult moments and clashes with personalities and agendas, we were still making really good decisions. And in fact, the recommendations in the report were reasonably straightforward, so they didn’t consider our portfolio system was helping with a collective view and, and collective decision making. They thought we’d be better off to organize our work through, committees rather than trying to rely on portfolio leaders to drive things forward. So we tried to implement every single recommendation. We just took it on board. And to be honest, I think it has been helpful. It does feel to me like council’s a little bit more calm and we’re working more collegially together.

BP: So we had a series of portfolio before, and one of them that is dear to my heart is engagement. I actually wonder now, in this new structure with committees, who would be in charge of looking at the way the Council is working, how it engages with the community and how can it make it better?

SF: So I think that’s always been the responsibility of all of us really. It’s part of the job of a local ward Councilors to do your best, to engage with people and to respond to their concerns, to go to community meetings sometimes to set meetings up, if there’s a very contentious issue. Um, look, I know that people always feel that we could do it better because the reality of it is there isn’t really enough hours in the day to do all the engagement that you would like to do, but it’s not, anyone’s, it’s never really been anyone’s particular job because we all need to be responsible for doing it.

BP: Yeah, I guess so. It’s good that in a city like Wellington, especially considering the intent of the government to perhaps centralize more, that we still can approach our Councilors, like today for example, we can actually have this discussion. I think it’s extremely important that we keep that. But there has been some frustration around the consultation process, for example, where people don’t feel are actually really listened to. Sometimes we have situations where, candidates are being elected on some promises and these promises are being broken. Sometimes even we have the elected members taking a decision, or voting on something, and then it doesn’t get implemented by the officers because they decide otherwise. One example is the shared path around Massey road. I mean, you guys voted for it twice and twice It got defaulted to “oh we got better things to do so”. Surely there must be better ways to ensure that’s the community is accurately represented by the Councilors and the Councilors to actually carry the true intent of the community. So what are thoughts on this?

SF: Well, I just might mention that I think we haven’t been helped by losing the cook straight news, which was our local newspaper, which is always really helpful and pointing out what was happening with Council. I mean, there were public meetings on, and, I think it’s been unfortunate that we don’t have that anymore. There was nothing to do with council, that was a decision of the guy who, who had it as a business, that it wasn’t working for him. Sadly, yes, you are right. There are some failings there, I think in terms of both those things that you’re saying, we do try to listen to the community, but, and not everybody thinks the same. So we have to take everybody’s views into account. And often where we land is somewhere in the middle where no one’s particularly happy with us, you know, cause we’ve had to make a compromise because we know people think, you know, sometimes views are quite polarized and where we land up is where we think the best position is, but doesn’t make anyone overjoyed, but hopefully most people can live with it.

And you’re also right about the actions about officers sometimes not picking up on resolutions at Council. And we now have an item on all of our agendas, which is actually tracking the actions that we’ve agreed on and what the progress has been made. So we’re hoping that action tracking  – it was one of the things that came out of the Winder report – has a better ability for Councilors to set the agenda, which we had very little oversight of previously, the staff used to bring the agenda. Now we have a mechanism whereby we can put things on the agenda in a more transparent way. And in terms of transparency, we do all of our meetings are on YouTube and open to the public. And we do have our minutes got quite quickly and people can see what’s happened at the meetings.

So I think in some things we’re doing quite well, other things we’re working on a process of improvement. The Massey Road was actually very frustrating to me personally. And there was some negotiations and discussions around that Shelly bay development and iwi views on that, which I don’t quite understand, but I think that’s part of the mix as to why it hasn’t yet happened. I’m still hopeful it will. But it is disappointing that it hasn’t yet happened from my point of view personally.

BP: Well I certainly think some of the things the Council is doing is remarkable. I mean, the fact that every council meeting is actually broadcast live on YouTube is amazing. The fact that the minutes come out rather quickly is pretty good. I mean, overall, I can see it’s working. But, I wish there was some way where the Council was actually reflecting to ensure that when one claim, as a group or as a Councilor “Wellingtonians want this”, or “my community wants that”, that it is actually accurate, that we know for sure that you’re not claiming representing a group and that this group is actually just a minority. So it’d be interesting to hear from you guys, if you have any initiatives to refine this particular process.

SF: I’m always pretty cautious when I say “the community wants something”, because just as I’ve told you, I know that there actually are quite a lot of views. There are some Councilor who do quite boldly claim that the community thinks this, community thinks that. And I often wonder if they actually know what all the people in their community think. I guess we could look into using more tools. There are software tools that you can use that are quite good at telling you what people think. You know, some of our consultations we use in those pie graphs where we reflect on where people live, what percentage of people are strongly in support, somewhat support, neutral, somewhat oppose or oppose. And those kinds of things can be done in real time, too. So as the feedback comes in, you can actually see the percentages changing.

BP: Thinking now about the Spatial Plan, for example, where there was a lot of claims that the people who actually submit are the people who’ve got time and they retired and therefore the demographic who actually take part in a consultation are not  a true reflection of the community. Surely there should be some solution that should be considered to enable this raw connection with what people truly want, a solution that would unequivocally say: “this is what the community wants” or “this is what this group of people in this particular area, think is very important”.

Continuing on the Spatial Plan and also engagement, I remember the Mayor Foster saying the debate had been quite divisive and it didn’t have to be. Do you think the same, that it was very divisive, and it didn’t have to be that way?

SF: I do think there were some very different views on the Spatial Plan. And again, it was a situation where we have one group of people, younger people, often people who are renting, that demographic really felt we needed to be what they called bold and make a real change in our Spatial Plan to allow things to do, be done differently, more dense, mainly more dense housing in higher housing. And then there was another group that actually basically didn’t want to see that happen or not to the same extent and valued things like the way the city looks and feels, who didn’t want to see it change too much. And to be fair, I think those were both genuinely held sets of views and it was really hard to reconcile them. And again, as I say, when you make your final decision, you’re trying to keep both of those views of mind and land somewhere where you think you might have the balance right. In every Councilor is going to think somewhat differently about that. When, I think what the Mayor might’ve meant about it being divisive as it got quite personal, you know, some Councilors claimed that other Councilor were NIMBYs, that some didn’t know what renting was like. They’ve got a little bit, perhaps a little bit personal and a little bit more aggressive than it needed to be, but you know, that’s politics. And sometimes it does get a bit rough around the edges and emotions came running quite high.

BP: Sometimes. Yeah. But the thing is that what happened at the Council actually had ripple effects throughout the community. And, what was perhaps harsh and personal around the Council table actually, became exactly that within the community. Online, for example, I’ve seen extremely harsh comments targeted at people or Councilors, personally, not necessarily on their views or ideas. There was a lot of assumptions.

SF: A lot of assumptions. I would agree with that. You know, and I think that people, my colleagues, you know, all of us, myself included, we all need to be very mindful of the fact that, you know, that politicians make some tough decisions, but they also people and, and it is a tough job. And we’ve seen that evidence by the fact that a lot of there’s been a high turnover actually amongst Councilors. You know, there’s a lot of Councilors who’ve decided for whatever reason that that do one or two terms, and then that’s enough. So it is a tough job because you’re constantly rubbing up against people who don’t think you’ve made the right decision, or don’t like the decision you’ve made can’t understand why you’ve made that decision. I don’t necessarily have all the information. And then you’ve also got those personality things sometimes too.

BP: I mean his personality definitively, but also I guess, the ability of all those individuals who decide to go, on the front stage, to communicate their message and actually take, people around the table and across the community, on the journey with them. What do you think can be done by the Council to help people come to the consensus where you are going as a Council?

SF: I think what you’re talking about as leadership and what we are working, that was part of what the winter report did highlight that our council needs to be able to speak with a collective voice. We obviously won’t agree, but we will make a decision. And once we’ve made that decision, we need to be able to articulate it and communicate the reasons for it. And I think that is something that we’re still in the process of working on. The report did say the Mayor needs to show more leadership, but possibly I do as Deputy Mayor as well. But probably all of us actually need to be able to show that leadership. It is what we are trying to also have Councilor only time, time we just get together as a Council, and talk about stuff. Because we won’t always agree, but is there some common ground where we can present, perhaps a little bit more of a clearer way, a clearer view of the way we’re collectively thinking rather than what goes on frequently where someone’s articulating a view out here and someone’s articulating one out there and it looks like a bit of a mess.

BP: It’s actually feel like this sometimes.  

SF: Yeah, it does. And it’s a little bit rocky and I think it’s rockier than I’ve known it in the past. And I think part of that is the sense of urgency that we’re all dealing with. You know, things are broken, a lot of money needs to be spent focusing things and then we have climate change. And so we have the sense of huge urgency and issues that need to be addressed and solved, but there isn’t always a clear consensus or view as to what’s a priority how to do it. And even what’s a priority. So we’re getting there, but it is a work in progress.

In the East

BP: So look, I had a segway to my next topic, but then you just gave me another one which is climate change and of course engagement. In the East, we are the subject of a lot of scrutiny and appetite, with massive developments It is happening in the East, but it is also very relevant to Wellington because what’s going to happen in the Eastern suburbs, might actually shift the center of gravity of Wellington towards Kilbirnie, Miramar. More specifically, we’ve got the Airport Expansion, that’s a billion dollars to expand over the golf course. We have Shelly Bay of course, and Mount Crawford now. Altogether we’ve got 2 billion. You can even argue with that Let’s Get Wellington Moving and its $6 billion are actually to make the East more accessible. So a lot of money to transform a part of Wellington and I actually wonder, and that’s my question, how much does Wellington want this? Whether you think it’s a good idea to expand that way so much, in that direction? We’re talking 650 homes being built in the East, is it the best place?

SF: The interesting thing Benoit, is that you talk about lots of developments in the East, but actually the Spatial Plan hardly had any extra heights or intensity in the Eastern suburbs compared to what’s happening in the rest of Wellington. Newtown in particular, the CBD, Mount Victoria and everywhere up the train line to the North, all of those places where it stops at stations like Khandallah, like Tawa, like Johnsonville, all of those places, will be six storey development allowed, as of right. And within a 15 minute walk of the railway station now, 10 minutes, sorry, it’s within a 10 minute walk of the railway station. Now that 10 minute walks quite a long way. And within that 10 minute catchment area of all of those railway stations, you’ll be allowed six storey high buildings. So compared to that, the East is actually got a relatively, at the moment, is actually relatively untouched by the Spatial Plan.

I argued that they should be allowed some more development and Strathmore, because actually I thought we don’t want to be completely left out of the opportunity to have some growth. And as well as that, there was identified an opportunity over Mount Crawford, because iwi are in negotiations, apparently, I don’t know much about it at an in depth level, to have first right of refusal over that land if it goes on the market.

But to be honest, some of the other things you mentioned they’re far from actually happening. So, the Airport, with the climate change challenges and COVID, I don’t know when, if, if ever will actually do that development. And then it’s still subject to a decision through the commissioner, through the hearing. That hearing has been delayed, it asked for more information, I think it’s due out at the end of August.

So we may hear what they think about the plans, but even at the plans are approved, I think it would be a long way before they actually happen. And Shelly Bay, they’ve withdrawn the latest lot of consents to the Regional Council, and there is another court case happening. So, you know, some of these things probably will happen, but maybe not in quite the way we think they’re going to happen, and it may be quite a way off. But I agree with you, and even Let’s Get Wellington Moving, there’s talk that the main Mass Transit that may actually go to the south, leaving us with bus rapid transit and bus lanes, which might be actually a better solution for us? So when you’re saying lots of changes coming to the East, yes there are, but I think in the scale of what the other changes around the city, they’re not, it’s not like the East is particularly slated for lots of changes.

So when you’re saying lots of changes coming to the East, yes there are, but I think in the scale of what the other changes around the city, they’re not, it’s not like the East is particularly slated for lots of changes.

BP: But at the same time, Sarah, the Spatial Plan actually specifically said throughout the consultation that, what Wellingtonians wanted was growth in the inner suburbs, along a main transport spine and greener. That’s what they said they wanted. Mount Crawford and Shelly Bay don’t take any of those boxes. So that’s the raises the question, what …

SF: It will have to be dealt with when it happens. Shelly bay, as you know, took place initially, it’s happened. I mean, the consents from the council point of view, and I didn’t vote for it, but it was voted for, that has happened. Mount Crawford hasn’t and we’ll have to go through all of those testing processes to see if there’s going to be enough infrastructure to support whatever’s there and what the impacts would be. But I do worry about it. I do worry about the transport impacts. It’s always been my passion to try and ensure we had good public transport and good cycling and walking. I’ve spent most of my focus time I’ve been on Council has been around those things.

BP: That’s actually accurate, in the sense that all the energy you spend, even in the previous term was to get all cycleways rolled out and this is happening now.

SF: So that’s pretty good. I haven’t given up. Yeah, it’s going to be more, not so much in the East, but there’ll be other parts of the city. I’m working now to make sure we get bus priority lanes so that our bus system actually works a little more efficiently. So, you know, cause if we don’t get the light rail or mass transit or whatever we might’ve had, we do need a really robust, good bus system, really efficient.

BP: All right, but we need to decide, not one of those officers in his tower who should make that decision.

SF: No, we are making that decision. The problem we’ve got with transport as well, Wellington city has the ability to put in all the bike lanes without having to ask too much permission from anybody. We actually can’t do much about the buses. We can put in the bus lanes and good bus infrastructure, bus stops, bus parking, so bus drivers can have breaks. But we can’t actually run the bus service because their function is with the Regional Council. But I am really pleased to say that I think the Regional Council is doing a much better job with this triennium than they did last triennium.

BP: It would be difficult to say that the bus service is actually a good bus service at the moment given all the cancellations, given all the diesel buses that are still running our streets (since 2017!). These temporary diesel buses got me very frustrated. It’s a health hazard!

SF: It is very, very frustrating. And even things like the Airport bus, we have been promised that it’s going to be replaced, but not until June next year, and that’s the Regional Council. I’m not blaming them because I understand the pressures and difficulties and delays that they’re having with, you know, and, and some of it’s understandable, but we need to keep as City Councilors, we need to keep pressurizing them to finish the job.

The Airport expansion

BP: On the Airport bus, the Airport has this page on their website where it says that basically the bus service would be implemented when they have a satisfactory commercial agreement with the Regional Council. So the way it’s being presented on their website, which I think is probably quite accurate, is that it’s the money. It’s not the Regional Council not delivering this bus. So it’s the Airport getting in the way of making it happen because of course for them it’s a loss. And whether it’s for the Airport flyer or the expansion to the East, there is definitively a behavior issue there where the Airport is looking at its own growth, at its own benefits to satisfy its shareholders and community comes second, with our planet. What’s your take on the Airport expansion and specifically the one going over the golf course?

SF: I really oppose it. I don’t think it’s necessary. I think the Airport does need to look at why it’s so intent on expanding. They are a profitable Airport and even through COVID, they’ve done reasonably well because most of the traffic to Wellington airport is actually New Zealand based travel, not international. So they’ve done reasonably well. I think their figures are they’re running at about 85% of normal, which isn’t too bad. But I don’t see why it needs to continually be an expansion mode. As far as I’m concerned, air travel is something we all probably need to do less. So that’s not to say we will never go on a plane trip, but we probably need to think about why we’re traveling. Is it really necessary? You know, can we do it? Can we work remotely? Can we zoom into a meeting? Can we go for a little bit longer on a holiday rather than going on two or three holidays, maybe go on one and stay a bit longer. So I think if we all adopted a little bit of a different mindset towards travel, the Airport wouldn’t need to expand at all. So I think that’s the challenge. And I think they’re actually thinking, I don’t know, I’m not on the board, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re not actually starting to question what their real growth figures will be with all the changes we’ve seen.

What’s your take on the Airport expansion and specifically the one going over the golf course?

I really oppose it. I don’t think it’s necessary.

BP: That’s a very good point. But you know the saying, though: “build it and they’ll come”. Very much like building the cycleways gets people biking: build an expansion and more planes will come! So although it’s not in the interest of the community, the Airport will still do it! And in fact it can.

SF: Yes it can, unfortunately, that’s the reality of it, Benoit.

BP: So what can we done by the Council?

SF: The Council has very limited ability to control what the airport does. I’ve asked this question because we’re doing the Spatial Plan and we’re doing the District Plan at the moment, and we’re doing a precinct planning for the port, the new port and I raised my hand and said: “What about the airport? When do we actually do some master planning ourselves around the regulation around the airport?”. And I think it will happen, but it doesn’t seem to be top of mind for officers what’s going on at the airport. And yet we do need to take an interest in it because one of the things that concerned me the most, and it’s from a community point of view is that the airport has made no promise to keep the road open. The road that connects the south coast back into the peninsula. And I think that’s actually would be devastating for our communities if we didn’t have any access at all. You know, there was a time when that road was just a road, two way road, little back road, but people used it. And then they put the ticketing system on it and people objected like crazy to that, but we got used to it, and at least you could still access. But if they actually don’t have a road at all, that that’s going to be a problem. That’s going to mean every single car just about hit that leaves the peninsula will more or less have to go through Cobham drive. That will be just add to the problems with Cobham drive.

BP: It’s anecdotal, but it’s also revealing of the [little] concern the Airport has for the community. Right?

SF: Well, the fact that they didn’t commit to keeping it beyond, I think it was 2040, which isn’t actually that far away. I mean, that’s only 18 years away that we’ll go like a flash. The Council does need to take some interest in that, even if it’s just from the point of view of how does our road network work. But the other thing is it was quite clear that the expansion of the Airport will have quite a detrimental effect on the residents that live immediately adjacent to it. And probably a little bit of a detrimental effect, further afield as well.

BP: Absolutely. And this is where it will be interesting to see how the, Council can actually act. You say the council has limited power where one could argue that the District Plan is the pillar to how we organize our city and I would find it extremely hard to just overwrite it.

SF: Yes the District Plan is where we would be able to look at the bigger framework around how the airport fits into the city, fits into the Eastern suburbs. So that’s something that I do need to raise. I have raised it, but I need to push them completely, you know, bring it back up onto the agenda again.

The Miramar Masterplan

BP: I’ve heard you talking about the master plan or use the word master plan several times. And yet on the City Council website, there is a Masterplan for the Miramar peninsula that is in draft since 2016. So what? When? How?

SF: That must also come up onto the agenda as an urgent item. So we have been raising it both in there, and I have actually been raising with our CE as to when can we start doing some master planning? And the answer has really been that we need to wait to understand what the iwi arrangements are going to be with what they want to do in Mount Crawford, from when they decide to buy that land. And then look, I think it’s quite complex and I wish it was simpler, but there is an MOU which does set out that we will expect to have some green space there, some attention of the preservation of those historical sites. And there will be a little bit more housing, you know, instead of a prison. So that’s the way it will go. The question is how the community has an input into that so that we get the optimum outcome that we can.

That must also come up onto the agenda as an urgent item.

BP: Of course we’ve got this number floating around of 300 homes which they plan to build. Looking at just a map and the 2 road that get there, it’s actually really hard to imagine the 300 families could go and live there.

SF: I don’t know how many live in this area now Benoit

BP: It depends what you call the area I guess

SF: The area that’s served by these roads, probably as many, probably 300. I could find that figure out just to understand what a proportion that extra 300 is. On the plus side, at least we do have the number 24 bus route here now, where we never had a bus route. So that has been a plus. But I agree with you, it’s something that we will have to make sure that the planning is done to ensure that it’s going to work.

BP: And also, I guess that the community is involved. When you look at the Masterplan, you say some people say we should actually wait to see what the iwi wants to do with …

SF: That’s the staff position, yes.

BP: Don’t you think that the iwi would actually benefit to know what the community wants before they do their planning?

SF: I think they would be interested in having discussions with the community, but I can’t say that for sure, because I haven’t had the opportunity to meet with them myself. I’ve been asking for that as well.

BP: They were a signee of this MOU in 2017, right? Where you had the Crown, the City Council and the iwi siging an agreement saying that for this particular area, there would be a lot of open consultation.

SF: Well nothing has happened as yet. And there are actually no fixed plans. So that’s partly why people, I think people are getting a little bit anxious because they think things are happening, but you can’t really consult with or have consultation until you’ve actually got some idea of what you’re doing. That’s generally how it works. So, I mean, I think people have a rough idea of what we need to try and achieve. We need to try and achieve a balance of those things, recreation, historical preservation, obviously environmental protection. And obviously, the iwi has a right if they do purchase the land to do something with it. But until you have a little bit firmer plans, it’s probably really difficult to have a fruitful discussion with the community because they need something to comment on as a starting position. So yeah, we will get there. I feel frustrated about that as well. And to be fair, I know it’s actually something Andy’s raised a lot as well.

BP: Oh I’m sure.

SF: And you can ask him when you interview him.

BP: It’s been his position during his campaign to become Mayor. He had an extreme interest in what was happening at Shelly Bay and Mount Crawford wasn’t on the map at that point, but I’m sure it was at the back of his mind. To finish this tour of the Miramar peninsula (because you’re an Eastern ward Councilor)… So we’ve done the Airport. We’ve done Shelly Bay. We’ve done Mount Crawford. We’ve done transport …

The Cobham crossing

SF: We’ve done transport, a little bit anyway. And I do support that Cobham crossing, I must tell you, I do support it. I would have preferred, for me, the road to be elevated a little bit so that people could walk or cycle under it. But that is quite expensive and the coroner’s report, because somebody did die there, unfortunately about five years ago, trying to cross that road. The coroner’s report, which I’ve never had the opportunity to see does say there must be a safer crossing there.

BP: I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere, anyone saying they’re against the crossing. Everyone’s for the crossing, it’s how we do it. I guess it’s just a shame that once again, after a very divisive debate around Spatial Plan, we can’t seem to do something which doesn’t antagonize groups, in this case drivers versus cyclists. I’m very supportive of cycleways myself, but one can see, in the media or on the field, how these two groups can, at times, be already aggressive towards one another. This is not going to make them any happier with a traffic light there in their way.

SF: This is something that I have been thinking about because I really do support the need for a safer crossing there. I don’t think the advantages or the importance of it have been emphasized enough. So the thing I would probably say is it is going to connect to an existing pathway that goes to the West of the ASB center and comes out actually on Tacy street. And that pathway is there, it’s kind of hidden by the bushes. And then that Tacy street connects really directly to the supermarket and to the Kilbirnie shops. So crossing there will make a lot of sense. What we’re doing is basically we’re asking people in cars to slow down, not even everybody will have to stop, but occasionally a car might have to stop for, I think it’s about 15 seconds, but it’s about the delay. And so that a person doesn’t have to walk an extra kilometer or doesn’t have to risk getting killed.

The point being that we don’t yet know how many people are going to want to use it.

BP: I used to actually take my bike with a trailer to go to Newtown and get my kids, and I’ve stopped doing it because crossing, the other way around from Cobham drive to Kilbirnie, was just too dangerous. So I think everyone, even the Airport is for that crossing, but maybe there was an opportunity to find a solution that was perhaps a little bit more consensual across the community.

SF: Well, we were told it would cost about $11 million to do something different …

BP: But [compared to] $6 billion, it’s a drop in the bucket.

SF: If I’d have been writing the checks, I’d written a check for a beautiful underpass and the road would have just risen on another gracious curve and would have just enough headroom to get cyclists and walkers on the same level, so they wouldn’t have to climb up, they wouldn’t have to go down. But that’s not the solution that we’ve got on the table, but I do think we need the solution. We need a solution, so I am supportive of it. So I’ll just put that out there. And I’m sorry that this has become so polarized actually as an issue, because I think what is coming across as motorists are looking more alarmed than they need to be. I don’t think people need to be as alarmed over it as they are. And I’m always sorry, when a community gets like quite upset about an anxious about things. When I think that personally it lets they don’t necessarily need to be quite so upset about it, but we’ll see.

BP: At the moment, 8:00 AM weekdays, the queue starts before …

SF: The cutting in Miramar! It’s terrible.

BP: And with an additional traffic light, it’s not going to be 15 seconds. So I think you know, because how queues form, right.

SF: I know how bad it is at eight o’clock and that’s why I am affected by it as well, because I do drive my car quite a bit of the time. And I know it’s terrible at that time. So I try for myself, I just try to adjust the times I go, but not everyone has that luxury, but I either go at about half past seven or I wait and go at about nine o’clock because I know it is it’s terrible.

BP: Okay. I am personally extremely committed as you know to making a difference for climate change. But even this particular occasion, I actually struggled to see that it wasn’t a kind of a forced way to get people out of the car. And the problem is of course that the alternatives are either bikes, which is not for everyone, or buses which we know the service we have at the moment [is terrible]. So if we had a reliable service, that was very frequent, that was affordable, that was green then yes, there are options. You don’t have to take your car to drive.

SF: Well, hopefully we’re also getting the bus priority lanes.

BP: But then timing, that’s the same. Timing?

SF: I know. And I did try to persuade the powers that be that we needed to announce bus lanes at the same time. So we weren’t just focusing on taking away some convenience. We were focusing on how it’s actually going to speed up another mode. I’m afraid government doesn’t work like that. It’s sort of you do things in bits and pieces and finally they do make a bigger picture, but it takes time.

BP: You could think that all those years of consultation Let’s Get Wellington Moving would have actually allowed some proper planning and it’s actually shame that for the first time they actually decide to deliver something is something that will come across as slowing traffic.

SF: To be fair, Benoit, I went to a community meeting and I heard this view that you were saying, that’s common view that it’s just going to slow down traffic, but then I started to hear quieter voices that actually did speak up in favor of this crossing and they were quieter and there weren’t as many of them. But it’s like I say, there are a variety of voices in the community and there are people who desperately want this crossing because they’ve got the kids walking to school and they don’t want to have to take them in the car, because it feels all too dangerous. You know, there’s older people that actually that sear exercise okay. You know, and their pleasure is walking from Miramar into Kilbirnie for a coffee or to do their shopping. And they don’t necessarily all have cars. So actually we have got some people in the community do desperately want this.

BP: And I think it’s amazing. And in fact, with the new cycleways, the idea is that the uptake of biking will come and there’ll be more and more bikes. And this crossing will be heavily used.

SF: And people are walking. See, one of the things I noticed about Cobham drive, how many more people are walking and running, and we didn’t use to see that prior to this. So you challenged me the other day: “what are we actually doing to make a difference for climate change?” And I would probably point to our Spatial Plan and the steps we’ve made to make the city more dense, but we will back that up with better public transport and better and safer cycling and walking, you know, we’re doing what we can.

The Regional Park

BP: One last thing I would like to ask, Sarah, and thank you for your time: 2016, the City Council announced a Regional Park north of the prison on Mount Crawford; in 2019, Justin Lester, even announced that it was a done deal, that central funding and local funding were all lined up, we just needed to do it. That was 2019. Where are we at?

I made sure we got it into our Regional Spatial Plan as well, because it wasn’t there.

SF: Well, that’s that goes back to that Miramar Master planning that we were talking about before. I made sure we got it into our Regional Spatial Plan as well, because it wasn’t there. So it’s, I want to said there’s meant to be a park. You know, they showed all the green spaces right around the region. I said, this is meant to be a park in Miramar peninsula. So that did happen. So you just, I don’t know exactly where it is right now, and that is actually quite frustrating. And it goes back to that Miramar Master planning thing, and the fact that everything seems to have been held up because of some of these other big picture things happening, like the rights of first refusal on land. It will happen. I’m really confident it will. I don’t think they’re going to put housing all over the peninsula, don’t panic.

BP: We need more housing, that’s for sure!

SF: We need more housing, but we also need green space and that will come. It’s not easy for us to get out of the peninsula and go elsewhere. So we need to make sure we’ve actually got the green space and the recreational opportunities that we need right here.

BP: A very good point. Hey, thank you so much for your time, Sarah. It’s been really informative, I think we’ve covered everything. So thank you so much. Cheers.

SF: Thank you.

One thought on “A conversation with Sarah Free

  1. I’d really like to know what a sitting councillor makes of the 14.5% rates increase this year. Does she think that is sustainable ? How will ratepayers on a fixed income be able to afford that ?


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