A big issue in Wellington right now is the stand-off between the New Zealand Transport Agency and the Wellington City Council over funding for Wellington’s Roads of National Significance (RoNS). Basically, NZTA have said that the region is at risk of $2.4 billion of road investment if the Wellington City Council does not make a clear decision to back the plans, which includes a controversial motorway and road project between Wellington’s CBD and the airport. Wellington’s Mayor, Celia Wade-Brown, is coming under intense pressure to buckle to NZTA’s demands even though she campaigned against big road investment and in favour of developing light-rail from the CBD to the airport.
Tonight, the issue comes to a head during a crucial meeting and the result could have implications on a national scale. Apart from effectively amounting to blackmail by a central government agency of an elected local government authority this could set a worrying precedent that could well see local government policy bypassed in favour of central government policies where they contrast substantially. What makes this situation slightly more absurd is that NZTA have yet to make publicly available plans for the project, let alone undertake public consultation on them. The Council is being asked to commit to the projects before the public has a say or support is gauged. The idea, it seems, is to take the Council out of the equation early.
The problem is that Mayor Wade-Brown is really on a hiding to nothing here. The masses are only going to see $2 billion plus of local investment going out the door (apparently to Auckland and Canterbury!) if the Council don’t comply with NZTA’s demands. Already, protestations from the Mayor and her supporters will look selfish, wishy-washy, and anti-progress. Sound familiar? Yes that’s right, if you think the Christchurch City Council is being dis-empowered by CERA/the Government, you simply aren’t taking in that these are exceptional circumstances or you are anti-progress and so on. This is a worrying trend and certainly doesn’t bode well for post-quake recovery in Christchurch. If the Council wants to consult and get it right, the Government could very well use the excuse of ‘we can’t wait around we have to get on with it’ and simply override the process. Okay, sometimes it will be justified, but not always. Basically, if the Government wants to spend money on building new roads and roads only in the post-earthquake rebuild then they will, regardless of whether the Council wants to develop a world-class public transport system with light-rail as its centerpiece and if there is strong public support to do so. They can simply turn on the ‘there is money for roads and if you don’t want them then you get nothing’ cry and watch the opposition to money going out of the region build to force their solution on the city. Granted, that is a worst case scenario, but the warning signs are there and in Christchurch they may not even have to go to such lengths thanks to CERA. This is why what happens in Wellington will have huge implications for Christchurch, and why we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of a powerful CERA.