Government may think again on Whenuapai options

By Wayne Thompson

The Government says it is ready to discuss whether keeping Whenuapai Air Base open as a commercial airport is desirable economically and socially.

Defence Minister Phil Goff said yesterday the Defence Force had been asked to update its business case for consolidation of Air Force operations to the Ohakea Air Base in the Manawatu.

This would include time frames for withdrawing from Whenuapai some time between 2014 and 2018 - progress depending on construction needs at Ohakea and the funding of that work.

"This exercise also provides the opportunity for interested parties including local councils to express their views to the Government on the future use of Whenuapai," said Mr Goff.

Defence would advertise next year how they intended to conduct the process, which could include the Prime Minister's Department and the Economic Development Ministry.

Defence held a public consultation on future use of the 311ha base four years ago when the Air Force was supposed to have withdrawn by this year.

Since, an opportunity to make a case for joint civilian-military use of the base has been called for by Waitakere City Council, Rodney District Council and until a change of council membership in the October elections, North Shore City Council.

Last year, Mr Goff told civil flight opponents, the Whenuapai Airbase Action Group, it was prudent to defer consideration of joint use until close to the time that the Air Force withdrew. But Mr Goff said yesterday that rather than wait until 2014, since he was looking at an updated business case, he wanted to review all options.

"I have kept back from the debate because in the lead-up to the local authority elections it was not my intention to become part of something that is between local residents and their councils.

"But it seems that while carrying out this [business case update] exercise it would be useful to give the parties the chance to put their cases for and against Whenuapai being retained either as a civilian airport or even the possibility of a civilian-military airport."

Mr Goff said that while Defence's focus was on consolidation at Ohakea, there was some advantage in keeping Whenuapai facilities open."If we are there for another 10 years the shared cost of infrastructure is obviously an advantage to Defence."

Waitakere Mayor Bob Harvey said the minister was offering an invitation to negotiate a partnership.

"It is the best Christmas present the city could have," he said, adding that losing the Air Force would be a $15 million blow to the city's economy.

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