Is WCC abandoning the community on the airport?

In a post earlier this year, I talked about Wellington Airport’s plan to expand over Miramar’s golf course. This week, as the world painfully tried to reach an agreement in Glasgow, I wrote about the community groups trying to oppose this antiquated project. The Wellington City Council owns a third of the airport and as such, needs to support decisions in the airport’s best interests. But WCC must also support the community’s best interests. It is stuck between a rock and hard place, a situation which will not solve itself anytime soon with the recent decision to not sell its share in the airport. Residents have all-time high expectations for strong climate action and also aspire for a more livable city. With that in mind, is WCC supporting the right camp?

WCC is the upholder of the District Plan. It is a contract binding the city residents, laying out the rules on our living together. It defines how it should look like and what are our expectations are in terms of livability, or amenities such as noise. So what does the Draft District Plan, currently out for consultation, has to say on the topic:

“Noise ranks highly on the list of environmental pollutants. It can have an adverse effect on health and amenity values, can interfere with communication and can disturb peoples sleep and concentration. It is commonly identified as a nuisance and is the subject of frequent complaints received by council.”

Draft District Plan, Part 2, District wide matters, Noise

So while WCC is all out trying to create a more livable city, more sustainable, more people-centric (which is laudable), what would all these efforts mean if this new city we’re building is bathed in noise? Would anyone want to move in a beautiful, clean, well thought dwelling close to public transport if it is also located near the airport tarmac? As a custodian for the District Plan, WCC should be fighting hard to ensure the airport noise management (aka the Air Noise Boundary) doesn’t escape it, a possible scenario with the current legal moves operated by the airport.

Moreover, now is a good time to remember that the WCC has aspirational emissions-reduction targets that are yet to be met with a plan to achieve them (hello Te Atakura). In September, these targets were even increased, and that’s a good thing). Nowadays, the airport produces 10% of Wellington’s emissions. It is the worst polluter in the region, a little ahead of Centre Port! Its expansion is expected to increase the number of daily flights from 250 (pre-COVID) to 370. In turn, emissions will rise, despite the mere 3% fuel efficiency gains planes have had over the past decade.

So how does WCC position itself in front of the airport’s expansion plan? As an institution, it is absolutely silent. But independently, at least half of the Councillors are concerned or openly oppose this monstrosity. These Councillors need to come out the wood and bring the topic to the Council table, discuss it, and vote to issue an official statement opposing the expansion on the grounds both climate efforts and noise levels would be significantly compromised. This would send a clear signal to the airport that its plans are not supported by Wellingtonians and give the Airport food for thought.

WCC also needs to support the community groups by creating a dedicated taskforce. As of today, these groups have nothing but themselves to stand for their communities or the city as a whole. A taskforce would also resolve the impossible dilemma the council finds itself in: with 2 seats on the airport board, it is legally obliged to support the company’s interests; yet it is also the upholder of Wellingtonians’ interests. Now, these interests are pulling in two opposite directions, and an independent taskforce could solve this conundrum.

The taskforce would be hosted by WCC, but paid by the airport (since the airport is the cause of the problem) while remaining fully independent from it. It would have 3 goals:

  • It would work at creating a definitive legal cage capping all the adverse effects the airport inflicts on the city (air, water, land and noise pollution);
  • It would provide legal support and advice to the community groups standing against the airport;
  • It would receive and manage all the complaints the community may have against the airport. If you have a complaint about the airport or its operations, your only chance is to raise it … with the airport. If you try, you will find there is hardly any place to raise it, and they all end up in a black hole. The taskforce would bring these complaints into the open and the true impact of the airport operations on the nearby communities could be properly measured.

Tim Brown, chair of the airport board, said recently it had voted unanimously since 1998. That means the WCC has been supportive of every decision since 1998, including those against the interests of the nearby suburbs. In doing so, it has failed to work on behalf of its voters; it has failed its first and most important duty: support and protect the livelihood of its residents. It is critical it works now at repairing the damage that’s been done and the damage to come.