Airport corporation fights QLDC control bid

by Cath Gilmour - Apr 26, 2022

Reader Commentary. Cath Gilmour, Chair, We Love Wakatipu Inc.

"After four years’ constant and strong community opposition, Queenstown Airport Corporation has committed to not expanding Queenstown Airport’s air noise boundaries for the next decade in this year’s draft statement of intent (SOI).

Admittedly, that’s largely because of Covid 19’s impact on demand and QAC finally admitting that bigger, quieter planes can bring in more people within the allowed “bucket of noise”. And it’s only for a decade.  But we will still claim a partial victory for community activism – congratulations everyone involved!

Cath Gilmour

However, QAC – a council-controlled trading organisation – has controversially chosen to ignore two very clear instructions from the council supposedly controlling them.

This is deliberate pushback our councillors should reject. And legally, they have the power to.

The SOI is a legal requirement that outlines, among other things, QAC’s objectives, scope of activities and performance measures for the next three years and is meant to ensure QAC aligns with council’s objectives for our community. This is coming to council for discussion on Thursday. 

The formal process kicked off in February, when councillors voted on their statement of expectations (SOE) to outline the strategic objectives they expect QAC directors to include in this year’s SOI.

The council executive team’s SOE agenda item had issued its usual tepid hands-off governance recommendation. But three councillors - Niamh Shaw, Niki Gladding and Esther Whitehead - pushed through strong amendments (including non-expansion of the ANB) to the SOE with strong support from most fellow councillors.

Including non-expansion of the noise boundaries in the SOE should have been a no-brainer. More than 90% of the community has opposed expansion in all feedback since 2018. QAC had already said publicly they did not want to expand them in the next decade. And still, council’s executive team managed to miss that memo.

All but one councillor (Penny Clark) voted ‘yes’ on the amendment to instead stipulate QAC not expand airport noise in the next decade.

But the QAC board has chosen to challenge and effectively dismiss two other explicit requirements of council’s strengthened SOE:

  • that both the Master Plan and Strategic Plan “must be formally agreed by full council before implementation”
  • and that consultation on both must be council-led.

Only Mayor Boult and Cr Glyn Lewers voted against council-led consultation.  The amendment that both Master Plan and Strategic Plan must be formally approved by Council was won unanimously.

So that is a serious council mandate for QAC’s board to collectively thumb its nose at.

And it’s based on the strong community mandate given to our councillors because of the airport’s centrality in strategic, spatial, residential amenity, over-tourism, noise, traffic congestion and other community concerns.

But QAC’s draft SOI commits only to reporting the final Master Plan to its shareholders and to “seek and have regard to any final feedback before any final approval by the board." On consultation, they "will follow a structured community engagement process on the Queenstown Airport draft masterplan, once endorsed by Council, in partnership with QLDC."

So, why are We Love Wakatipu Inc concerned? Because agreeing to QAC’s wording would effectively let QAC carve out its own 153 ha fiefdom in the middle of Frankton Flats – named in QLDC’s ground-setting, 30-year Spatial Plan as Wakatipu’s principal urban settlement.

Requiring formal council agreement before the Master Plan’s implementation would mean councillors could ensure it meets council’s and the community’s objectives and fits in with its statutory plans – as it is meant to. Legally, the term “endorsing” gives no power to Council. 

And leaving community input to the end of the process, when ideas and design are already solidified, nullifies any hope of community influence. QAC committing only to "seek and have regard to any final feedback before any final approval by the board," rather than accept council-led consultation as directed, is a licence to just keep on ignoring both Council and community.

Which their draft SOI commits to – upfront and in councillors’ faces – on the Strategic Plan front.

There is zero mention of either community consultation or Council approval of QAC’s 10-year Strategic Plan.   Under the draft performance measures, they must just deliver this plan to and complete consultation with shareholders by FY23.

A couple of years ago, a joint steering committee was formed between QAC and council to supposedly facilitate better governance and development of the statement of intent.  There has been criticism of lack of transparent process and a lack of communications with other councillors.

But We Love Wakatipu Inc understands the steering group did not even meet between the February SOE vote and the draft SOI that so blatantly ignores two of its critical directives.

WLW, alongside others in the community, has for the past four years pointed out major inadequacies of the SOE – SOI process and the equally inadequate result. Agenda items have been misleading, councillors have been misinformed about their roles and responsibilities, and as result, hugely constrained in ensuring QAC’s objectives align with council’s own. 

Should QLDC, as majority shareholder, have more control over the Queenstown Airport Corporation?

This week’s Meaghan Miller/Mike Theelen agenda item follows this tired model, though it is mainly by omission rather than commission this time. They repeat QAC chair Adrienne Young-Cooper’s vague defence for ignoring council instructions on the Master Plan and don’t bother mentioning that QAC also ignored their Strategic Plan directive.

They don’t point out that councillors can legally require the airport corp to modify its SOI under Section 6(2b)of the LGA. And under this same legislation, QAC must comply.  Through this mechanism, they could insist that QAC’s objectives align with council’s, for the benefit of our community’s well-being.

By law, a principal objective of a CCTO is to “achieve the objectives of its shareholders, both commercial and non-commercial, as specified in the statement of intent”. And the purpose of local government is to enable democratic local decision-making and actions and to promote their communities’ social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being.  The SOI is the tool that enables council to do so, through the airport it majority-owns.

You might remember that both QAC and QLDC senior counsel vehemently argued this, when fighting to retain QLDC’s illegal lease of Wanaka airport to QAC.  They told the High Court judge that QLDC had “total control” over QAC through the statement of intent.

So will our councillors stand up both for themselves and our community on Thursday and exert this control?

If they don’t – when QAC has so egregiously ignored their explicit governance instructions – they would effectively be giving QAC free rein to keep on ignoring them on any front they want.

Our community deserves much better than that."

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