If a quake crippled Wellington, what are the alternatives for a seat of government?

Cute - but could Russell really be the capital again? (File photo)
FAIRFAX NZ

Cute - but could Russell really be the capital again? (File photo)

If Wellington was crippled in a big earthquake, the city could lose its capital status, a report has warned. In which case, what are the alternatives? Matt Stewart reports.

Wellington has long been ingrained in the popular imagination as the home of government – full of public servants in shabby suits, or dressed head to toe in black.

But it hasn't always been that way. It's actually the third capital New Zealand has had – and proud Northlander Winston Peters is all for going back to the first one, in Russell, in the Bay of Islands.

Not exactly cute - but Palmerston North is well equipped to become a military and transport hub. (File photo)
FAIRFAX NZ

Not exactly cute - but Palmerston North is well equipped to become a military and transport hub. (File photo)

"We've got the best scenery anyway," the NZ First leader says. "Visiting international and government officials would be dead keen to come to the Bay of Islands. They're not dead keen to come to Wellington."

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His comments come as Wellington digests a new report suggesting that the financial cost of a big earthquake might be so big that the city would never recover its capital status.

All the trappings of government - but Wellington's susceptibility to earthquakes means it could cost up to $29 billion ...
ROSS GIBLIN/FAIRFAX NZ

All the trappings of government - but Wellington's susceptibility to earthquakes means it could cost up to $29 billion to rebuild after a Christchurch-sized earthquake, a recent report says. (File photo)

The report, jointly prepared by Deloitte and structural engineering firm Miyamoto International, says the cost of repairing Wellington after an earthquake similar in magnitude to the one that struck Christchurch in 2011 would be at least $26 billion.

It has begged the questions of where else the government could go, what functions it could and should be devolving to other cities, and whether Wellington is doing enough to ensure it is prepared for the impact.

Wellington's leaders insist they are actively engaged in ensuring the city is resilient to any disaster – but that hasn't stopped other cities putting their hands up to lighten the capital's load.


Palmerston North Mayor Grant Smith said this week that more government functions should be decentralised, and his city was well-placed to take over defence.

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Most New Zealanders would agree it was dangerous to centralise government, he believed, and only 20 per cent of staff of any department should be based in the capital.

"There's no reason MPI [Ministry for Primary Industries] can't be in Hamilton. Palmerston North could take defence, Nelson could take fisheries, and forestry [could be] in Rotorua."

Only 20 per cent of staff of any government department should be based in the capital, reckons Palmerston North Mayor ...
ROBERT KITCHIN/FAIRFAX NZ

Only 20 per cent of staff of any government department should be based in the capital, reckons Palmerston North Mayor Grant Smith. (File photo)

With an airport open around the clock, military bases, and five points of road access, Palmerston North would be well-placed to help out while Wellington rebuilt, he said.

Finance Minister Steven Joyce said earlier this week that any relocation of the capital would probably be temporary, and Wellington "would definitely be rebuilt". 

"If there was a big earthquake in the capital, and it was not possible to run Government in Wellington, there is a contingency plan. The prime minister would make the call to temporarily move to Auckland at the Devonport Naval Base, but it would be our intention to return to Wellington."

"We've got the best scenery anyway," NZ First leader Winston Peters says of Russell. "Visiting international and ...
FAIRFAX NZ

"We've got the best scenery anyway," NZ First leader Winston Peters says of Russell. "Visiting international and government officials would be dead keen to come to the Bay of Islands. They're not dead keen to come to Wellington." (File photo)

Civil Defence Minister Nathan Guy said it was up to government agencies to decide where they based their operations.

"Many already have a presence throughout regional New Zealand. At the same time, it often makes sense for them to be closer to other agencies, so they can operate more efficiently and effectively, and be accessible to ministers."

Wellington Civil Defence boss Bruce Pepperell said the city had long had a "rich risk profile", but that meant more was understood about disaster management.

He rejected the idea of the capital moving from Wellington, and said factoring flexibility into urban design was the key to resilience.

Managing the problem of "Y-shaped", congestion-prone routes in and out of the city would be achieved through the construction of the Transmission Gully and Grenada-Petone highways, he said. 

Wellington City Council chief resilience officer Mike Mendonca would not be drawn on an alternative site for the capital and said speculation around emergency management was dangerous and unhelpful in the context of building a resilient city and communities.

The Deloitte/Miyamoto report was a "once-over-lightly" that contained nothing new, but useful in that it kept the conversation going about resilience, he said. 

Former Wellington mayor Fran Wilde chairs the city's resilience planning group, Lifelines, which is conducting a comprehensive study into how the city's disaster resilience could be improved and what the true costs and challenges of fixing it in the aftermath would be.

Speculating on how Government would operate or if an alternative capital would be needed was largely a moot point, she said.

"My understanding is that if it was that big an event, if the Hikurangi Trench ruptured, then Wellington wouldn't be the only place affected. It would be a national emergency."

 - Stuff

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