Montefiore: A Park Lands Chopper Monopoly?

Sir Monty is urgently training for a helicopter pilot’s licence in a bid to snatch a slice of a lucrative new monopoly business opportunity in Adelaide’s park lands.

Sir Monty rarely has an opportunity to praise Town Hall’s elected members, who endure days and nights clogged with committees, briefings and workshops. These can stall progress so credit is due for stellar performance in avoiding the administrative quicksand and quickly and quietly resolving a matter of profitable commercial potential for a tiny but tenacious group who believe that the city’s edge is desperately overdue for private helicopter access.

Firms usually like to build private commercial assets to maintain control, but until now (with exception to the state hospitals) city public land helipads were banned, a restriction that for years forced Sir Monty to walk back to his club and fireside pipe and slippers.

To cut to the chase, the outcome is better than anyone could have imagined, because a new helipad monopoly business could soon be operating on public land (Park 27a of the park lands, adjacent to rowing clubs south of Torrens Lake, west of Morphett Road Bridge). This arises not because it is part of Town Hall’s 2016–20 strategic plan, in which there is neither a vision for it nor an action plan.

Further, there has been no public consultation, because it’s to be in a new government ‘hands-off’ Riverbank Zone, free of such former pesky park lands policy. A total of $35,000 in public money has been spent by Town Hall on a study. The small park site is now ready to go, 70 per cent of the turf of which was recently covered by a metre-thick slab of clay onto which Torrens Lake dredge sludge was months ago dumped but later removed, leaving the slab alone. Total cost: $870,000 of ratepayers’ dollars. The clay now supports a newly laid, gravel-topped site.

There is no evidence that a single city ratepayer has been consulted about costs, future noise, flight numbers or flight pathways across residential rooftops, city hotels or nearby rail yard university research buildings. Or why future customers – those ‘high net worth’ tourists for whom money is no object – should influence development of such exclusive facility, when the poorer majority of airport tourists must drive or catch a taxi or bus to and from the city.

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(Image: ‘Helipad in the City of Adelaide’ EOI Brief)

Despite a long but secret history of high-level helipad lobbying to Town Hall and the Premier, records of commercial bids for private monopoly operations on public land appear too delicate for the city’s 20,000-plus ratepayers to access. Documents also may contain ministerial demands for Town Hall-funded city helipad access, only two kilometres from parliament house.

Anyway, in February 2017 the Adelaide Park Lands Authority facilitated decision time, chaired by the Lord Mayor. Firstly, it denied that the concept was its own and noted that it couldn’t be endorsed under the site land management plan. That should have ended things, but instead it enthusiastically reviewed short-listing of five sites. Most favoured was the one that didn’t need public consultation. An environmental and social assessment probed “noise impacts, limited to take-off and land, not flight paths”. This caveat about paths pleased Sir Monty because research might have opened a political and social can of worms prompting uproar only eight months before the state election.

The preferred park land site, on which Town Hall spent $1.7m on landscaping and new turf only four years ago, was noted as recent, new park lands, set aside for ‘small open-space private functions and community events’. But not any more. This purpose (and that $1.7m) has been quietly overwhelmed with infrastructure works well suited for a city based, monopoly aviation operation.

Within weeks, Town Hall endorsed the Authority’s facilitation. In May, councillors called for steps ‘to undertake an expression of interest bid to identify potential private operators to ‘establish and invest in a commercial helipad in the city…’ A confidential file of hungry aviation business bids resulted. One, which had got in early in April 2016, identified “nearly 700,000 visitors who would like to visit SA for three-plus nights and are classified as high discretionary spenders … [but] we have to make it easy for these experiences to occur and this means providing the right infrastructure.”

By the way, in April 2017 Town Hall quietly reviewed hundreds of its fees and charges. Standing out like an airport beacon (for the size of the discount) was one tiny item – a 53.9 per cent cut to city helicopter landing fees, from $217 to $100. This may be to cushion future tourism high-spenders’ pain as they contemplate the crushing credit card fees they’ll have to pay to the new operators to avoid catching a taxi. No doubt government ministers will negotiate an exemption.

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