WSG responds to Council’s “new approach” to airport

At last week’s QLDC meeting in Wanaka, Mayor Boult read out a statement on behalf of the entire Council, announcing a “new approach” to Wanaka Airport. This morning, one week later, the Wanaka Stakeholders Group sent all Councillors, the Wanaka Community Board, QLDC CEO and QAC CEO a considered reply on behalf of our 2,350 or so members. Here it is in full …

Jim Boult, Mayor, Queenstown Lakes District Council
And all QLDC Councillors
QLDC, Queenstown

By email, individually
Thursday 15th August 2019

Dear Mayor Boult and QLDC Councillors

As promised, we are coming back to you with a detailed response to the statement you made last Thursday about Wanaka Airport.  We’ve had our core team of 18 people look at this closely over the last week, and our response is on behalf of our 2,348 members, the population represented by the four community associations who made a joint statement to you last week, as well as the Upper Clutha community as a whole.

First, it should be said that if QLDC’s true intentions with this “new approach” are to pause, consult the community properly, reflect, seek additional expert advice around all the key areas, and then make key decisions, then that intention is progress indeed.  We have always maintained that a community-led, truly consultative, fully transparent approach is what is required to make the right decisions for the future of Wanaka Airport and for the vision for our community as a whole. This is what we all want – it is the minimum acceptable standard for local democracy, and it will lead to better outcomes for all of us.

However, having reviewed the statement closely and having taken legal advice, we have some serious concerns about the approach you have outlined.  Many of our members have also noted (publicly and privately) that in the lead up to an election, it might be tempting for the Council to attempt to calm the voices of concern in the community, at least until the new Council is in place, only to continue with “Plan A”.  They may be wrong, but we are hearing that they are sceptical, and they want assurances. 

In any event, before we get into the detail of your statement, there are five very large elephants in the room which need addressing:

  1. The first is around QLDC’s loss of control of Wanaka Airport and around the related problem of the 100 year lease of Wanaka Airport which you have privately negotiated and now refused to disclose to the community, despite numerous requests.  This lease is central to the development of our community asset as well as to the future of the community itself. The discussions and decisions leading up to the signing of this lease, as well as the lease itself, should be fully transparent and subject to scrutiny.  We have previously outlined our deep concerns about this in our letter dated 7th August 2019 (Appendix 2), as we believe the process you have taken to be both unlawful and unreasonable, and we are determined to challenge this if it is not resolved by you.
  2. The second elephant in the room is the environment.  QLDC has recently declared a climate change emergency for our area, yet in the next breath the Council is planning to allow QAC to build a second airport for the district that has the potential to vastly increase greenhouse gas emissions in our region and thereby contribute more significantly to climate change than any other decision the Council could make this century.  In your statement last week, you have not committed to a full and robust assessment of the environmental impacts of developing Wanaka Airport – in fact you barely mention the environment. Yet your community has made it clear that the environment is of deep concern. A proper environmental impact analysis should be non-negotiable.
     
  3. The third elephant is terms of reference.  In your statement, the Council speaks of various studies and investigations which need to be undertaken in order to decide how, or indeed whether, to proceed.  These studies – and others we would require – should only go ahead if the community has real input to the terms of reference which should also then dictate the selection of consultants, the milestone reports feedback, and the interim and final reports as they are delivered back to QLDC – so that they are subject to public scrutiny and full transparency.  We would even go as far as to say that the terms of reference should be signed off by a steering group, which should include representatives from the Wanaka Community Board, our Community Association representatives and WSG. There are plenty of examples of QAC commissioning reports with poor terms of reference (Appendix 3) and of their narrow focus and narrow commercial objectives.
  4. The fourth elephant is the growth agenda which is very clearly at the centre of both QLDC’s statement and the Council’s strategy.  When you talk about the future, you talk about “managing growth” as if the Upper Clutha was a business.   When you talk about your constituents, you suggest that many of us can’t cope with aspects of growth, including getting our heads around the numbers.  We can get our heads around them, but we are just alarmed by them – as your recent QLDC Quality of Life Survey 2018 (Appendix 4 – excerpts reproduced for convenience) clearly shows.

    It is neither acceptable nor logical to have as QLDC’s starting premise that we must “manage growth” and be “prepared for growth” in the region, when the addition of an airport of this nature will actually both create (and accelerate) new growth of a certain kind in a rampant and uncontrolled way without adequate planning or infrastructure.  The community has not been consulted, and the assumption that this kind of growth is what the community most wants is not confirmed. In fact you know that the opposite is true: there is significant opposition to and concern about this in the community. 

    You and the Council may care to reflect on the fact, for example, that one of the region’s leading businessmen, himself involved in tourism and property development, signalled in an NBR interview this week that we should be deeply concerned about overtourism.   Talking specifically about Queenstown, John Darby is quoted as saying: “Once the airport was able to provide direct jet services, the growth has been exponential, to the point it is now becoming an issue of careful management – in other words, be careful what you wish for.”  He then continues: “That’s one of the big issues facing the country right now: how we best manage that intelligently. Turning the tourist tap fully off is stupid, turning the tap fully on is equally stupid.”
  5. The fifth elephant is one the Council brought into the room with you last week: the issue of social licence.  There is plenty written on social licence, and for now we will leave the detail to academics and theorists.  But at the highest level, in order for the Council to have ongoing approval within our community, you need to have credibility and trust with your constituents.  Right now, the level of public concern you are experiencing should be ringing alarm bells.

    By way of example, you said in your statement just last week that you’d made your position clear to QAC about QLDC’s “expectations”, but in the next breath you said that “the board of QAC has yet to discuss this” and that you are merely “confident” that the board of QAC will listen.  Given what QLDC has already agreed to do in handing over effective ownership and control of Wanaka Airport to QAC through the 100 year lease and related side agreements, any confidence that the community can have in the process that you’ve offered is completely undermined.

Surely these five “elephants” alone should be large and obvious enough for you all to realise that you have failed to meet your obligations, and that the entire decision-making process around Wanaka Airport should start again and, next time around, there needs to be measures in place to ensure full and proper community consultation, the right expert reports (with appropriate terms of reference and oversight), appropriate governance and a transparent and community-led decision-making process, fully in compliance with the Local Government Act 2002.

In addition, and as you are well aware, today the Wanaka Community Board is having its scheduled meeting in Wanaka.  We note with considerable concern that, once again, matters directly relating to the redevelopment of Wanaka Airport are not on the agenda.  This is despite our specific submission to the Wanaka Community Board requesting this at its last meeting on 4th July 2019. A copy of this submission is attached for your reference (Appendix 5).  This is not the first time that we have requested but been denied by the Council appropriate involvement by the Community Board.

We turn now to some of the detail of your statement.  In case the Council is in any doubt about the issues which are important to your community as you consider options for Wanaka Airport, we have developed a detailed list of questions and concerns which arise purely from what you have included in – and omitted from – your statement. These are matters which have been raised by our members.  The list is in addition to the main points raised above. This list is not exhaustive – it’s a start – but it shows what your constituents are asking, and what true community consultation and transparent decision making would require.  The list is found in Appendix 1 to this letter.

In your statement, you reference the “clear stress, anxiety, dissent and downright vitriol that this issue is creating in both Queenstown and Wānaka”.  That is an inaccurate and patronising description of the concerns raised by your community. We have a different view: impassioned pleas from your constituents for our elected representatives to do what is right, and indeed what was required of you by law, and to consult the community is a world away from “vitriol”: this is a healthy example of our local democracy in action, holding the Council (and QAC) to account.  

We are speaking on behalf of a very large part of our community and the people who will vote in the upcoming election.  These are the people whose community you are threatening to change, quite significantly, through the decisions you are making during your tenure in office.  Your decisions and actions, and their enabling of QAC’s commercial expansion plans, will almost certainly have negative impacts for many decades to come on the Wanaka, Upper Clutha and Queenstown communities, regardless of any possible additional financial returns from the additional tourism they enable.

We have already clearly set out the only process that will be acceptable to us and the community which we represent, to determine the future of Wanaka Airport.  If we cannot reach agreement on those proposals then we will have to consider filing judicial review proceedings to seek the court’s assistance to ensure that full consultation, open minded fresh decision-making and full reconsideration is given to the future of Wanaka Airport.

We look forward to getting down to specifics to resolve an acceptable way forward.

Yours sincerely
[Signed]
Michael Ross
Chair, Wanaka Stakeholders Group Inc.

Cc list:
QLDC: CEO and Wanaka Community Board members
CEO, QAC

Appendix 1: Additional questions and concerns, in no particular order

Note: this is not an exhaustive list.  

Questions we seek answers to:

  1. Growth.  What growth can we expect even without Wanaka Airport being developed, and are we equipped to even deal with that growth first?
  2. Community concerns.  How and where is there a detailed, full and independent analysis of the matrix of issues which Upper Clutha residents are most concerned about (examples being growth, infrastructure, transport connectivity, overtourism, the environment, economic aspects etc)?
  3. Wellbeing.  You have mentioned the wellbeing of your constituents being very important to QLDC: where are the detailed independent reports of the impact of a jet-capable airport in Wanaka on wellbeing?  How do these map to the latest WHO guidelines and medical studies?
  4. Dual airports.  How does it make more sense to have two near identical airports, 75km apart, operating alongside each other, with duplication on many levels, rather than one single airport in the right location?
  5. Nearby airport capacity.  How seriously has a closer alliance and/or dual airport strategy with Dunedin and/or Invercargill Airports been considered, and why has this been ruled out in favour of two airports so close to each other?
  6. Sustainability.  Where are the details of QAC’s current sustainability framework and future planning?
  7. Sustainability.  Why hasn’t QLDC already scrutinised QAC’s sustainability goal?  How does this tally with the government’s Carbon Zero policies?
  8. Impact assessments.  Why are we not following the international standard process (World Bank Group Equator Principles) called an ESIA (Environmental and Social Impact Assessment) for assessing the impact of large infrastructure projects?
  9. The “pause”.  The detail of last week’s statement around the “pause” and “springboarding” appears to be predetermining a certain outcome. How can the work be a springboard to progress implementation if the community and economic “assessments” have not yet been completed, and may require a completely different direction to be taken as a result?
  10. Our neighbours.  The airport strategy should include reference to the impacts on neighbouring communities in our region – including but not limited to the Otago and Southland regions.  Where has this been considered in detail?
  11. Passenger movement projections. As we’ve asked many times, according to QAC’s demand forecast once Queenstown Airport has reached its 3.2 million passenger movement limit, where will the other 2.9 million passenger movements go?
  12. Passenger movement projections.  Colin Keel confirmed to WSG in a meeting on 29/04/19 that as a region we might reach the projection of 7.1 million passenger movements per year ahead of 2045. Are there any updated projections?
  13. Pledge.  Other major New Zealand airports (Auckland and Christchurch) have recently signed up to the Climate Leaders Coalition 2019 Pledge. Why has QAC not signed? 
  14. Joined up thinking.  How does the Wanaka Town Centre Master Plan dovetail into the future development of Wanaka Airport?
  15. Roading.  Has QLDC had any relevant discussions with NZTA about the pressure which additional passenger movements in and out of Wanaka Airport will inevitably have on the key routes in and out of the Upper Clutha Area, and in and out of Queenstown?  If so, what are the details of those discussions?
  16. The Crown Range.  Where are the independent assessments QLDC has had commissioned around the impact of additional passenger movements on the road over the Crown Range, which is managed by QLDC? 

Other key concerns we have:

  1. Lines in the sand.  As a community, we should decide on “lines in the sand”, which include: jets or no jets, night flights, wide bodied aircraft, international v local etc.  These are not decisions which can or should be made around a board table without community consultation and involvement, and these decisions should be made before more money is spent on reports and further development.
  2. Timing of assessments.  Social, environmental and economic impact assessments should have been completed prior to any development or lease being granted.
  3. Local/regional infrastructure.  We are deeply concerned about infrastructure demands and additional burden on the ratepayer following on from a major investment at Wanaka airport.
  4. QAC urgency.  There seems to be an implied urgency to continue on to avoid QAC having “both financial and operational consequences” as a result of any pause.  But surely pausing to get the decision right is more important that the timing of any of QAC’s implementation plans.
  5. Carbon emissions.  In order of ranking, our global commitment to reduce emissions to carbon neutral by 2050 clearly outweighs meeting the projected passenger movement demands by 2045 and thereby increasing those emissions via aviation.

Appendix 2: Letter to QLDC Mayor Jim Boult dated 7th August 2019

Jim Boult

Mayor

Queenstown Lakes District Council

Queenstown

By email: jim.boult@qldc.govt.nz 

Wednesday 7th August 2019

Dear Mayor Boult

  1. At the time of writing this letter, Wanaka Stakeholders Group Inc. (“WSG”) represents 2,082 members who include business owners, residents and ratepayers of the district, principally from the Upper Clutha communities and Wanaka in particular, and our membership is growing daily. It is also supported by the associations representing Hawea, Luggate, Mt Barker and Albert Town, whose combined population is approximately 3,500 people. 
  2. Given the totally unsatisfactory responses which we have all received to our various concerns about QLDC’s and QAC’s intentions and plans regarding the redevelopment and expanded future operation of the airport at Wanaka, we write to make WSG’s position clear ahead of Council considering what changes it requires to be made to the final Statement of Intent (SOI) following the decisions made by Council at its last meeting in Queenstown on June 27th.
  3. The SOI in its present form is totally inconsistent with the promises and suggestions that QLDC retains any meaningful control over decisions whether to redevelop the existing airport at Wanaka.  In fact, it suggests the complete opposite.
  4. WSG has now engaged solicitors and senior barristers, including Queen’s Counsel, to assist with the preparation of court proceedings – should they be necessary.
    1. WSG is of the clear view that the actions and decisions taken, and various agreements apparently reached between QLDC and QAC in relation to the Wanaka Airport (which we shall refer to as the “existing Wanaka Airport”) are unlawful. In summary we believe that the decisions and agreements entered into between QLDC and QAC authorise QAC to not only manage the “existing Wanaka airport”  but also to – in substance – have acquired the airport by the mechanism of a privately negotiated, confidentially held, 100 year lease – enabling QAC to then alter and develop a Wanaka Airport into a new and materially different airport operation.
    2. Unless this matter can be resolved satisfactorily, WSG will be issuing judicial review proceedings to establish the unlawfulness and unreasonableness of such decisions and actions and therefore:-
      1. to prevent QLDC and QAC from formulating and acting upon any decisions to build and operate a “new Wanaka Airport” and
      2. to require QLDC – if it wishes to dispose of any part of its 100% ownership and control of the “existing Wanaka airport” – to comply fully with all applicable prohibitions and consultation requirements of the Local Government Act.
  5. We look forward to your reply. Before you formulate any reply on behalf of QLDC, we invite you and every councillor to read a recent post on our website – we’ve provided the link here.  The article was published last weekend, and is written by a Wanaka resident who, like our members, feels strongly about this issue.  The article encapsulates the importance of the issues and the motivation of WSG to fight to ensure that any decisions about Wanaka Airport are reasonable, made lawfully and only after full consultation with, and with the support of, the people of Wanaka and of the Upper Clutha communities.

We look forward to your reply,

Yours sincerely

[Signed]

Michael Ross

Chair, Wanaka Stakeholders Group Inc.

Cc list:

QLDC: CEO, all Councillors and Wanaka Community Board members

CEO, QAC

Appendix 3: Terms of reference email from John Hillhorst to QLDC

From: John Hilhorst <waikiwi@gmail.com>

Date: Sun, 11 Aug 2019 at 22:21

Subject: Mayor Boult’s statement

To: <jim.boult@qldc.govt.nz>, <calum.macleod@qldc.govt.nz>, <alexa.forbes@qldc.govt.nz>, <craig.ferguson@qldc.govt.nz>, <john.macdonald@qldc.govt.nz>, <penny.clark@qldc.govt.nz>, Quentin <quentin.smith@qldc.govt.nz>, <ross.mcrobie@qldc.govt.nz>, <scott.stevens@qldc.govt.nz>, <tony.hill@qldc.govt.nz>, <valerie.miller@qldc.govt.nz>

Cc: Mark Price <mark.price@odt.co.nz>, Peter Newport <peter.newport@crux.org.nz>, paul.taylor@scene.co.nz<paul.taylor@scene.co.nz>

Dear Mayor Boult and Councillors,

I was the first and (as it turned out) only person who applauded Mayor Jim Boult’s statement read at the beginning of Thursday’s Council meeting. Then, and now, I acknowledge it was a significant move in leadership.

I especially want to thank those among you who have listened to the broad and growing discomfort among your ratepayer communities and who made the effort to bring Council to where it is now. Thank you.

This action shows that you do all know that control of QAC is in your hands. When you call for a pause, they must pause. If later you call for a change of direction, they must change. It is also starkly evident that the legal mechanism for this is within the statement of intent.

The strong and united opposition to QAC expansion plans in both Wanaka and Queenstown have now made clear the challenges QAC face, and these will increase.

But the question hangs – was this just a calculated move to retain leadership through the upcoming election, as some suggest, or is it an honest willingness to openly reconsider all the options for the airport in a robust and rigorous manner?

Saturday’s ODT reported that council “would not be drawn on whether moving Queenstown Airport would be part of the debate”. If it’s not, we’ll know the answer to the question above.

Deputy Mayor Calum Macleod is quoted in the article saying “The independence [of the study], to me, is the vital factor.”

That, however, is not the only vital factor. More vital is the choice of questions asked, which ultimately determine the quality of any work.

The Frankton Master Plan highlights this. Boffa Miskell may be a skilled and independent consultant, but council’s terms of reference for their study specifically excluded relocation of the airport. Inevitably, this resulted in a plan where, constrained by the ANB, intense retail, commercial and residential development was crowded onto Five Mile’s “urban corridor,” completely congesting our district’s largest arterial route. A future nightmare by this council’s design.

Despite the “Let’s Talk” branding of council’s consultation process, the ‘Shaping Our Future’ discussions that were to inform the master planning process also explicitly excluded relocation of the airport. When asked in advance, Peter Hansby and CEO Mike Theelen chose to deny my written request to simply display the alternative Frankton Vision design at the public meeting of 17 July – a meeting hosted by Shaping Our Futures and the Frankton Community Association nine days before submissions on the Masterplan were to close.

Where this community responded to “Let’s Talk”, engaged in the consultation, introduced new insight and vision, applied professional expertise and brought real value to the discussion, council refused to engage and actively shut it out.

If this exercise of ‘pause to reconsider’ is to be more than a sop to boost re-election chances, then it must include the full scope of potential options and ask real questions that are useful.

Learning, for example, that the airport’s economic contribution to this district is massive would not be useful, as we already know this.

The economic assessment needs to instead review and compare alternative strategies and this needs to be broad based and integrated. So the economic advantages of, for example, an intensively developed mountain village in Frankton – with the long lasting benefits and savings for construction, infrastructure, transport mobility, housing affordability, carless city potential, mitigation for climate change and so forth – all need to all be included in the analysis.

As previously, we ask that the assessment integrates consideration of the airport within the total picture of the currently underway spatial plan, Frankton and Wanaka masterplans, district wide transport plans, as well as with other community infrastructure.

The ‘blue sky’ suggestion to relocate the airport sounded fanciful at first. But I note the NZ Defence Force recently announced a similar “sweeping review” of all its bases, with the likely outcome of closing some and buying new land in better locations. Defence Minister Ron Mark pointed to the Whenuapai air base in western Auckland “as an example of [how] encroaching urban development around the once remote base was threatening the future of its operations”. [ODT, 12 July 2019].

A range of strategies offer viable transition, including the management of demand into Queenstown within the current ANBs by increasing the landing fees. This would make QAC significantly more profitable and encourage distribution of flights to Dunedin and Invercargill airports.

We need a forthright and open conversation. The proposed terms of reference should be openly available for public feedback before they are confirmed by Council.

I call on you to ensure that we have the best information available to allow our community to make the wisest choices.

Sincerely,

[signed]

John Hilhorst

Appendix 4: QLDC Quality of Life Survey 2018 

Page 63 [extract, emphasis ours]:

The essence of the comments written by residents within this survey highlight their genuine passion for wanting Queenstown Lakes to be a great place to live for all residents. This love of the district is the driver of concern around increased growth and development, high cost of living, and general changes to transport in the area as these issues appear to impact the majority of Queenstown Lakes residents in some way. 

Queenstown Lakes district has experienced exceptional growth over the past few years and as a result, residents appear to feel that some of their quality of life has been lost. The growth within the district has been seen in both resident and tourist numbers, which appears to have had an impact on all aspects of life for Queenstown Lakes residents. Specifically, more than half of residents indicate they are not comfortable with the growth of visitor or resident numbers within the district. 

Page 47:

Appendix 5: Submission to Wanaka Community Board – 4th July 2019

Good morning Members of the Wanaka Community Board, Chief Executive Mike Theelen and Council staff – members of the public. My name is Michael Ross and I am chairman of the Wanaka Stakeholders Group. I would like to speak about the QAC SOI topic and the proposed redevelopment of the Wanaka Airport.

Firstly I would like to thank both Callum and Quentin for voting against the Statement of Intent resolution passed by council last week. You did speak against it Ross – so it would have been good to see you support your fellow Wanaka Ward Councillors. That would have made it interesting at 6 all. So it was quite close!

But – the ink hadn’t even dried on the Climate Change Emergency resolution passed by Council before a conditional resolution was passed to receive the QAC SOI – subject to conditions and we are unsure as to when they will re-tabled. It seems to us completely contradictory and unacceptable to accept an SOI that underpins the future development of the Wanaka Airport as a “dual Airport”  and yet completely flies in the face of the climate change concerns so enthusiastically supported by Council just 5 minutes previously.

What I think we can say is that the Board of QAC  now knows in no uncertain terms that it does NOT have council support for the final SOI they submitted.

Given that we are now appear to be in a state of strategic limbo – I would like to suggest the Wanaka Community Board ensures that there is an item on the QAC SOI on their next agenda. We believe this is such a critical strategic issue that the WCB must consider and debate the SOI in their own community. This community – who would be so dramatically affected if a Queenstown sized airport were to be plonked on our outskirts of town.

Your primary role (Section 52a )is to act as an advocate for the interests of its community. We ask that our you do just that – that you consider this is a matter of concern to the community.

We want local democracy to have a voice here.

Our community needs to hear the views of its elected representatives on such a critical issue.

We want an opportunity to let you know our views – given that we have not been consulted on this.

In addition to discussing your views on the SOI you could also recommend to Council a couple of fundamental steps which we believe must be in place. You should resolve:-

1 – That the final Wanaka Airport Masterplan is presented to and considered by the WCB BEFORE being considered by Council.

2 – That given the recent decision by QLDC to declare a climate change emergency – that QAC is required to tell us what its sustainability framework is, what criteria it will use to determine its level of sustainability and who will hold it accountable to the standards set. These should be detailed un the SOI.

There is mounting concern – indeed some distress –  in the Upper Clutha community amongst people feeling their views are not being listened to by Council and that the life they have passionately embraced here is going to be stripped away from them without having any say. By getting actively involved,  and doing so now – the Community Board could go some way to addressing the significant concerns out there in our community.

Many thanks.

Michael Ross – Chairman – Wanaka Stakeholders Group.


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