Community group attacks airport consultation process

by Cath Gilmour - Feb 03, 2020

Opinion. By Cath Gilmour, Chair, We Love Wakatipu Inc.

There are three fundamental questions about Queenstown Lakes District Council’s approach to its impending airport growth decisions on both sides of the Crown Range.

  • Can we trust an opaque and rushed consultant-led process to guide councillors’ decisions when they had no input and the community knows nothing about it?
  • If not, can we trust the results?
  • And is the council achieving its two roles specified in the Local Government Act - enabling democratic local decision-making and actions, and promoting the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of its communities?

We Love Wakatipu Inc believes the answer is no to all these questions.

Cath Gilmour, Chair of We Love Wakatipu Inc.

Mayor Jim Boult’s promised airport growth economic and social impact assessments were triggered by a visit to him on the Monday prior to that August 8 council meeting by four Queenstown businessmen. They warned Mayor Boult that if he did not show some sign of listening to community opposition, he would find it hard to be re-elected.

That Wednesday night, he sent an email to his councillors with a copy of his speech in which he committed that councillors would not consider any change to ZQN’s air noise boundaries until these assessments had been undertaken. Councillors were neither asked for nor gave input.

In his script, Mayor Boult promised these assessments would be “independently delivered and involve wide consultation and engagement with the public and sector groups to ensure a robust view of the significance and impacts of the airports are well understood.”

But only today (Monday, February 3) has any community group been contacted about consultation –  five months after this promise and just one month before “key findings” are due to inform Queenstown Airport Corporation’s draft statement of intent.

The draft statement of intent - the strategic document that outlines what QAC can do to meet the strategic objectives that councillors should already have set for it - is due to be presented to Council on March 12.

That leaves little time for meaningful consultation with the community, robust questioning and analysis of the results or their inclusion in the SOI. 

A community group received an email from MartinJenkins at 3pm today, saying they will be running focus groups in mid-February with “key stakeholders” representing different perspectives. They warn places will be limited. They are also running a survey “to allow a much wider group to contribute”.

Consultants MartinJenkins have, however, been consulting with tourism operators since before Christmas. Which raises the question, who are the “key stakeholders” MartinJenkins have been tasked to consult? The businesses who stand to profit from QAC’s proposed air noise boundary expansion, or the community who would live with the myriad downstream ramifications of it?

We Love Wakatipu sent eight questions to Mayor Boult and his CEO, Mike Theelen, on December 20, seeking to clarify the process. Mr Theelen responded on January 15 with an answer to just one.

When asked why councillors had been excluded from setting the Terms of Reference (ToR) for the assessments, he said the elected members’ role was to “set direction and policy and that of officers to implement them”.

Surely determining what information these assessments would gain – from whom and to meet what objectives – is integral to setting the resultant policy and direction?

Councillor Niki Gladding was one of two councillors who responded to our January 27 email expressing deep concern that such obfuscation bred distrust, which neither council nor community could afford over such critical decisions.

She had asked Local Government New Zealand whether advice to councillors that their involvement would undermine the reports’ independence was correct.  She was told “it would not be inappropriate, but a majority of councillors needed to agree”. Unfortunately, the majority of councillors felt it was okay to leave staff and consultants to decide what information they needed.

She also confirmed councillors had not been told the answers to the other fundamental questions We Love Wakatipu had asked the Mayor and CEO. Nor do they know who the “key stakeholders” to be consulted are.

So, returning to our initial questions.

Can we trust a process that neither councillors nor community know anything about? No.

Can we trust that the results of this process will lead to good decision-making based on broad-based, objective information and independent, well-qualified and robust analysis? No.

Is the council enabling democratic, local decision-making and actions? No.

And is the council promoting the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of its communities? We don’t know, because of the three responses above.

(You can read the questions asked and Mr Theelen’s response on We Love Wakatipu’s Protect Queenstown Facebook page.)

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