Airport farewell?

Opponents of proposals for an international airport in Central Otago’s Tarras will be pleased the project has gone into a holding pattern.

Many would have preferred it stopped altogether, rather than the slowing down of further work on the Christchurch International Airport Ltd (CIAL) plan which was reported last week.

(The airport company is one of six trading companies which come under Christchurch City Holdings Ltd (CCHL), the investment arm of the Christchurch City Council.)

In December, the newsletter from project director Michael Singleton was predicting that at some point this year the CIAL board would consider whether it was ready to proceed to the approvals phase or if more information gathering was needed.

The pause in the project announced now seems largely down to uncertainty over funding.

Christchurch City Holdings said it did not expect significant amounts of capital to be committed to further investigations into a new airport in Central Otago in the short term, although it is unclear what length of time that is.

With substantial work now completed on the Central Otago site, CCHL said it would focus its work with CIAL on other existing opportunities to deliver the strong returns required to support the objectives of the wider CCHL Group, the city council and Christchurch ratepayers.

Who knows what that means? Great communication has not been a hallmark of this project.

When it was revealed in 2020 the purchase of 750ha of land in the area was for a possible airport, questions were raised about the secretive way this was done, with landowners under the impression the land was being sought for a large-scale horticulture development.

It did not get much better from there.

Concerns came thick and fast about likely over-tourism, the economics of the proposal given the massive infrastructure spending which would be required to support it, environmental degradation, the necessity for a new airport when existing airports had capacity, and the folly of building new airports amid a climate change crisis.

Sustainable Tarras members protest outside the Tourism Industry Aotearoa's national tourism...
Sustainable Tarras members protest outside the Tourism Industry Aotearoa's national tourism awards function in Wellington on November 7 last year. PHOTO: SUPPLIED / SUZE KEITH
We can understand why CIAL might be reluctant to call it quits given it has spent about $50 million on the land and presumably quite a bit more on its investigations already.

All the same, it must realise none of the concerns about this project, and people determined to fight it, will magically evaporate in the undefined short term or the long term.

And another thing

It is worrying that despite big talk from National, the major coalition partner, before last year’s election about reinstating $30m to the Dunedin hospital rebuild, Health Minister Shane Reti has yet to confirm if that promise will be kept.

This money would not cover the loss of the pavilion building or the interprofessional learning centre, but would reinstate previously cut beds, operating theatres and cover the country’s first publicly owned PET scanner.

While we know the government is running a ruler over spending everywhere to see if it is warranted, walking back this promise would be petty and tin-eared, given the ongoing consternation about the number of cuts to the original plans.

Dr Reti’s reluctance to offer reassurance about this and his vagueness about when he might visit Dunedin will be adding to the uneasiness which has dogged this project for years.

We also need to know whether there are plans to introduce some sort of public/private partnership funding for the hospital rebuild in future, something bound to be contentious.

Since the government seems sick of distractions from a focus on what it sees as its core business, it might want to avoid further controversy over this project.

Southerners are renowned for being feisty, determined, and loud when they feel their health services are threatened.

If Dr Reti does not grasp that, perhaps he should give former health minister Tony Ryall a call and ask him about the campaign to keep neurosurgery in Dunedin.