Although Wellington city councillors are divided on whether or not a Basin Reserve flyover will ruin its neighbourhood, they have agreed on a more definite message about another aspect of the flyover. On the subject of how the Transport Agency’s controversial plan should be assessed, councillors voted to request that the project’s resource consent application be sent to the Environment Court, rather than to the usual Board of Inquiry.
They sent their request to the Minister for the Environment, who is to receive a recommendation from the Environmental Protection Agency on how it wants the resource consent application to be heard. The EPA is chaired by former Wellington mayor Kerry Prendergast, who is on record as supporting the flyover.
The Transport Agency, which lodged the resource consent application with the EPA last month, has asked for a Board of Inquiry. It asks that the Basin flyover decision be handled “as a nationally significant project …”
What the Transport Agency didn’t say is that boards of inquiry – with a 9-month deadline for decision-making – are a fast-tracking system which has never yet said no.
Members of Boards of Inquiry are chosen by the government. But the government has no such political influence if consent applications are evaluated by the Environment Court, where the application would be heard by a judge and two commissioners.
So the EPA, which will be well aware that the Environment Court has turned down several Wellington resource consent applications, faces two conflicting requests.
Will it recommend a Board of Inquiry, with political appointments? Or will it agree with the city council and recommend the Environment Court? Its recommendation has to be sent to the Minister for the Environment, Amy Adams, by the end of next week.
The move to ask for the Environment Court was made almost unnoticed in March at the end of the council meeting which reversed its decision to oppose the flyover. It was initiated by Councillor Iona Pannett, who said today: “Boards of Inquiry have been set up to give certainty to achieve the Government’s policy ends. This is an inappropriate approach for contentious issues like the flyover, they should be heard in the relatively neutral setting of the Court”.
Who will prevail? The Wellington City Council or the government’s Transport Agency?
This article has been corrected since publication; the vote for the Environment Court was not unanimous – it was 7 to 5, with three councillors absent.