what did our councillors say about the latest inadequate iteration of Queenstown Airport Corporation’s statement of intent?

We Love Wakatipu Inc commentary, 13 November 2020

Apart from Chamber of Commerce spokesman Craig Douglas and two small local scenic flight companies who mistakenly appeared to think QAC’s SOI would shut down Queenstown Airport, community input to public forum was strongly against this fourth version in under two years.  As it has been each time.

Primary reasons why have been traversed each of these times and include community opposition to the multiple ramifications of air noise boundary (ANB) expansion, climate change, lack of strategic direction from Council, no measurable targets and retention of growth as a key objective.

Plus the fact nine of 10 councillors had promised during last year’s election campaign they opposed ANB expansion, and their total neglect of both the findings of the MartinJenkins socio-economic report they had commissioned to guide them and of the confirmation from both QAC and QLDC lawyers they have “total control” over QAC.

Two councillors, Quentin Smith and Niki Gladding, voted against agreeing to the SOI. A third, Niamh Shaw, proposed an amendment to review the terms of reference of the joint QAC/QLDC steering group that formulated the SOI. This was agreed to unanimously.

So, what did our councillors say on this vital community issue, one of their most important governance responsibilities? In the order that they spoke, here are summaries:

Penny Clark

While some are worried about it, she is “fed up” with the SOI process and with another due for consideration in three months, “it’s blowing my brains”. She asked for the next one to be made succinct, not 33 pages. “I can’t manage it. I want to see a critical summary of two or three pages,” telling councillors what QAC think they can do in the next decade. Bite-sized, high visionary stuff is required “because we really don’t know” what the future will bring.

NB: the SOI is meant to be the tool through which QLDC controls QAC’s operations by specifying its strategic objectives for the Airport Corporation.  It is also meant to outline how QAC’s meeting of these objectives is monitored and measured, financial forecasts et cetera.  What is particularly concerning about Cr Clark’s comments is that she is a member of the SOI joint steering group. This role requires both capacity and energy.

John MacDonald

“I was the one who drove the fact that I wanted you to operate within the existing noise boundaries and I’m really pleased to see that in the document…I think people who think we have a mechanism for locking it in forever and ever are dreaming. I don’t really think that is a possibility. There will be another council, there will be another board, they will be different people. And to me, it falls on us every year to tell you what we expect and I don’t think we have done this adequately in the past.” Councillors’ statement of expectations for the next SOI needs to be clear and concise.

NB: the SOI still includes the objective of expanding its land and air footprints to meet growth demands and only limits QAC to not applying for expansion of the ANB until after June 30, 2023. Both QAC and QLDC lawyers told the High Court in September that the SOI and council’s super majority shareholding gave council “total control” of QAC.  This control includes setting the strategic paradigms within which QAC must operate.

Quentin Smith

As a member of the joint steering group, he confirmed there had been robust conversations, but he could not vote to agree to it for three fundamental reasons. He is an advocate of strategic direction, properly consulted on with the community and signed off by Council. This is the map to the future needed to give some certainty to ratepayers, Council and QAC. No such strategic direction has been given. “Quite frankly, we still lack a concise vision of where we are heading for the airport.” Secondly, the SOI ignored the strategic risk posed by the proposed Tarras International Airport. “I would have hoped QAC would be developing a strategy or plan to address its operation if Tarras was successful. It’s not lost on me that CIAL have identified a strategic opportunity, purchased strategic land and have “committed” to progressing the proposal within 10 years, all in the middle of Covid. QAC don’t appear to have an eye to the future and certainly not in a strategic way”. And thirdly, the lack of climate change emissions reporting “which in 2020 seems to be extraordinary”.

A brave move from Quentin as a member of the steering group that formulated the SOI, and cogent argument as to why he felt he had to vote against it.

Calum MacLeod

On climate change and future direction, “I get that you’re waiting on council and council is waiting on you”. He’d like to see a regenerative rather than sustainable dual airport model as a key objective, as sustainable “means continuing to operate as we are and we need to be more future focused”. New Zealand Inc needs to have a conversation about potentially limiting tourist numbers: “That is the security I think everyone is swimming towards – it’s number of flights, air noise boundaries staying, Wanaka not expanding, Tarras disappearing, whatever it is. But we can’t constrain it. Is New Zealand Inc going to have that conversation?“  QAC encouragement of council and community to use this respite, to have a conversation about growth and develop its long-term strategic plan, is key.

Actually, it is totally within councillors’ powers to set strategic objectives, that QAC must comply with, to ensure no ANB expansion and no wide body jets at Wanaka. Tarras is outside their control, unless they decide to collaborate with Christchurch International Airport Ltd. And the community keenly awaits that discussion on growth and long-term strategic planning – but requests for this have been ignored by council for the past two years. QAC CEO Colin Keel’s response to Cllr MacLeod: “There are some market dynamics that are changing that will give New Zealand time for those conversations,” and as a board member of the TIA, these should be prompted as soon as possible. Many of the wide-bodied jets currently parked in deserts around the world are unlikely to ever fly again, cutting capacity and increasing costs for long haul flights to New Zealand.

Craig ‘Ferg’ Ferguson

This SOI is “creeping in the right direction” but it worries him that it is muted around the subject of the proposed Tarras International Airport. “In my book, an invader should always be met and challenged.” This time around, “I have found I have questioned myself whether I have the capacity to continue to soak up the avalanche of emails and documents and various advice, guidance and reading to make another call on another QAC SOI. But that’s our job.”

This is Ferg’s third term, so he has gone through the SOI process some 10 times, four in the last two years.

Heath Copland

Supportive of the SOI and Cr Niamh’s Shaw’s amendment, which called for the terms of reference of the joint QLDC/QAC steering group to be reviewed and council statement of expectations for QAC’s SOI to be considered by councillors no later than their 4 March council meeting.

Cr Copland had to leave the meeting early. He had tried to speak earlier but was stopped by the Mayor.

Niki Gladding

There had been very little communication between the steering group and other councillors and for the latter, very little participation in the SOI. Again, they have an SOI that assumes QAC operations will grow to meet demand, retaining the opportunity to expand air noise boundaries and acquire land. Coordinates of Wanaka Airport’s two runways are already plotted on the airport designation. Concerned that the nature and scope of the SOI is permissive and key objectives are very clear about facilitating growth, meaning QAC could move forward on such expansion through this SOI. Agreeing to it would be abdicating responsibility to set the airport’s strategic objectives. But she does support all councillors sitting around the table, discussing the MartinJenkins report, and setting limits to growth as required by council’s climate emergency declaration. “And if we can do that, sit around the table as a team, and set strategic objectives, that’s when we are going to see an SOI that isn’t just about kicking the can down the road.”

The joint steering group was set up to act as a conduit between council and the airport corp, but we have heard repeated complaints that it acts to cut out most councillors from what should be their strategic discussions and decisions.

Niamh Shaw

Speaking to her amendment, she said the SOI was still a long way from what they committed to last December. Until council is more definitive about what they want QAC to achieve, QAC’s hands are to some extent tied in achieving what they both want. Councillors should express their long-term objectives for QAC through their statement of expectations. This should be a “full council cooperative endeavour…It is really important it is our document, not the steering group’s.” This clear strategic direction should then be delivered by QAC’s master plans. They should consider a review of QAC’s constitution. Policies and objectives for QAC need to be agreed and put in council’s 10 year plan. Councillors need to discuss the MartinJenkins report and, once adjudicated, the Wanaka Stakeholders Group’s Judicial Review, and the implications of these for QAC.

The QLDC/QAC steering group has no minutes, no accountability and very little communication with outside councillors. The statement of expectations should be a council-only document. It should be based on robust councillor discussion of their strategic objectives for QAC, which should include the MartinJenkins findings and other community feedback already gained.  Reviewing the steering group’s ToR’s is a step in the right direction – we wonder if it will be allowed to happen in time to ensure a strong SOE?

Glyn Lewers

As a resident of Frankton and buddy councillor for Kelvin Peninsula Community Association, “I can tell you, there is a varying of opinion as we saw in front of us.” He has seen the effects of Covid airport closure on his helicopter pilot neighbour. Both KPCA and Frankton Community Association have written to Council before about the noise boundary expansion and both agree with the dual airport management approach, the need for more information and spatial plans. “I feel that this SOI allows us to do that, to reassess the strategic lay of the land.” The business community needs a functioning airport to help recovery. He was pleased to hear “directly from the mouths of directors of the airport” that they were not concerned about driving this airport down a demand driven line. They are cognisant about the community and completely aware of environmental constraints on ZQN.

Cr Lewers was then-chair and wrote the FCA submission expressing their members’ unanimous opposition to ANB expansion in 2018. He presented this, the KPCA submission presenting the same unanimous opposition and a 1500-strong petition to QAC management alongside the now-chair of We Love Wakatipu Inc. We Love Wakatipu Inc considers it disingenuous to insinuate that both community associations would be in support of this SOI, especially in a way that made him appear to be speaking on behalf of both associations. Current KPCA chair David Mayhew spoke during public forum and expressed their continued strong opposition to the SOI.  Cr Lewers, like the scenic flight company reps, conflated the risk of the proposed Tarras International Airport’s potential impact on ZQN with the SOI, which doesn’t even see this proposal as a threat. Cr Lewers is also a member of the SOI joint steering group.

Val Miller

Made no comment during the meeting, nor raised her hand to do so. However, once the media and public had left, she complained to her colleagues that some councillors had been going on, verging on sermons, depriving others of the ability to make comment.

Mayor Jim Boult said he did have this in mind and would send around standing orders to remind councillors of the rules. Standing orders limit speakers to 5 minutes max.  The video evidence shows no one spoke that long. And while he did suggest a couple of the councillors wind up, he did not say no one further could speak.

Jim Boult

His only comment on the subject was to second Cr Shaw’s amendment.  He is the fourth council representative on the joint QLDC/QAC’s statement of intent steering group. He is the only councillor to have voted every time in the past four years to agree to QAC’s SOI – each time, supporting continued growth to meet demand and the possibility of expanding air noise boundaries at Queenstown Airport.

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