Ultimatum in consent crisis looms

PRESS REPORTERS
Last updated 05:00 14/06/2013

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Local and central government relations in Christchurch have plumbed new depths as an ultimatum on the city council's power to grant consents looms.

The Government says it will step in if the Christchurch City Council cannot fix chronic problems that have seen its consent application backlog balloon to 1700 in the post-quake building rush.

It has ruled out an Environment Canterbury-type takeover, sacking councillors, though.

A letter from International Accreditation New Zealand (IANZ) on May 30 gave the council formal notice of intention to revoke its accreditation as a consent authority on June 28.

The letter was made public by Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee on Wednesday, and it emerged that Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker and councillors were unaware it existed, despite staff knowing.

Parker labelled Brownlee's move a "media missile".

The council would keep its IANZ accreditation, he said, and six unresolved concerns of 17 raised by IANZ in a 2009 audit would be fixed by the June 28 deadline.

Brownlee said the IANZ letter was a "serious matter", but the Government would not be removing the council.
"I don't think that's something that's on the cards."

However, the Government would step in to protect the consents process, he said.

"We don't want to see anything slow down - we want to see it go much faster, so we are going to have to get involved. It's as simple as that."

Parker said he had hauled staff into his office late on Wednesday and made it very clear to them that elected members should have been informed as soon as the letter was received.

However, he was "absolutely confident" the council would be able to make the improvements necessary to ensure its accreditation was not revoked.

When asked whether he felt it was more than coincidental that the Government should launch a public attack on the council days before crucial negotiations between the two over the cost-sharing arrangements for the anchor projects were due to conclude, Parker said he had to tread very carefully.

He said it was very disappointing the minister had chosen to voice his concerns through the media rather than "picking up the phone" and talking to the council directly.

If he had done so he would have discovered the council had the situation in hand; instead all his "media missile" had done was undermine public confidence in the organisation.

"The question I would raise is how can you have a true partnership if you are going to treat us like this through the media? Sometimes it can feel like we are no more than a whipping boy for every damn agency in the city."

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The mayor said the council took its consenting responsibilities very seriously and was committed to improving the timeliness of its consenting: "As this rebuild gets into its stride we do not want to be the organisation that acts as the hand-brake. We are committed to ensuring that doesn't happen."

Parker said the council had built up enough capacity within the organisation to process about 40 new-building consents a day, which was an unprecedented number.

From next week, staff in the 169-strong consenting team will work six-day weeks, and offers of support from councils as far afield as Auckland and Invercargill have arrived offering consenting and building specialists to help ease the workload.

A new online system for handling building consents had gone live about a month ago and would increase the speed at which consents could be processed as it allowed "parallel processing".

Effectively, it enabled various staff to deal with aspects of a consent simultaneously. Planning committee chairwoman Cr Sue Wells said the council had been "aggressively tracking" the time it was taking to issue consents.

She said she had personally made contact with Brownlee's office last month to check he was abreast of the problems the council was facing, and the council had also raised its concerns with Building Minister Maurice Williamson.

"There is a dearth of building consent personnel across the country. We have soaked them all up - we've used the resource."

The consenting staff the council did have were going beyond the call of duty to process consents in a timely fashion, often coming in on their own time, working nights and weekends.

Livingstone was not confident they would meet the June 28 deadline.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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