Anger in a city dispossessed

ROD ORAM
Last updated 12:53 29/01/2012
Christchurch City Council CEO Tony Marryatt, left, and Mayor Bob Parker.

Christchurch City Council CEO Tony Marryatt, left, and Mayor Bob Parker.

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In many ways the people of Christchurch are doing remarkably well as they approach the first anniversary of their most devastating earthquake. They are showing admirable resolve, progressing the best they can given the daunting challenges.

But there's still a formidable array of issues for them and the rest of the country to tackle. Here are some:

Frustration

On Wednesday, people will rally outside the council offices to protest against the 14.4 per cent pay rise awarded to the city's chief executive, Tony Marryatt.

While that's a legitimate issue, public anger is rising fast, driven by many deeper worries.

These include the shortage and high cost of housing and land; the slowness of repairs; difficulties negotiating settlements and new cover with insurers; poor communication by the council, government and Cera, its earthquake recovery agency; and an inability of the city so far to shape ambitious strategies for its future.

Activity

The city has achieved a lot over the past year. Despite the devastation of the city centre and the eastern suburbs, many people have managed some semblance of a new normality in their life and work. But continuing earthquakes, big family and career stresses and uncertainties over the future are taking their toll.

Much of the recovery work so far has been preparatory: making places safe, clearing debris, restoring services, making temporary repairs, assessing 190,000 properties, working out where rebuilding can take place, planning and putting processes in place to accelerate construction activity.

 ut so far, only 7000 houses have been repaired, the Earthquake Commission says. It, insurers and construction companies are promising to fast-forward activity this year.

 he commission says 100,000 houses need repairs and is promising 80 per cent of them will be done by 2014. That, though, is far too slow if the people of Christchurch are to have faith in the recovery and the energy - freed from worries about their homes - to contribute to it.

Loss:

The destruction is enormous. Properties destroyed include some 20,000 homes, 1250 commercial properties within the four avenues and 300 outside, some 65 per cent of hotel accommodation, crucial facilities such as the convention centre and AMI Stadium, and several billion dollars' worth of underground utilities. Above all, people have lost two cathedrals, dozens of churches, scores of historic buildings and numerous other places deeply important to their lives and identity.

With a number of big buildings still to be demolished such as the PWC tower, Crowne Plaza Hotel, the convention centre and part or all of the Anglican cathedral, large parts of the city centre will remain off limits until late this year.

This, coupled with the agonisingly slow progress on getting any new construction going, means people are having to wait a long time to reclaim the heart of the city, to begin to experience a new Christchurch rising from the ruins.

Insurance:

Two major issues are dogging the recovery. First, insurers say they want to accelerate the rate of settlements with property owners. But negotiations are getting harder now both sides better understand the scale of the losses.

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Moreover, many homeowners lack the knowledge, time or confidence to do justice to their claims. They need much more advice and advocacy, and the government should play a leading role in providing it.

Second, this used to be a market where full earthquake cover was readily available and cheap. Astonishingly, insurers will meet 80 per cent of Christchurch losses to date, according to Swiss Re. In contrast, they will meet only 17 per cent of Japan's and 27 per cent of Chile's earthquake losses last year.

So it's no surprise insurers are dramatically changing their approach to the market. Earthquake cover is suddenly more costly and restrictive. The little new cover written in Christchurch so far is expensive with big deductibles.

The government says the market will adjust. But it won't. It will leave a significant gap between new policies and property owners' exposure, thereby deterring redevelopment.

To ensure the city is rebuilt fast and well, the government needs to step into the market to bridge the gap, as the government does in Japan and other earthquake-prone countries.

Economy:

Local businesses have achieved a far higher rate of survival compared with those in other earthquake-devastated economies. The Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce says that 90 per cent of its 350 members within the four avenues are still operating somewhere in the city.

Similarly, the population exodus was minor, retail sales are only slightly below trend and manufacturing has barely missed a beat. Some sectors, particularly tourism and tertiary and international education, have lost big chunks of business. But overall, the economy has coped well with the disruption and adapted successfully to life without its physical centre.

If the city carries on like this, more businesses will see their temporary moves to the suburbs as permanent. For example, the IRD and Work and Income have signed nine-year leases on office space for 500 staff. The Christchurch economy would survive but it wouldn't thrive. The city would be a shadow of its former self.

The regeneration challenge is far bigger than currently expressed in the draft centre city plan. In essence, that is largely focused on encouraging existing economic activity back into the centre through the likes of some slightly nicer urban design arranged around precincts and more of a mix of residential and commercial activity.

Similarly, Cera's work so far on the economic recovery strategy for the whole city is very modest and conventional. If that was all the city hopes to achieve, it will lose a lot of its capital. Property owners will reinvest a large proportion of their insurance payouts elsewhere.

Instead, Christchurch has to conceive of a much bigger future for itself and then work on attracting the capital and talent to achieve it. So far that's not happening.

Worse, the conditions for doing so are deteriorating. The city council is deeply dysfunctional; and the government is increasingly bureaucratic and reluctant to make the big interventions urgently needed on land, insurance and redevelopment strategy.

No wonder people are starting to protest.

- Fairfax Media

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