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Seven years of community opposition, and the defeat of the Transport Agency

by Lindsay Shelton
Friday’s second rejection of the Basin flyover comes at the end of almost seven years’ community campaigning against the plan. Seven years when the Transport Agency persisted in ignoring the community, and eventually persuaded the city council to do the same.

The campaign began in November 2008 when a hundred people turned up for the first meeting in St Joseph’s Church, overlooking the Basin. The flyover was already being planned and it was already evident that the Transport Agency was refusing to listen to the community’s opposition. As I reported:

Councillor Iona Pannett referred sadly to the fact that public consultation, showing 79 per cent opposition to the flyover, had been ignored by the Transport Agency and by the Regional Council in giving approval for the big structure.

Sue Kedgley, then a Green MP, said the city council had voted to support the flyover, even before it had been designed. She warned it would be the first step in a process to create a four-lane motorway from the bypass to the airport, with destructive results for the quiet streets of Mt Victoria and Hataitai.

A month later, then-mayor Kerry Prendergast announced that the flyover was “shaping up.” She said it was the best option and she wanted it to progress quickly. She had nothing to say about community concerns. By then, the Save the Basin group was taking shape and gathering support.

Less than three years later, however, the Save the Basin campaigners were active, Prendergast was defeated and replaced by an anti-flyover mayor, and councillors were starting to rethink their attitude towards the flyover. The Transport Agency responded with blatant threats. The first came in April 2011, when former councillor Alick Shaw, who was then a board member of the Transport Agency, gave anonymous statements to the DomPost saying that if the council didn’t support the flyover, the Agency could ditch Wellington roading projects and use the money somewhere else. His identity was revealed six months later via an Official Information request. The board never contradicted him.

The council was nervous, but it didn’t capitulate to these threats or to alarmist headlines in the DomPost. It voted by a majority of one to oppose the flyover, and told the Transport Agency it wanted a tunnel instead. Deputy mayor Ian McKinnon and John Morrison were among the minority who voted for the flyover. It was later revealed that Morrison had an undeclared conflict of interest – as a member of the Basin Reserve Trust, he’d been negotiating with the Transport Agency to get it to pay for new buildings at the Basin in return for council support.

Andy Foster was in the group that voted against the flyover, saying “the corridor would be blighted for decades” if it was built. Later he said: “We said we didn’t like the flyover, the public said the same.”

Faced with this opposition, the Transport Agency tried more threats, this time not anonymously but in a letter signed by chief executive Geoff Dangerfield. He wrote:

Withdrawal of support for the bridge proposal … may have significant implications for investment in Wellington’s wider transport network and ultimately on the growth and prosperity of the city.

The council stood firm. Andy Foster moved six recommendations and for a second time there was an 8-7 vote against the flyover.

But three months later, things changed abruptly. In March 2013 the council’s strategy and policy committee began another flyover debate. The vote was a tie – 7 for and 7 against. There was real shock when Andy Foster changed sides and used his casting vote to support the flyover. It seemed the Agency’s threats had worked. “I had a chat with the Transport Agency during the lunch break,” he said. Some chat. As a result, council opposition to the flyover collapsed. The community campaigners were left on their own. Not that the council had ever given them any support, in spite of the fact that Mayor Wade-Brown continued to be a flyover opponent, though latterly she preferred not to talk about this.

No such uncertainty at the Regional Council, where Fran Wilde was always a staunch supporter of the flyover, ensuring that her compliant councillors voted for it even when they had doubts and regardless of polls showing substantial public opposition. But strangely she did her best never to use the “flyover” word.

As the costly pro-flyover campaign lumbered on, the Transport Agency began a much-delayed and warped period of “public consultation” which was blatantly biased because the only options on offer were flyovers. The tactic failed. Public opposition to both options came through clearly. But was ignored. The Agency also ignored the opinions of specialist experts who wrote reports (published in August 2012) on how negative effects of the flyover would impact on ecology, archaeology, air quality, noise, built heritage … and most of all on urban design.

Even the the Prime Minister was dragged in. He discussed the flyover on TVNZ’s Q+A programme last year, but was embarrassingly misinformed. The Architectural Centre, an authoritative and committed campaigner against the flyover, responded with specifics about all his incorrect claims.

In spite of the misguided Prime Ministerial intervention, last year’s Board of Inquiry rejected the plan after listening to more than 200 submissions, the most influential ones being from Save the Basin and the Architectural Centre. The city council supported the doomed plan, with its urban design expert saying the flyover was “an acceptable outcome.” The decision against the flyover was welcomed by almost everyone, though not by the city council , whose statement (from the deputy mayor rather than the mayor) was embarrassingly unenthusiastic.

When the Transport Agency said it would appeal because the rejection would “constrain progress,” there was general disappointment, and much talk of wounded pride. But the city council participated in the appeal alongside the Agency, compounding its deplorable failure to align itself with the community. Its lawyer even argued against heritage values and views around the Basin, saying they should be given no legal consideration. Not one councillor (Iona? Nicola?) spoke out in disagreement.

When the appeal was dismissed on Friday, the judge rejected every one of the Agency’s legal challenges. The city council was exposed as having been on the wrong side, though the decision encouraged the mayor to regain her anti-flyover voice.

Long-time pro-flyover boosters led by John Milford seem to have given up, at last. He’s now calling for “another … solution,” rather than repeating his love for the flyover. But he hasn’t given up altogether. He’s now parroting the Transport Agency’s old threats, by saying: “It would be a serious setback for Wellington if government transport funding for the region is moved elsewhere as a result of this decision.” Did he make this statement on his own volition? Or is it yet another threat at the behest of the Transport Agency?

Architectural Centre: Summary of High Court decision

19 comments:

  1. Alana, 23. August 2015, 8:22

    Thank you for this concise summary of this very long effort to end a very bad idea. I sincerely hope that the NZTA now decided to work on new and better plans for this area and for the treasured Basin Reserve.

     
  2. Traveller, 23. August 2015, 8:23

    The Kapiti community fought a similar battle against the Transport Agency. But they lost, with dreadful consequences that can now be seen. .

     
  3. Rob, 23. August 2015, 8:45

    NZTAs brutal behaviour against communities and councils needs to be checked.

    Their record in Wellington is appalling. Kapiti, Basin Flyover, and the big pending scrap over Takapu Valley are symptoms of something very wrong with their culture.

    Thanks Lindsay for compiling this.

     
  4. Pauline, 23. August 2015, 8:48

    Like Alana, thank you Lindsay for a great summary of the debate over so many years. Having made four submissions and attended many meetings, I hope we can now expect restoration of the historic Basin buildings.

     
  5. Mark B, 23. August 2015, 8:51

    NZTA are at it again. Their public consultation on the last minute addition to the Petone to Grenada Road, bulldozing Takapu Valley, attracted 1400 submissions against, and 2% for. But their report states ‘general support’!

    The Regional Transport Committee, the Wgtn City Council AND the Regional Council have all voted it down, but still NZTA are still plowing on…

    Here we go again

     
  6. Freddy, 23. August 2015, 8:54

    The NZTA’s funding comes from vehicle fuel tax. Not in their interest to find public transport options as it undermines their income base. We need a better system

     
  7. Dr Sea Rotmann, 23. August 2015, 12:34

    Great summary which just shows how effective community-led action can be. But at what price? This Council has shown itself, again and again, to be on the wrong side of history and has little nous about how to make this city truly smarter, more livable and sustainable. More fights are yet to come – the water front, Takapu, town belt, runway extension… I just hope that instead of just sucking community resources dry, we can change some of the old thinking in the Council and clear space for a better way forward – that means that some of those heroes from the community may need to stand for Council/Mayor next year. Any takers?

     
  8. Curtis Nixon, 23. August 2015, 14:09

    No uber-bridge!

     
  9. Esjay, 23. August 2015, 15:34

    Since when did blackmail form part of community consultation? NZTA had two options as I recall. The “cheapest” take it or leave it version has demonstrated how this agency operates. The threat of money now being diverted elsewhere away from Wellington is a far cry from community consultation. Merely talking to the community and describing it as “consultation” is not the means of including the voice of democracy. So Wellington motorists will now potentially face further traffic congestion as a result of an agency that had its own plan set in concrete. Frank Sinatra’s song is apt – “I did it my way.” How will the legal bill for the court dramas be written off? Easy I’d say: they’ll deduct it from future roadworks in Wellington. NZTA should invest in a course of “How to Consult with the Public and how to put it in practice.”

     
  10. Simon, 23. August 2015, 15:35

    NZTA need to stop wasting our (taxpayers’) money. It’s unconscionable the amount of money they’ve already spent pushing this wrong-headed solution. Why have they not put their heads above the parapet to look at global trends in transport infrastructure provision? The era of place-ruining flyovers is not just over, it was over decades ago and many cities (San Fran, Seoul, New York) have successfully removed these and recreated their urban fabric. Heads should roll over the decision-making that led to this farce. {From Transport Blog

     
  11. Guy, 23. August 2015, 16:00

    Regarding Pauline’s comment that perhaps now we can expect the heritage buildings at the Basin Reserve to be restored – I’d have to say, don’t hold your breath. The buildings at the Basin are (I believe) all ultimately owned by the WCC, which has a policy of spending no money on them, and letting them rot. The main grandstand is earthquake prone (possibly more so than almost any other building in Wellington) and is closed off, with concrete cracking and spalling. The WCC seem to be waiting for a chance to demolish it. Ironically, if they do demolish it, it enables more roading solutions to be built (ie widening Sussex Street will help put more traffic through to/from Newtown.

    The only heritage building under the control of NZTA is / was Dame Aubert’s Home of Compassion Creche, which has been moved, and restored, and now sits waiting for a sensible suggestion of what to do with it.

     
  12. Sally, 24. August 2015, 15:06

    Great summary. Let’s all remember at election time

     
  13. Hel, 24. August 2015, 22:09

    Guy, you are absolutely correct regarding the disgraceful state of the Museum Stand. The building has serious problems that through neglect over a long period probably mean it is now beyond sensible repair. While demolition might be sensible and inevitable the thought of the road widening through this area is alarming.

     
  14. Mark, 25. August 2015, 0:25

    Like Freddy tells it: follow the money, it’s simple. The NZTA, financed by vehicle fuel taxes, has no interest in anything except “more cars”. Which is why the sensible solve-all big-ticket solution of a dual-track light-rail connection from Wellington Central passing alongside the CBD, through Newtown and out to the airport, is definitively “not something we want to talk about”.
    You can’t fault them for trying to enlarge their influence and income, it’s human nature.
    But it’s our responsibility to build a city for the public, not the private person, nor the taxi industry, nor the road-builders, but for the “everyman”.
    The tourist who arrives and connects seamlessly to the city and wider transport network. The student who catches a quiet, rapid, safe, clean, dry, electric train to one of the many schools along the route.
    The mums and kids visiting the zoo, or the gang heading off to the sports arenas and rugby fields.
    No traffic problems, no congestion, no waiting, no stinky diesel buses, no massive car parks, improved air and you don’t need to do ANYTHING to fix the basin bottleneck, because it won’t be a bottleneck any more. We can avoid all the costs of a second tunnel or a flyover/under.
    But the financing is the problem, which is why WCC and the local business council all suck up to the NZTA road solutions, because there’s dollars in them thar contracts !!!
    Let’s campaign to get central government to re-route the NZTA funds towards sustainable public transport projects, and then we might stand a chance of seeing sense enter the debate.

    Until then, the money corrupts intelligent policy-making ….

     
  15. Paul, 26. August 2015, 10:32

    And now on to the next fight against the NZTA tyranny – the damn stupid Takapu road add-on

    It bothers me that NZTA’s arrogance is so high they still haven’t replied to a Council person’s (Helene Ritchie) request for info about the viability of a tunnel for P2G rather than a very dubious, expensive and seismically questionable 20 storey cutting.

    As someone with a clear interest in this (the proposed cutting will become my lounge room window view), i’d love to hear from NZTA as to why a monstrous eyesore that will produce enough waste to build a land bridge to Soames Island and back is preferable to a tunnel that is cheaper to maintain in the long run, environmentally more friendly and much more stable. Oh yeah – and could enable us to link Petone and Porirua train lines t create a real public transport network.

    Can anyone answer this simple question? or is it just NZTA is so in bed with its construction contracts that any alternative gets discarded as being radical or “not part of their role”

     
  16. Roger Robinson, 26. August 2015, 14:04

    Thanks for an enlightening though often disturbing summary. Many Wellington electors prioritised this issue and gave our votes to flyover “opponents” who then betrayed us. Lindsay’s history will help us to remember, and vote accordingly.

     
  17. Guy, 26. August 2015, 17:25

    Paul – I’ll answer your question happily. Quite simply, No, a tunnel would not be possible. As silly as a 20-storey high cutting through rock sounds (are you sure? that sounds a little over the top?) it is far easier to blow something up than it is to assemble a Tunnel Boring Machine in Horokiwi, and it is definitely far cheaper. They probably haven’t replied to Clr Helene Ritchie’s request because of its amazing degree of naivety. It’s just not possible – don’t even go there.

     
  18. Paul, 27. August 2015, 9:03

    @Guy – cheaper in the construction phase, but a lot dearer in the long term and vastly less resilient. The naivety is in assuming that with modern tunnel technology it cannot be done and that NZTA are making the best choices. As for 20 storeys – NZTA’s own documents say max cut height will be 62m, so yes approx 20 storeys high. Now consider where all that fill is going to go – and the number of trucks required to move it all ? Add the environmental factors and suddenly a tunnel option becomes more attractive. In addition, the Wellington Region has at least 3 other tunnel projects that will require a borer to be bought in anyway. If the gear is in the region, why not make best use of it?

    As an FYI i am very aware of the difficulty that the initial set up would cause. When still living in Japan i was involved in several projects working with tunnels and trust me on this – some of the challenges they have overcome make Horokiwi seem a doddle.

     
  19. Guy, 27. August 2015, 16:48

    Paul – I’ve also worked on one of the world’s biggest tunneling projects, and I can tell you: its not going to happen. End of story.