After the earthquake, five years under new rule

The governance of Christchurch has been turned on its head, with a five-year reign set in place under a new Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera).

The authority, which will have most of the powers available to Civil Defence under a state of emergency, got a cautious nod of approval from city leaders yesterday.

However, legal experts warn local government could be sidelined, with the devil still to be seen in the detail of legislation yet to be tabled in Parliament.

"The general vibe of the paperwork so far, and the Government's previous track record, suggests a subsidiary role for local councils," Victoria University senior lecturer Dean Knight said last night.

"It looks unlikely that the response will be led from the bottom up."

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee will head the new department, with an interim chief executive, Deputy State Services Commissioner John Ombler, in charge of Cera operations for the first two months.

The Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act, passed after last year's September quake, will be replaced with legislation expected to go before Parliament in two weeks.

The new law will give Cera wide-ranging powers to relax, suspend or extend laws and regulations in order to rebuild the city.

It will be set up to carry on work for five years, with a yearly review.

"These are extraordinary powers for extraordinary times," Prime Minister John Key said.

"They are necessary to get on with the job, and to achieve the outcomes that the people of Christchurch and the wider region want."

Billions of taxpayer dollars would be spent rebuilding the city, and accountability for that would be sheeted back to the Government, Key said.

The authority would be based in Christchurch, and made up largely of staff seconded from government departments.

It would collate post-quake data to inform decisions about rebuilding priorities.

Alongside Cera, Brownlee announced what he said would be checks on its powers.

A four-person independent review panel would consider legislative and regulatory changes proposed by Cera.

A retired High Court judge would chair the panel, but would have only three days to consider changes.

Brownlee said there would also be a cross-party forum of local MPs to offer advice. Within about three weeks, he would also appoint a forum of about 20 Canterbury community leaders.

Appeal rights would be "slightly truncated", but people could still seek a judicial review of ministerial decisions, and legal challenges to the High Court could be lodged within 10 days of a decision.

The authority would also be subject to the Official Information Act.

Brownlee conceded some people would see the new structure as another five years of national state of emergency powers, but the extensive mandate was only for "reserve powers" to deal with unforeseen problems that needed a quick response.

"If we were to go through normal processes ... then I think you'd be into years of recovery," Brownlee said.

The new structure gave the Christchurch City Council the lead role for a plan – to be produced within nine months – to rebuild the central business district.

Mayor Bob Parker said that was a "crucial" offer.

"That's the news that we did need to hear today, and I feel very reassured by that," Parker said yesterday.

Brownlee's announcement to councillors had been greeted with applause, indicating "majority support", Parker said.

However, Brownlee agreed that "in theory" Cera could overrule the city council. "But I don't think it's going to get to that. We have worked in a collaborative fashion over the last five or six weeks."

One of Cera's first tasks will be to come up with an over-arching recovery strategy, which is expected to be finished by October.

Local recovery plans will have to give effect to the Cera strategy.

Knight said the over-riding influence of the Cera strategy suggested its philosophy "will dominate".

"The risk of the new Cera is that it will shut out the local community and cut across established processes of local democracy," Knight said.

Knight was among a group of 26 constitutional experts who raised concerns over the legislation passed after the September earthquake.

Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis, who led the international group, said the new authority appeared to be "a marked improvement" on the last round of legislation.

"That said, the devil will really lie in the details of the as yet unseen legislation."

The Press