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The future is 15-minute neighbourhoods not $150m ghost airports

Fifteen-minute neighbourhoods can be great places to live, testing our will to solve the housing crisis ahead of developing transport infrastructure for the wealthy.

At the centre of Paraparaumu lies 110 hectares of flat open space. At least 3,000 medium to high density homes could be built there. On a much smaller area in Auckland, the Unitec redevelopment will provide more than 4,000 dwellings.

Such a development would create a ‘15 minute neighbourhood’ with easy walking, bike and public transport access to shops, cafes, the library and swimming pool, the beach, schools, and the train station.

A key link would be along a restored stream, a project promoted by the Kāpiti Coast District Council. Existing wetlands on the land could be protected, new trees planted and green space created. Children could walk and bike safely to nearby primary and secondary schools.

Internationally, “15 minute neighbourhoods” are not only a key way to maximise mobility while minimising transport emissions, but can be great places to live. If well designed, they allow young people to buy a first apartment, older people to downsize, and families to rent affordable, warm accommodation. Such neighbourhoods do not generate the big surge in traffic and emissions created by sprawling suburbs.

But this is a contested issue. Swirling around it are debates about the Public Works Act; forced purchases of whānau-owned Māori land; the pressing need for affordable housing; the need to curb urban sprawl and protect prime agricultural land; NIMBYism; climate change, and whether the wider ratepayer community should heavily subsidise an airline and a small group of travellers.

While many of these debates are not unique to Kāpiti, decisions about the future of Kāpiti airport will show how truly concerned we are about solving the housing crisis and tackling climate change.

The airport was purchased under the Public Works Act from various whānau the late 1930s. It was first used mainly for military operations. Once it was Wellington’s main airport but eventually Rongotai, now known as Wellington airport, started to take over most flights. In 2006, the airport was sold by the then National government to private owners, who on-sold it for a reported $150m.

After some of the area was redeveloped for commercial use and housing, the remaining airport was eventually sold to the Templeton group. This company is not a specialist airport operator. Instead, it is well known throughout New Zealand, but particularly in the Auckland region, for its large-scale housing projects, including social housing.

The question of whānau buy-backs of the land is being discussed. This is clearly an important issue. But so is land use.

An artist's perspective of Wairaka Stream and parkland open space looking towards the western side of Carrington Rd precinct, by the existing Unitec campus in Auckland. Illustration: HUD

A recent article in Stuff describes Kapiti Airport as a ‘ghost airport ’. It is obviously not commercially viable. The main user is Air Chathams, kept afloat by very generous council funding, totalling more than $1m with additional marketing money promised.

This despite a warning from a 2018 airport report commissioned by the council that stated "the benefits to the district that we have identified in this report are likely attributable to a small segment of the local population (ie airport users, affected businesses). Therefore, we suggest that these distributional affects are considered when evaluating the equity of any future action."

Research across several countries shows that a significant portion of the population hardly ever fly. Frequent fliers are generally among the wealthier section of the community.

Māori lost their land but are unlikely to be the main beneficiaries of the council airport subsidy. In Kāpiti, as in the rest of New Zealand, Māori are concentrated in the lower income groups. 2018 census data show that while less than a third of Europeans living in the Kāpiti District had incomes under $20,000, over 40 percent of Māori and Pacific peoples were in this group. On that basis, Māori and Pacific peoples are less likely to be frequent users of the airport.

"There is particular concern for those residents who can no longer afford to live here, forced to leave the district. People feel Council could be playing a more active role in working with central government, iwi and other parties in finding solutions."

– Kāpiti Coast District Council

On the day the Climate Change Commission published its final report, including recommendations for high density housing as a means of reducing transport emissions, Kāpiti Coast District Council's chief executive Wayne Maxwell published an opinion piece. In it, he strongly advocated for keeping the airport open but provided no data on the potential benefits of alternative land use.

International data show that around two thirds of airports make a loss, with small airports such as Kāpiti’s being especially unprofitable. Last year New Plymouth airport required a major ratepayer bailout. These small airports will never have the retail shopping income afforded to larger airports.

For equity and financial reasons, Kapiti airport should be repurposed for housing to help solve the housing crisis. This is not prime horticultural or agricultural land requiring protection. In its long-term plan consultation, the council reported that a lack of affordable housing was a concern to many. "There is particular concern for those residents who can no longer afford to live here, forced to leave the district. People feel Council could be playing a more active role in working with central government, iwi and other parties in finding solutions."

While overall home ownership rates in Kāpiti are higher than in many other parts of New Zealand, 2018 census data shows Māori in Kāpiti are less likely than European New Zealanders to own a house. Over the district, 16 percent of the latter did not own a home, compared with 27 percent of Māori. The airport could once again house Māori through the provision of papakāinga and affordable dwellings.

But it appears there are other locals who do not want more houses in central Paraparaumu. Some may be concerned about poor quality housing developments. Others support housing developments, but ‘not in my backyard’, instead favouring new housing further north in the district. But much of thate suggested area comprises prime horticultural land, which is not easy to service by good quality, low emissions public transport.

This debate is not about reducing aviation emissions. Given the low use of the airport aviation emissions are minimal. Despite surveys suggesting many residents want the airport to stay open, revealed preference shows most Kāpiti residents already head to Wellington or Palmerston airports.

The current risk to Kāpiti airport’s financial viability is that Wellington, and potentially Palmerston North, airports will continue to offer a better range of services at often lower prices. In addition, Auckland is the only main destination from Kāpiti. With the completion of Transmission Gully Expressway and, to the north, the expressways being built to Ōtaki and eventually to reach beyond Levin, Wellington and Palmerston North airports will become even more accessible.

A regular, high quality bus service linking Kāpiti with Wellington and Palmerston North airports would be a good thing. A ‘Gold Ultra’ service, with onboard toilet, was trialled by InterCity early in 2021. This ran from Palmerston North to Wellington airport but did not stop in Kāpiti.

In the longer term, regular fast rail will link Kāpiti directly with Palmerston North airport. This could potentially serve as an international airport, with the main trunk line, which runs next to it, making it an easy connection. A fast train could reach Palmerston North airport from Kāpiti in less than an hour. Potentially, a night train could take people to and from Auckland.

Those fighting closure of Kapiti airport argue that it is an important civil defence asset, providing an alternative to Wellington airport should it be closed. On this basis, the Prime Minister was approached for taxpayer subsidies to be added to ratepayer contributions.

However, the Wellington Earthquake National Initial Response Plan 2018 shows that Kāpiti airport is not considered important for a fixed wing response. This view is also stated in the draft Kāpiti Destination Management Plan.

The council study of the economic benefits of the airport did not identify any value attached to it as a civil defence asset. Ohakea and Palmerston North airports would be the forward bases for a fixed wing response. Helicopters, which can land anywhere, would bring in initial emergency supplies to Kāpiti, as in the Kaikoura earthquake. It is entirely feasible to retain a small area of the airport as a helicopter base.

The airport is also not used to take people out of the district in emergencies by fixed wing air ambulance. All emergencies are dealt with by helicopter. Nor, for a variety of reasons, is Kapiti airport used as a backup for commercial flights if Wellington airport needs to close.

To address the housing crisis and the climate crisis, both of which are getting worse rather than better, the airport should be closed. Kāpiti Coast District Council needs to look beyond political popularity and work with iwi, the current and original land owners, and the wider community to create a unique and vibrant housing development.


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