Opinion: Cath Gilmour on QLDC's farcical consultation

6 minutes read
Posted 28 February, 2024
Screenshot 2024 02 28 130624

Former QLDC councillor Cath Gilmour

Council’s consultation on Project Manawa would almost be funny if it were not so tragically farcical. And their plans for consultation on Stage II of the huge arterial project are even worse.

The promised live stream of last Monday’s Project Manawa hearing never happened. Instead, they uploaded a 47 minute video, not acknowledging almost 2 hours had been left off. After being challenged, staff said the file had been corrupted. Some hours later, the full hearing was uploaded.

Then there was the agenda recording the submissions, for both the hearing panel and public. Abbreviated to part sentences to fit council’s spreadsheet. Some submissions seriously foreshortened.

My 26 page submission – which took two weeks to research, collate and write – was left out entirely. It documented the reality behind official reports’ false claims of consultation and council mandates.

It was two days before council partly corrected these issues.

The agenda also falsely claimed that those who’d emailed their submissions opposing the plan were “neutral,” because they had not responded directly to their survey questions.

Staff refused to correct this, even by just saying “no answer,” maintaining the untrue claim that opposition was 70%. Reading the submissions, even the abbreviated versions, showed opposition to be over 90%.

I was told some weeks earlier they’d listed me as “neutral,” despite my very clear opposing submission. I asked for this to be corrected. It took two weeks for staff to reply, with the promise to do so. They didn’t. They had personally submitted in favour of the proposal.

Even now, the full submissions are not all publicly available in one clearly labelled document, as they should be for both councillors and the public record.

Fundamental flaws

And that’s only the mechanics of the process. The fundamental foundations were even more shonky, contravening the requirements of both the Local Government Act and council’s own Significance and Engagement Policy.

This policy requires staff to advise councillors to use its Special Consultative Procedure (SCP) for matters of high significance, as determined by six criteria and whether the decision concerns specific listed strategic assets.

Council’s Project Manawa team ignored this requirement at the start of the project, when our community should have been asked whether our “beating heart” should be in Queenstown or Frankton, and if council offices qualified as part of that.

These two questions met all six assessment criteria that should have caused the project team to automatically advise councillors to use the SCP, right at the start of the planning process.

These high significance criteria are: importance to the district, community interest, consistency (or not) with existing policy and strategy, impact on council’s capability and capacity (i.e. cost), climate change policy alignment (or not) and mana whenua interest.

Instead of triggering the SCP on the “where and what” issues, council staff justified its use at this late stage by saying the policy lists the roading network as a “significant strategic asset,” and the closure and land swap proposal “in effect transfers ownership of the land to the Crown”.

But that’s not true, it does not. Because the team’s proposal is to make the closed part of Ballarat Street council local purposes reserve, instead of council freehold land. Ownership is not transferred to the Crown. Physically, the road has already been closed. This is empty consultation based on false justification.

Consultation mandate unproven

Council has no mandate to locate its proposed new offices in Queenstown CBD.

Despite a Local Government Official Information Act request and repeated calls for the project manager to front up with evidence of the claimed consultation mandate, none has been forthcoming.

Staff reports have repeatedly claimed the Town Centre Master Plan gave both council and community mandate. Council’s LGOIMA response, however, finally admitted there was no formal consultation as part of that process.

The 2016 Colliers report on which this Town Centre Master Plan was based expressly identified there were “strong practical factors and financial fundamentals which supported relocation to Frankton,” on council land close to the event centre, to pull the organisation closer together.

Many of Colliers’ stated CBD advantages for an office to be built – for occupation by 2018 – have unravelled since its report was written.

Both the Master Plan and Colliers report are so outdated they cannot legitimately be considered as factual bases for informed consultation or decision-making eight years later.

Graphic showing the population spread by the 2050s, taken from QLDC projection figures 2053

No alternatives considered

Under the LGA, consultation must include all practicable alternatives to achieve the objectives of a decision. This consultation didn’t do so, even on its two narrow foci of land swaps and JV structure.

So perhaps that’s why staff chose to not advise councillors to use the SCP on the location question, when they should have. Because they would then have legally had to include the options of council building its own offices, on its own Frankton Flats land, incurring no debt, rent or complicated JV structure, as I identified in LWB last week.

Judging from the overwhelmingly negative response from 179 formal submissions and 600 respondents to Crux’s survey, there is zero chance that our community would have said a 600 person council office in the CBD was either in the right place or likely to produce a heartbeat.

Four of the five mayors still living in the district spoke out publicly against Project Manawa and its CBD location; Sir John Davies, Warren Cooper, Clive Geddes and Vanessa Van Uden.

The only one who did not was Jim Boult. Despite claims to the contrary in council reports, his was the only council that has voted in favour of this Queenstown CBD office proposal.

And it gets worse…

It was also Mr Boult’s council that rushed through Stage II of the arterial project as a “shovel ready” Covid legislation fast tracked consent.

This consent means council could, at any time in the future, go ahead with Stage II – including demolition of Queenstown Memorial Centre, the rugby club rooms, the squash clubrooms, the RSA and the sportsground viewing platform – with zero opportunity for community input. There is funding earmarked for Stage II land purchase in the next three years.

In light of the almost tripling, crippling costs of Stage I and warnings this might not be the last blowout, I asked councillors at their last meeting to commit to full consultation before making any moves to progress Stage II.

They didn’t discuss the possibility. They were focused on the budget blowout they had no choice but to accept, and the lack of control, information, oversight and visibility they had over Stage I. Many remarked on the bloated management structure of the Alliance JV running it and inadequate reporting to council.

Time to learn?

I can understand the poisoned chalice of Stage I being front of mind. But a huge part of our councillors’ governance role is to look forward and strategise how to avoid mistakes of the past.

Like the problems councils often have with JVs, the need to wrest back power and knowledge from staff, and to insist on meaningful and timely community consultation. Now is the time to learn these lessons and apply them, to avoid further problems with Project Manawa, stage II of the arterial project, Lakeview…

Both the Memorial Centre and the roading network are listed as strategic assets, and again, the scope and size of the arterial Stage II proposal meet all six criteria for matters of high significance. So before any step is taken towards Stage II, the Special Consultation Procedure should be undertaken.

With the lowball business case for Stage II, no council or Crown funding is likely in the foreseeable future. For council to choose to hold onto this fast-tracked consent, thus robbing our community of its right for meaningful consultation, would be disingenuous at best. This council can do something about it.

Is democracy the demon?

What are the team responsible for advising councillors on these projects so afraid of?

That democracy might (like that video file) corrupt their narrative? That our councillors might be able to hear the full story from our community?

I wouldn’t be surprised if this same team advises councillors that many of the over 90% submissions opposing Project Manawa were not in scope, and so should be ignored.

But that is the fault of the wrongly defined scope of the consultation, not the almost 800 residents who took the time to give feedback despite that.

Major culture change is needed within Queenstown Lakes District Council. To a culture that listens to our community and doesn’t treat our political representatives, their questions and concerns dismissively.

A good start would be to revisit the Town Centre Master Plan in collaboration with Shaping Our Future, within the context of the 30-year Spatial Plan. This would ground future Project Manawa consultation in current and future reality, of what’s needed and where.

Because what’s needed is certainly not a mammoth council office block in the expensive, tourist focused, traffic choked, car park constrained Queenstown CBD, when the vast majority of Queenstown Lakes locals live nearer Frankton.

Cath Gilmour


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