Wellington Scoop

Will heads roll over flyover rejection?

The Board of Inquiry’s decision to decline consent for the Transport Agency flyover at the Basin Reserve has caused ripples of rejoicing and recrimination to spread across Wellington. Some are overjoyed, whilst others are predicting doom for us all. According to the losing faction, the concrete abutments of the flyover were carrying not just the cars, but also the weight of Wellington’s entire future as a capital.

Given so much seemed to have been riding on the Board’s decision, the question of responsibility needs to be addressed. The written report is quite clear that the Transport Agency failed to make a compelling case for the flyover and that the alternatives were not properly investigated. In the words of the Board, “It was not a careful evaluation of options in light of the decision by the government to underground Buckle Street. … At most it could be called nothing but a cursory review of the situation.” To the casual observer, the Agency’s mistakes seemed to be entirely of their own making. Should heads roll as a result?

In an effort to answer these questions we’ve rounded up the most likely candidates for the failure and consulted the wellington.scoop Magic 8-Ball as to their likely fates.

Gerry Brownlee, Minister of Transport
The buck always stops with the Minister, so if anyone is ultimately accountable for the Transport Agency’s inability to mount a successful case to the Board, it’s Brownlee. Since picking up the reins of RoNS from Steven Joyce, he’s continued the “damn the torpedoes” approach to pushing major roading projects into communities that don’t seem to want them. But ultimately, Ministers set directions and drive policies – they’re not responsible for the tactical errors made by Agency staff. And given the current government’s lack of inclination to take responsibility for the mistakes of officials (see also: Murray McCully) a resignation seems unlikely.
Magic 8-Ball says: No resignation for the Minister.

Rod James, National Highways Manager, NZ Transport Agency
The elusive Mr James seems to exist solely as a set of press releases, but it’s clear that the RoNS projects are his department. Whenever there’s been a victory for the Agency he’s been the first to rush, Max Headroom-like, into the public relations arena, so it’s reasonable to expect that he should be expected to carry the can for the failures as much as the successes. However as flyover opponents have noted, he’s been careful to distance himself from actual involvement in the project and has hidden behind an army of consultants. So his fate may well depend on the strength and thickness of the Teflon coating he’s woven around himself.
Magic 8-Ball says: Outlook uncertain, ask again later.

Selwyn Blackmore, Programme Manager, NZ Transport Agency
As the person with the greatest day to day responsibility for planning and directing NZTA’s flyover project, Mr Blackmore clearly bears most responsibility for the result. Other Boards have managed to be convinced by Agency arguments, so it was either bad preparation or faulty arguments that caused the loss this time around – and it’s hard to see how he can avoid culpability for what looks like a series of unforced errors. However Mr Blackmore will likely claim that he was merely following orders – a defence which was notably unsuccessful at Nuremberg, but which may suffice in the hazy accountability-free environment of the Transport Agency.
Magic 8-Ball says: Start polishing the CV.

Fran Wilde, Chair, Greater Wellington Regional Council
Ms Wilde has been a staunch supporter of the flyover, against both the objective evidence and the clear wishes of her constituency. In one notable example early in the process, more than 80% of submitters to GWRC opposed the flyover, but with compliant patsies such as Judith Aitken and Chris Laidlaw around the council table she was able to force through her pro-roading agenda anyway. This agenda is now clearly in tatters, but it’s hard to see Ms Wilde changing her usual tactics of ignoring opposition from ratepayers and bludgeoning Councillors into submission. Where other players have attempted to cover themselves in Teflon, Ms Wilde comes equipped with Kevlar and a hide thicker than a rhinoceros, but even so her tactics and objectives are looking increasingly out of touch with the zeitgeist.
Magic 8-Ball says: Ask Kerry Prendergast how this turns out in the long run.

Andy Foster, Transport Portfolio Leader, Wellington City Council
Mr Foster has attempted to be the chameleon-like man to please all people on transport issues, right up until he was forced to nail his true colours to the mast and provide the swing vote to ram support for the flyover through the Council. This seemed to be regarded as a betrayal by both colleagues around the council table and his constituency, but it’s not apparent whether he even cares – given his 25-odd years as a councillor, he seems to have been thoroughly captured by the bureaucracy, siding much more with officers than ratepayers. The same effect can be seen over the increasingly disputatious Island Bay cycle way. The sensible political manoeuvre might be for Mayor Celia Wade-Brown to strip him of the transport portfolio and minimise the damage, but given her preference for consensus rather than performance, this probably won’t happen.
Magic 8-Ball says: Dead man walking.

So will heads roll? Or will Wellington somehow stumble forward with the same people who made the last mistakes still at the helm?