Should WCC openly oppose the airport expansion?
On the 12th of May, the Mayor of Wellington and the City Councillors had a vote on whether to release a public statement opposing the airport expansion because of the climate emergency. Many readers of this site will know that the airport wants to spend several billions of dollars to expand east over the golf course, to transport twice the current numbers of passengers by 2040, and to increase its daily flights from 250 to 375.
When it comes to the airport, the Wellington City Council (WCC) wears many hats: it is a shareholder (it owns 34% of it, the rest is Infratil), it is a regulatory body, and it has a huge interest in making sure the airport keeps working for the community for the transport hub it represents. WCC also delivers and maintains, in part, the infrastructure to come and go from the airport.
With so much at stake, such a sizeable investment, and such an intricate relationship with a “key infrastructure partner” (to quote Cr Calvert), the silence of elected members on the airport expansion has been hard to comprehend, especially considering the endless hours that volunteers were throwing at opposing it. So to the volunteers and to the community concerned about the expansion, the vote on the 12th of May was crucial.
The statement sounded very reasonable: that the airport expansion should only happen when flying sustainably was a reality. There are so many reports showing that for climate, timing is now critical. Any delay in taking bold actions will have deep adverse consequences. The airport should know: it is on the front line of sea-level rise. So surely a group of people as sensible as the Councillors and the Mayor could clearly, and quite quickly, agree on the outdated nature of the airport expansion plans?
WCC debated for two hours
After two hours of deliberation, there were only five votes in support of commonsense, while nine votes supported business as usual. The decision was mostly procedural, with officers fearmonging about potential legal consequences of such a statement. They kept repeating that such a policy would compromise WCC’s position as a regulatory body – where, really, there was no policy in sight, only a purely political statement.
Officers, backed by the CEO, chose not to disclose to the Councillors the full legal report they used to conclude that a public statement would be such a risk. They refused before the vote and during the vote, making any improvement to the original proposition impossible, and not proposing any alternative.
Barbara McKerrow was also very prompt to remind Councillors that when it came to the airport, they had chosen, through an earlier vote, to delegate their authority to her. This decision, she said, left little room for elected members to remotely comment on the airport.
To fully understand why the fate of the airport is out of hands of the community, another remark was made that day: Mayor Foster said that, even though he is the only one who is a member of the airport board, all councillors, as shareholders, had a conflict of interest, and for that reason, the vote couldn’t happen.
After two hours of discussions on processes and technicalities, the Council voted the statement down, the climate lost yet another battle, and the airport won. The sad truth is that there are enough councillors to swing the vote in the other direction. They openly agree that the airport expansion is not a good idea at this point in time. But bureaucracy, and the system as a whole, won over commonsense.
Wellingtonians have no say about the airport
So here is the situation when it comes to the airport in Wellington: elected members can’t see legal information about it (McKerrow has a lot to answer on this), they can’t talk (or legal hell will fall on the WCC), they can’t influence, they can’t decide. Representatives of a community of residents of which 92% want climate action “no matter what”, they are unable to block a development that will inevitably increase emissions. A profit driven organisation sits in the middle of the city, and has a colossal impact on the suburbs around it. Wellington has no control over it. And when the airport decides to put its profits above climate and the community, we just have to suck it up.
What can be done to address the situation? Frankly, it can only go one way, and it is the way of simplification. The conflict of interest in the middle of which WCC sits completely paralyses it. Sharing such an asset with a profit-driven organisation means WCC has to align its strategies and goals to it, at the cost of ignoring the interests of the community. To get out of this web of contradictions, and bring back elected members to the table, it has only two options: either buy the 66% shares of the airport from Infratil, or sell the 34% it already owns. But remaining in this abusive relationship, just to benefit the profits it receives, should not be an option.
The airport is a key piece of infrastructure for Wellington. It crystallises all our contradictions and our passions. At the next election, we need a group of Councillors and a Mayor who have a plan to resolve the impossible situation we have put ourselves in, and to reclaim some level of control, to ensure the airport keeps working for the community, and takes climate action seriously.