Military land review: a PGF from Defence?

With soldiers’ barracks in disrepair and military operations under threat from urban development, could the provinces be the NZDF’s saviour? Sam Sachdeva reports.

With the third-largest slice of Crown land both in value and area, the NZ Defence Force is responsible for a sizeable chunk of New Zealand.

How well that land has been looked after, and whether it is all fit for purpose, is now the subject of a “first principles” review which could lead to significant changes in the NZDF’s footprint around the country.

Launching the terms of reference for the review, Defence Minister Ron Mark told Newsroom successive governments had shied away from providing the money needed to maintain and replace old buildings and infrastructure.

According to the business case for the regeneration work, a large proportion of New Zealand’s defence estate dates back to World War II, with nearly 80 percent having less than 30 years of remaining useful life - and 15 percent of that set to reach the end of its life within a decade or less.

The poor condition of the defence estate made it difficult to recruit and retain personnel, Mark said, noting that one of his low points as minister was walking into the Olympus Barrack in Waiouru and seeing they were in the same condition as when he was a 16-year-old cadet in the 1970s.

“That might well have been fine for those days, but if we’re to run a modern defence force and we want to attract the best and brightest ... we cannot continue to put people into accommodation like that.”

Many defence buildings failed to meet the Government’s own seismic strengthening and healthy homes regulations, he said.

'Reverse NIMBYism' rears its head

Beyond the physical condition of military infrastructure, NZDF operations are becoming increasingly impeded by encroachment onto existing bases from new residential developments in what Mark deemed as “reverse NIMBYism”.

The Environment Court will next month hear an application lodged against the Defence Minister and the Auckland Council by Auckland property developers Neil Construction, arguing that aircraft noise at the Whenuapai Air Base breaches both the Auckland Unitary Plan and potentially the Resource Management Act.

Mark said he did not want to speculate about the impact of a successful application on the NZDF’s operations, but was hopeful the Environment Court would make a “sensible” decision.

“If two fishermen are lost at sea and we have to launch aircraft to find them on a search and rescue mission, we have to do that. If we have an earthquake or a tsunami in Indonesia, Tuvalu or Samoa ... we have to deploy.

“That might mean inconveniently starting our engines at three in the morning, but people don’t think about these things when they buy property, they just whinge and complain when they get there.”

He was interested in the idea of establishing a “defence covenant” or RMA exemption for future NZDF bases, but said the Government would also have to consider whether it relocated from urban areas to protect its ability to develop new military capabilities in the future.

Defence Minister Ron Mark says provincial parts of New Zealand could benefit significantly from having military bases. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Mark said there was a “perfect synergy” between the defence estate review and the Provincial Growth Fund, given the cheap land, hospitable environment and lower housing density in the provinces.

“We cannot build a multi-billion-dollar facility only to have its operational capability curtailed or restricted by people moving onto its boundaries...

“When we talk to rural and provincial New Zealand, they see great advantage, economic advantage, in having the military bases in their locale.”

There were a number of options the review could consider for merging or rationalising existing bases.

The Air Force could have either a “super-base” at Ohakea or an entirely new air field somewhere else, while the Devonport naval base - under threat from rising waters, inadequate facilities and eager property developers - could be relocated to somewhere like Whangarei as had been explored in the past.

“Bearing in mind that Auckland City Council, property developers and indeed even other government departments are desperately keen to take these properties off our hands, looking out to the future we have to ask the question, do we persevere with Devonport ... or do we start afresh?”

While the sale of any surplus land could attract a high price, Mark said it was unclear how much - if any - of the proceeds would go back to the NZDF, given the right of first refusal held by some iwi and a lack of certainty around how much money the military would receive if the land was sold or transferred to another government department.

Nats accuse Govt of 'kicking the can'

National defence spokesman Mark Mitchell accused the Government of “kicking the can down the road” by carrying out an unnecessary review which would delay investment.

“You can’t on the one hand be talking about how run down defence estate is and how it's been deferred for too long ... and then say ‘Oh, we’re going to go through another review and we’re going to delay it’.”

Mitchell said he was not opposed to the consolidation of bases if it was “practical, strategic and cost-effective”, but did not support the creation of a super-base due to the risk involved.

The former defence minister had run into legal issues over protecting NZDF flight paths while in the role, and supported moves to protect military operations.

The defence estate review will not be completed until September next year, with the 2020 election standing between its completion and the decisions that will need to be made by whoever holds the reins of power.

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