Tarras Airport fight 'not over'

4 minutes read
Posted 13 March, 2024
Screenshot 2023 08 29 132206 v5

A digital rendering of the proposed Tarras Airport. Image: Supplied / CIAL

Campaigners and academics who challenged plans to build a huge international airport at Tarras say they don't believe the fight is over.

Late last month, Christchurch International Airport Ltd's board pressed pause on its grand plans to create new airport in the sleepy Central Otago farming community.

The airport company, which is ultimately owned by Christchurch City Council, had spent more than $45 million on the 750 hectares needed for the airport, which would have a 2km-plus long runway capable of landing the wide-bodied jets needed to long haul to Asia and beyond.

By 2050, Tarras International Airport could have managed four million passenger movements per year, surpassing Queenstown Airport and likely dramatically altering tourism in Central Otago and beyond.

Many locals were vehemently opposed to the plans and promised to fight it all the way to the Environment Court, while research from academics pointed out its flaws.

And with Christchurch City Council under increasing financial pressure, in February Christchurch City Holdings Limited (CCHL), the umbrella company managing all the council's companies, appeared to rein in the airport board it oversees.

CCHL acting chief executive Paul Silk said he doesn't expect significant further investment to be committed to the Tarras proposal in the short-term, with all subsidiary companies now expected to operate under tighter capital restraints, to improve dividend payments for the council.

Massey University Distinguished Professor Robert McLachlan was one 79-strong group of Informed Leaders academics who raised significant concerns about the plans.

With professors James Higham and James Renwick, he co-authored a recent report which found that 63% of respondents were opposed to the planned airport, with 51% strongly opposed, compared to 22% in favour.

McLachlan says he's "not at all confident" this is the end of the project.

"It's great news, it's just a pity they're not cancelling the whole project and selling the land," he says.

"There will be uncertainty having over the community and the whole region, for possibly quite a long time."

McLachlan says it's difficult to determine the position of airport chief executive Justin Watson.

Watson, in a letter to CCHL about the pause, highlighted the perceived benefits of project, including solving the problems of "resilience, sustainable transport, and infrastructure capacity" in the South Island.

"The exploratory work we have done to date gives confidence that this opportunity with its core purpose being to facilitate sustainable aviation and protect long term dividend flows and value growth for Christchurch also remains," Watson said.

"Along with the financial challenges the City faces, the change in government means a change in a number of key areas that interplay with the project such as the Government's repeal of the Resource Management Act, the development of the National Infrastructure Resilience Plan, Three Waters legislative repeal, the focus on sustainable growth in tourism and next steps on funding and financing for Local Government and the Tourism sector."

McLachlan says that could just mean CAIL waits for the Coalition Government's fast tracking legislation to come into force, and lodges an application then.

"I'm concerned that they haven't just recognised that it's a terrible idea, and that the land is basically just a stranded asset.

"And, one thing I argue, is that there isn't the proper framework in place to make a decision on massive infrastructure like this, because we don't have proper regulation of the aviation industry yet."

McLachlan also co-authored a report which found aviation to be only sector with projects, such as airport expansion, almost certain to increase emissions.

It was clear from the Tarras research there was regional opposition.

"The immediate Tarras locals were opposed, we knew that, because why wouldn't they be, it will be obliterated.

"But we surveyed the whole of Queenstown Lakes and Central Otago and found very strong opposition right across the region. Nobody wants it."

Zella Downing, spokesperson for community group Stop Central Otago Airport, was also cautious about news.

She said it is a "step in the right direction" as "there is no appetite in Central Otago for this airport, or for an influx of millions more tourists".

"But it's clear from the statement that this is not a complete 'stop' and that Christchurch Airport will continue to work on this proposal in the background," she said.

"Their announcement is obviously designed to take the heat off them short term. We will still fight for a complete and definitive stop to this controversial project."

Destination Queenstown also opposed the plans, as it is targets a regenerative zero-carbon tourism economy, while Queenstown Airport also raised major concerns.

Queenstown Airport Corporation chief executive Glen Sowry believed the pause shows "common sense has prevailed".

"Christchurch Airport plays an important role serving as the main gateway into the South Island with good long-haul international connectivity," he said.

"Queenstown Airport is very clear about the role we play in providing excellent domestic and short-haul international connections to the East Coast of Australia. I believe that Christchurch and Queenstown airports respective strengths and market positions complement each other."

Queenstown Airport is itself planning to expand, with its masterplan setting out $350m of aerodrome alterations, including a parallel taxi runway, which will enable a 33% increase in passenger movements (arrivals and departures), from the current 2.3 million per year to 3.2 million by 2032.


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