10 Jul 2019

Shane Jones calls on regional mayors to use Provincial Growth Fund money for airports

2:46 pm on 10 July 2019

Mayors should apply for Provincial Growth Fund money to get around the Transport Ministry and keep their regional airports in business, Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones says.

Shane Jones

Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Mr Jones said Transport Ministry officials were opposing his plan for a dedicated fund for provincial airports, but he would not let officials stand in the way of provincial airports getting the cash they needed to stay in business.

Instead, he is telling mayors to ask for money from the Provincial Growth Fund he oversees.

He said the Ministry of Transport provided "dry, crusty, Sahara-like" advice against a dedicated fund saying there was a risk the Crown would be gamed by Air New Zealand.

"I've since been lambasted by people such as the mayor of Taupō and look, I think the pragmatic solution prior to the next election is where deserving cases can be found let's test the appetite of the four consenting ministers to get them over the line," he said.

Mr Jones said there were issues around putting money in to those no longer serviced by Air New Zealand, but each airport would be considered on a case-by-case basis.

"Why should regional New Zealand pay for Auckland to host the America's Cup? I'm in the politics of reciprocity. If we're going to bail out Auckland with the America's Cup, then we're going to show the love and I'm going to continue to do it as the economic chiropractor of regional New Zealand."

The report from the ministry - provided to Transport Minister Phil Twyford and his associate minister, Mr Jones - is yet to be publicly released.

Alongside Mr Jones, funding allocations from the Fund of more than $1 million have to also be signed off by senior ministers Grant Robertson, David Parker - and Phil Twyford.

Mr Jones said all four ministers "realise that we need to take a risk and we need to rehabilitate the essential infrastructure of the provinces".

While the Transport Ministry was entitled to come to a different conclusion on its own fund, Mr Jones said it was not a decision he agreed with.

"We've got a dedicated fund for waste, a dedicated fund for Māori land and a dedicated fund for energy. It was my ambition to have a dedicated fund for our regional airports.

"The issue hasn't gone away, but at the end of the day I have to respect the authority of the senior minister Mr Twyford, I'm only a junior transport minister,'' Mr Jones said.

"However, I'm the steward, if not the father, of the PGF and when deserving cases wean their way through our systems I'll certainly advocate for them.''

Westland mayor Bruce Smith said his council already had a bid in with the fund to finance a $4.9m expansion of Hokitika airport.

"Shane Jones' concept and his thoughts are bang on. There are a number of airports owned 50 percent by the Ministry of Transport and they run a loss and there's no cash flow there to reseal the runways and to upgrade the service, so that in fact air travel can grow."

Mr Smith said unlike a lot of regional airports, his one was completely owned by the council and turned a profit.

Whangārei Sheryl Mai said her council was planning for how it would build a new, longer runway, capable of taking the larger planes Air New Zealand wanted to use within the next 10 to 20 years.

She said the council would not be able to meet this cost on its own.

"That's exactly when we would need to be having a discussion with our partners at central government to say, 'For the benefit of the region and the district, we need to have some significant capital investment.' "

In a statement, Mr Twyford said the airport funding matter was being looked at and the ministry would provide advice to ministers in due course - including funding arrangements.

Mr Jones denied his comments were an attempt to get one up on Labour, because the four consenting ministers all agreed something needed to be done for Westport and Kerikeri airports.

Mr Jones said this had all come about because the Transport Agency (NZTA) wasn't funding the projects it should be and the PGF had already needed to step in and provide cash for roads.

"We have allocated over $1bn for infrastructure ... it's been consumed by KiwiRail, it's been consumed by roads. A number of those roads were turned down by NZTA," he said.

"NZTA were unable to fund the roads in the Kaipara so we made an allocation for some roads up in Kaipara. This is not a major departure from what we've already done related to essential infrastructure around the provinces."

Mr Jones said the future of NZTA was going to look "a lot different after the next election". Asked what it would look like, he said "that will depend on the outcome of the next election".

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