Thursday, November 3, 2016

SkyPath & Auckland Councils Win in Environment Court

Northcote Point lost its appeal against SkyPath in the Environment Court.  Judge Newhook indicated that conscent would be granted and that SkyPath can go ahead without virtually any restrictions to begin a few may be granted later if the effects on the Point are unacceptable.

It was greeted by those in court in a very somber and restrained fashion especially by the victors for perhaps everyone  realised that the Northcote residents have been the subject of much abuse and  downright bullying especially by media, cyclists and council and they now have to live with this decision. It is a bitter outcome for a supposedly heritage area and does not inspire confidence for heritage protection in the future. The judge said that there will be change! whereas the Team SkyPath say the effects will be minimal. Who is right? The judge has allowed SkyPath to be built first and then find out how to manage it after it is open. He is  courageous!

Hooded  down trodden green cyclist attacked by a Northcote Point NIMBY.
The faces were obscured to avoid recognition while these two cyclists harassed theatre goers
The cinema manger is asking them to cease and desist!

The case did not start well for  Northcote Heritage. The Environment Court Judge Newhook began the proceedings by beaming warmly at the expensive Council funded Team Sky lawyer and publicly congratulated Daniel Minhinnock of the prestigious law firm of Russell MacVeagh for being made a partner.  It was an unfortunate beginning for this was a serious case not a celebration party for the lawyer.  It appears this sort of banter is tolerated in courts but perhaps it is time to stop as it gives a bad impression to the public and a loss of confidence in the fairness of the court for those not aware of its quirky ways.

The case hinged on a change of a definition of SkyPath. SkyPath Ltd gained conscent as a tourist attraction not an NZTA approved road/footpath. It was and is still a commercial operation for tourists and was subject to certain laws conditions which would have protected Northcote Point and its heritage. NZTA rules would have been much tougher. If this case had been tried under the old laws as in law it is required to do it was doubtful if SkyPath conscent would have been granted so a few weeks ago Auckland City Council changed the rules under the new Unitary Plan and came up with this special definition of Off Road Cycle and Pedestrian Path that allows SkyPath to be built under any circumstances and until challenged in a further court can do what it likes in a heritage area. This change meant the case was over before it had begun.  It is a pity to see the law treated in this way against citizens even if you do not agree with them. One felt at the end that most were uncomfortable about how this result had been achieved. There was no sense of elation.

This case proves that it is extremely difficult for individuals and societies to fight against authorities and companies who are fully funded by a City Council. Even the grant of $50,000 that is available by the government to do this was denied to the Northcote Point and Westhaven residents who have had to fund this themselves.  This grant would have enabled them to pay experts which appeal courts require these days. But are paid experts reliable and trustworthy? Like lawyers Paid experts produce what their employers want them to say so their evidence is biased and any child of average intelligence can see that. 

At the moment Russell MacVeagh lawyers are fighting both sides of the Unitary Plan parking rules. For SkyPath having to produce no parking at all for SkyPath under the new Unitary Plan is acceptable and R. MacVeagh will produce a paid expert if required to say this but for their clients Progressive Industries who oppose new developments that do not supply parking under the Unitary Plan it is not and if necessary R. Macveagh will produce another paid expert to argue this. This appears to be a money making cash cow for lawyers and experts and has little to do with justice! The courts and judges should be wise to this by now.  The public are not to be fooled.  Time and again Daniel Minhinnock, Russell MacVeagh reminded the judge that because his paid expert witnesses were paid they were infallible and the other sides unpaid witness was not worth listening to!   If Heritage Trust could afford Mr Minhinnok he would argue with equal force for Northcote Point. It is his job and he is paid to do it. He does not have to believe in it and neither do the paid experts. Unpaid expert witness who come forward on their own with no payment because the believe in what they are saying are far more valuable but not it appears in NZ courts at the moment. The richer side wins. Not quite cricket.

Two local resident societies withdrew. Westhaven withdrew their appeal because they felt that SkyPath will not be built and were not willing to pay huge sums to lawyers. They may live to regret this as the majority of SkyPath users are now being re-directed to their landing as everyone realises that the Northcote Point landing is totally inadequate for the traffic expected. NRA withdrew under the threat of the Council lawyers of exemplary expenses if they lost the case which could have cost millions and ruined many personally. 

I do not belong to either local society although I do live on Northcote Point so this was not my personal fight.  My major concerns do not lie in parking, noise and inconvenience issues although these are all valid. I live near the cinema/ restaurants/shops complex and I am used to crowds and no parking. Because of my professional crowd management experience with large events I am concerned with the safety aspects of SkyPath which are serious, many and have to be addressed. 

It seems Health and Safety is the last item to be addressed whereas I feel it should be the first. No good building SkyPath if it cannot be managed safely. Northcote Point is an unsuitable landing for what is now no longer a tourist attraction but a major transport hub serving thousands a day and many thousand on weekends, up to 20,000 a day in five years time and it is a pity that the resource consent was not judged under this category as NZTA would have had more input and maybe a better cheaper solution, perhaps two Western lanes on the Harbour Bridge now, approached by Stafford Rd and Westhaven. Could be done immediately, cost nothing, free and safe. This is my preferred option. Car owners have already given up many lanes in Auckland so two more would hardly matter. This is not going to happen! Even AT and NZTA who are happy to slice lanes off Auckland Streets dare not give up one lane on the Harbour Bridge although that is the solution. Try it for a month or two and see the patronage. If it works keep it if not shelve it. Cost nothing!

Although many residents can put this behind them because of my professional knowledge and experience in the field of crowd management and safety  I feel  I cannot stand by and leave it to others. It would be morally wrong of me to do so. Annoying as it maybe, and cyclists do think I am a spoil sport one thing is certain eternal vigilance not only applies to freedom but crowd safety. Just do it and see what happens in this area is a recipe for disaster. Traffic planners are not experts in crowd management as they deal with objects/cars that they can control. Crowds cannot be controlled like this and have to be managed. Crowds left to themselves are dangerous. Crowds need space even more space if they have bicycles. Big difference! Even though I may be unpopular at least SkyPath will be safer  when it is built than it is under the present design. I realise nobody in authority in Auckland wants to hear this, the council and some in government want a crowd pleaser up and running, bread and circuses, to take ratepayers minds off rate rises and economy and that is why SkyPath gets an easy passage from politicians and councillors who do not wish to lose votes and who can blame them. 

NZTA, AT, Councillors,  local MP Jonathan Coleman and the Transport Minister Simon Bridges are aware of SkyPath's safety issues and although the elected members have no responsibility of due diligence to ensure SkyPath is safe the other parties do. Health and Safety have heavy penalties for unwise risks to safety. I have been assured by the Minister and NZTA that they will be taking the safety issues very seriously indeed. I was impressed with the Minister and NZTA and I believe them when they say that no ones safety, user or resident, will be sacrificed for the greater good they mean it.

The CEOs have to sign off on this project and will be responsible for any injuries or worse that arise.   If I were a CEO at the moment I should have difficulty in doing this even for one million dollars+. Experience has shown with new bridges, it is the early days when problems arise. This year, 2016, two new major bridges have had to shut  because of safety and overcrowding problems that should have been addressed and were overlooked in the haste to get them built.  A wait and see basis  in this day and age is not acceptable but this is what the Judge Newhook has gone for. 

As ex Councillor and new Local Board member George Wood said at the Council meeting before the councillors voted unanimously for SkyPath the residents of Northcote Point have been very badly treated and I think this was obvious as well at the end of the Environment Court hearing. Like the council the judge gave every indication that he understood the problem and then voted for the opposite. The Environment Court was not asked to consider safety issues as this would have been dealt with by NRA,  just patronage numbers which are still anyone's guess. Auckland may take to SkyPath or may not but planners have to plan for the largest number. The judges conclusions when published will no doubt address this.

Now we all have to wait and see what happens next. There will be a big hiatus while NZTA works out how to mange SkyPath and if the Bridge can take it safely. Lets us all hope that the effects on Northcote Point as promised will be minimal and the SkyPath safety issues raised will be solved but whether I am around or not SkyPath must be safe and  fit for purpose for cyclists and Northcote Point residents alike. 

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