Wellington Scoop

Challenging the flyover – for 18 weeks

Mainstream recognition of the immense efforts by local groups and local people opposing the Basin Flyover proposal came from an unexpected source on Saturday.

Their work was described at length in the DomPost in an article by Michael Forbes who has been diligently covering the 18 weeks of board of inquiry hearings.

His Saturday article focused on the work of three women. Two of them were Joanna Newman and Kay Jones of the Save the Basin group.

It is a tough life for a pair of Wellington women with no legal qualifications. But they have had to become quick learners. For the past four months, they have made numerous personal sacrifices to be part of the last line of defence against the Transport Agency’s plans to build a 265-metre elevated highway 20 metres from the Basin Reserve’s northern gate….Kay Jones and Joanna Newman believe passionately in what they are doing. If it was not for their efforts, alongside small groups of others, not to mention their lawyers doing much of the work unpaid, it is unlikely the flyover’s board of inquiry hearing would have been the record-breaking marathon it turned into.

The other groups included the Architectural Centre, the Mt Victoria Historical Society, the Mt Victoria Residents Association and the Newtown Residents Association. They had to pool their knowledge and resources after the Wellington City Council reversed its long-standing opposition to the flyover and – by a majority of Andy Foster’s one vote – decided to support it. Which left it to the locals, under funded and under resourced, to fight the proposal. The Transport Agency had a team of four lawyers at the hearing – a David and Goliath situation for the local opponents.

As a key organiser with Save the Basin, Newman … cut her weekly hours in half so she could help Save the Basin’s lawyer Tom Bennion trawl through the thousands of pages of documents produced by the agency to support its flyover case. Her job was to scan them for any line Bennion might be able to use against the Transport Agency experts. All the while, the agency’s four lawyers were sitting across the room doing the same to Save the Basin’s evidence.

Jones went a step further. She showed up at the hearing with no support team whatsoever and began firing questions at the agency’s technical experts while they were on the stand. Schooling herself on the nuances of highway construction was no easy feat, she says. It required some sacrifice. “I’ve had to cancel going to parties, films, social engagements . . . there’s been a big impact on family time. We had to give up going away on holidays.” Her “mad keen” love of cricket was the reason she got interested in the flyover saga to begin with, but her stern belief that the project is a bad fit for Wellington kept her motivated. “I haven’t seen evidence that congestion coming into Wellington from the airport is that bad, except for certain short periods of time,” she says.

Michael Forbes contrasted the effectiveness of the locals’ efforts with the better funded and professionally-staffed work of the Transport Agency.

Depsite having more resources at its fingertips, the Transport Agency found the flyover hearing far from a walk in the park. Because the main opposition was community groups who could not afford an array of experts to argue their case, the board gave them leeway to grill those who appeared for the agency. As a result, some of the flyover’s designers and developers spent days answering questions. The project’s lead developer, Wayne Stewart, had questions fired at him for six days straight.

A third unpaid opponent of the flyover was Christine McCarthy of the Architectural Centre.

McCarthy, like the other volunteers, became a legal assistant to her lawyer Philip Milne. Together they launched a relentless assault on almost anyone and everyone involved in the flyover’s development, grilling them on the times and places when key decisions were made. One of their aims was to prove the agency was already sold on the idea of a flyover when it sat down to investigate the merits of Option X last year, hence it did not try very hard. McCarthy says it was necessary to tease the issue out so Option X could get the proper assessment she feels the agency did not give it…..

As a community group, finding traffic and design experts to argue their case was particularly difficult, McCarthy says. The pool of expertise was surprisingly small in this country and many of the people they tracked down could not help because of a conflict of interest. “Pretty much everybody who’s relevant is either working for NZTA, wants to work for NZTA, or somebody in their office is working for NZTA, or somebody in their office in another city is working for NZTA.” It is also difficult to get people on your side when you are not sure if you will be able to pay them, she says. “It basically meant long hours with not much money if they were going to commit to us.”

Shamefully, the Wellington City Council aligned itself with the Transport Agency and was not on the side of its residents and ratepayers. It gave no help at all to those who were fighting the flyover and trying to protect the city.

A draft decision from the four-person board of inquiry is due next month.