Airports, growth and visitor levies have been debated to death (by boredom) this election, but we’ve forgotten to ‘have it out’ over perhaps the most important issue of all: our local democracy is heading down a very slippery slope and it’s time we dared to talk about it.
Some of you might think that process doesn’t matter if things are getting done – and recent comments suggest the Mayor might agree with you – but you’d be wrong.
Turn your mind to Canterbury for a minute. In 2010 the region lost the right to be governed by elected regional councillors. They also lost the right to appeal the decisions of Nick Smith’s commissioners, whose job was to get things done. They cleared the way for huge irrigation schemes to ensure intensive dairying could spread across those leaky soils. And it did. Back then, those who benefited, and plenty of others, didn’t blink an eye. This will be the first fully democratic election in a decade. The big election issue is water – the polluted and dried up rivers and aquifers which were once the pride of Canterbury. The big corporates and the banks made their money, the Government took the tax, and the farming communities are left with nothing but debt and dirty water.
Democracy matters and it doesn’t take the ousting of elected reps to lose it. Where there is big money to be made and pressure to grow an industry, it might be enough if councillors are underpaid, kept out of the loop, are poorly advised or simply fall silent when they should be speaking up in the public interest. Unfortunately, it’s fair to say QLDC is suffering from all the above…
The bed tax and the Spatial Plan
We’re told we must all want a bed tax because 81% of us who voted in the referendum ticked ‘YES’. Even though it was pitched as a veiled threat (‘tick yes or watch your rates rise’) and there were no options. There was no options assessment and neither the bed tax option nor the referendum question was signed off by councillors. But my greatest concern is that the levy seems to be linked to the mysterious ‘Spatial Plan’ and that we voted not really understanding the connections or the consequences. The Plan is being developed by staff and Central Government – councillors have been excluded. Does it plan for tourism growth and is it a condition of the levy? The cone of silence around this Plan means we can only speculate but the ODT’s reporting suggests this is about partnership with Government and that it’s the Spatial Plan that would enable QLDC to investigate a visitor levy:
“The council has been clear that the ability of the district’s community to support growth in Queenstown Lakes through rates alone is simply not possible.
“Such a cost threatens to undermine the wellbeing of our communities.”
The council was seeking a partnership with Government that would consider long term growth and development, investment and future funding in Queenstown.
“Such an initiative recognises the unique role that Queenstown Lakes District plays in the international and national reputation of the country, and the stress that this popularity places on our local communities.”
The work would be centred on a 30 year spatial plan for the country’s fastest growing district and would enable QLDC to investigate a new funding model to enable new infrastructure investment based on a visitor levy.
“The government has said it recognises our district’s challenges are exceptional, and that if there is clear support expressed through a referendum it would consider our proposal for a sustainable growth partnership, and legislative change to allow a visitor levy to fund the infrastructure the town desperately needs.”
The Airport Statement of Intent (SOI)
Emails released under the LGOIMA show that in March there was a clear steer from the councillors to QAC not to extend the existing airport noise boundaries. So why the rather strange game of SOI hot potato? The released documents shed some light on that – they suggest that the Council’s Chief Exec Mike Theelen might have crossed a line. The CE assumed a governance role of sorts, penning the Council’s way forward via the Mayor’s Wanaka speech without the guidance of councillors. He worked closely with Colin Keel on the SOI, but not the councillors, and discouraged councillors from directing the CCTO. Along the way, through all the mess, he’s neatly managed to avoid ruling out expansion of noise boundaries in Queenstown.
The Wanaka Airport lease and Project Pure
And then yesterday, QLDC released the Wanaka airport lease agreement between QAC and the Council. It was the first time all councillors had laid eyes on it because the lease was negotiated under the delegated authority of the the Mayor and Councillors Hill and McLeod.
It includes some fairly scary provisions to allow for airport expansion, provisions that never went back to the council for discussion or sign-off. Those include the 100-year term and the ability for QAC to prevent the expansion of or demand relocation of Wanaka’s wastewater treatment plant and discharge field:
The Lessor [QLDC] will not carry out any future development of Project Pure, including any expansion of capacity of Project Pure, whilst it is situated on the Original Project Pure Site without obtaining the Lesseers [QAC] prior written consent, such consent not to be unreasonably withheld or delayed. The Lessor acknowledges and accepts that the following reasons would be reasonable for the Lessee to deny consent: if the Lessor is proposing to develop closer to the Lessee’s planned runway;
- if the Lessor is proposing to develop closer to the Lessee’s planned runway;
- if the Lessor’s proposing to develop new buildings or plant above the height of existing buildings or plant in Project Pure as the Commencement Date; and/or
- if proposed development materially conflicts with any regulatory and /or operational requirements of Wanaka Airport.
The Lessee may on giving a minimum of 3 years prior written notice to the Lessor, require the Lessor to relocate Project Pure. In the case of the disposal fields, the notice can be given any time after the second anniversary of the Commencement Date. For the remainder of Project Pure, the notice can be given any time after the fifth anniversary of the Commencement Date.
These provisions should have been a consideration when councillors were mulling over the draft SOI; the Mayor and Councillors Hill and McLeod should have highlighted the risk to that vital piece of infrastructure, if unlimited airport expansion was not written out of the SOI. But they didn’t.
And perhaps we should be asking whether they even had the authority to negotiate those provisions under delegation.
Conflicts of interest
Finally, there’s the issue of whether the Mayor’s potential and perceived conflicts were appropriately managed. He is Chair of Wayfare Group, the largest tourism company in the region if not the South Island, and yet he has been deeply involved in each of the above matters, all directly related to our ability to grow tourism in this district. A complaint has been laid.
If I had to sum this up, I’d say that under this Council’s leadership the management team has become very skilled at manoeuvring in the grey areas at the margins of democratic process. That’s the nicest way I can put it. And it’s something to be very concerned about.
If we don’t want to end up like Canterbury’s farmers – reliant on numbers to claw back the debt that enabled unbridled growth – we need to need to ensure that industry lobbies and corporate agendas can’t have an undue influence on decision-making. And to ensure that we need to do better than operating at the margins.
So, as councillors continue their public silence in the face of all this, let’s get behind those in the community (Wanaka Stakeholders Group take a bow) who are willing to stand up and challenge poor process. Naturally, those with a lot to lose will push back and try to belittle, marginalise or discredit the threat – that’s PR 101. As for the rest of us, it’s time to ditch the apathy, think about the consequences of continuing as we have been, and support those determined to wrestle our democracy back up the slippery slope.