Council, Brownlee tensions fester

CHARLIE GATES
Last updated 05:00 02/08/2014
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ROSS GIBLIN/Fairfax NZ
CHANGE NEEDED: Gerry Brownlee

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Some Christchurch City Council staff believe the Government torpedoed its lead role in an anchor project to cast the Christchurch Central Development Unit ''in a better light'' in election year.

The Press has obtained hundreds of documents using the Official Information Act and they lay bare the strained relationship between the CCC, Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee and CCDU.

They reveal that a blindsided council learnt that the Government had seized control of the Performing Arts Precinct anchor project, which it had been the leader on, via a press release from Gerry Brownlee on April 22.

The emails also reveal festering tensions between council and government staff.

After the press release earlier this year, council urban adviser Hugh Nicholson wrote: ''Minister [Brownlee] and potential changes or actions need to be weighed up in the light of the national elections later this year.

''The risk to the Government's reputation is that the media perceive any changes to the blueprint as a 'failure'.

''I wonder whether some of this is complicated by the CCDU/council relationship - to my mind at the very least it would make CCDU appear better if the council 'failed' to deliver its projects on time.

''Even if there is no malicious intent to delay sorting out the land required to deliver [the] council's projects including the library and the performing arts precinct, one would have to conclude that there was no incentive to resolve the issues either - delays to the council cast CCDU in a better light.''

Plans for the precinct on the block bounded by Gloucester, Armagh, New Regent and Colombo streets were being developed by the council, while the Government was to buy the land as part of a cost-sharing agreement.

The precinct plans include a 300-seat concert hall for the Music Centre of Christchurch, a new Court Theatre and an administration, rehearsal and storage facility for the orchestra.

The Government takeover concerned Court Theatre chief executive Philip Aldridge, who raised concerns in an email exchange with Brownlee's press secretary, Nick Bryant.

''We are working very well and fruitfully with [the] council - it is a council project. The minister's statements, both private and public, are immensely damaging and unhelpful,'' he wrote on April 22.

''We have excellent and productive relationships with CCDU and with CCC. We have a cost-sharing agreement that facilitates the development. Let us get on with it and we will deliver it.''

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The emails also show that some developments were kept from tenants and stakeholders by the council.

A newsletter informing stakeholders that the Government would not purchase the Forsyth Barr building on the site was held back by Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel.

Council transitional change manager Michael Aitken told The Press that he did not share Nicholson's view and believed the council and the Government were both working hard to make the precinct happen.

Aitken said they tried to share as much information with possible arts-precinct tenants, but sometimes the situation was changing so fast that they needed to hold back.

He said he was ''absolutely certain'' the project would come together and hoped to have deals in place with the CSO and Court Theatre by the end of August.

Aldridge told The Press this week that he now felt more positive about the project. The announcement in June that the Music Centre would be built on precinct land provided by the Government had reassured him about the project.

He said a similar land deal would be offered to the Court.

The Press also requested emails from Cera regarding the arts precinct, but the request was rejected.

A similar request to Brownlee's office was rejected ''to avoid unnecessary document duplication'' with the Cera request.

THE CONFLICT, ANGER AND FLUFFED LINES 

It was always going to be a tough project.

The Performing Arts Precinct was envisaged as a new home for three major arts facilities and a beacon for city centre regeneration.

But the Christchurch City Council (CCC) decision to restore the Town Hall left only $30.5 million to build a 300-seat concert hall for the Music Centre of Christchurch, a new Court Theatre and an administration, rehearsal and storage facility for the orchestra. The Town Hall decision also angered Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee, upsetting what could have been a powerful ally before the project even started.

As part of the cost sharing agreement, the precinct was being developed by the council, while the Government was to buy the land.

Emails released by the council under the Official Information Act reveal tensions between the Government and the council over the anchor project.

The documents show how council staff and Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel attempted to keep the project on track while at the same time keeping problems under wraps.

But, eventually, the tightly bound tensions spilt into the public and the council's relationship with the Government soured.

A briefing note from the council's project director Liam Nolan to the mayor in April stated: "The risk of losing the partners to the precinct and providing the required catalyst for recovery in the city is a high risk."

A similar note from Cera staff to Brownlee in February was in agreement.

"There has been speculation in the market about the lack of progress in the wider precinct, which is eroding stakeholder confidence and heightening the real risk that key stakeholders will choose to locate their facilities elsewhere."

There were tensions as early as January with the Music Centre threatening to leave the project and council staff putting the project on hold over government concerns about buying land for the precinct.

"We are making slow progress, but it will grind to a halt very soon," wrote council rebuild manager Mike Hannaway on January 31.

About two weeks later it emerged that the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) would not buy the Forsyth Barr tower on the site. This meant there was less space on the precinct site for the three arts facilities.

The decision also prompted council staff to consider alternative sites for the arts facilities. An email from Nolan on February 27 calls for "alternatives to the options below - this could include using the Town Hall adjacent site, using the convention site etc."

The Forsyth Barr decision was kept under wraps by Dalziel. A newsletter for stakeholders explaining that the Forsyth Barr building would remain was held back.

The newsletter "never went out as the mayor was not happy with the information it contained around the Forsyth Barr", an email from a communication staffer dated March 7 explained.

"We have to run . . . all our communications past the mayor's office so although [a senior staff member] was happy with the newsletter, this is what happened."

Council staff acted quickly to redraw their plans for the site to include Forsyth Barr, finalising an alternative scheme by March 4.

But lingering tensions over government land acquisition came to a head at a meeting on April 4. The Central Christchurch Development Unit (CCDU) informed council staff that land acquisition for the precinct had been put on hold.

This was also kept under wraps.

A few days later, a council staff member requested an update on the precinct for councillors. The council's transitional change manager, Michael Aitken, responded: "No feedback to be released at this stage as there are delicate discussions going on."

The first part of the sentence was underlined and in bold.

A letter was received from Brownlee outlining the land situation on April 9 and a standby media statement was drawn up by the council in case the letter leaked. The internal tensions went public on April 22 when Deputy Mayor Vicki Buck inadvertently revealed on local radio that government land acquisition was on hold.

Brownlee's team responded by releasing a media statement later that same day.

The last line of the release stated: "With leadership from CCDU, support from Christchurch City Council, and positive engagement with the Court Theatre, Symphony Orchestra and the Music Centre, realising the vision of the precinct in some form may still occur."

A few minutes later, Nolan forwarded the media release to his senior manager, Aitken, asking: "Not sure if you got this - first words of last sentence a bit concerning - looks like it will be a CCDU lead?"

Aitken replied: "Indeed - seems to be the govt game plan".

The media release was the first time senior council staff determined that government was taking over development of the precinct.

At this point, relations appear to sour.

One senior manager asked a key question about the government takeover: "Were we expecting this or do we throw our toys out of the cot?"

A meeting between the council and CCDU staff later that month showed how relations deteriorated.

"At the start of the meeting we explained that we had not received feedback on the possible change of lead on the project and would therefore remain silent," wrote Nolan in an email.

"We are not undertaking any further work on the project or actively engaging with the key partners until clarification has been given on the project lead."

Council staff were not the only ones concerned about Brownlee's intervention.

Court Theatre chief executive Philip Aldridge raised concerns in an email exchange with Brownlee's press secretary, Nick Bryant.

"We are working very well and fruitfully with council - it is a council project. The minister's statements, both private and public, are immensely damaging and unhelpful," he wrote on April 22.

"We have excellent and productive relationships with CCDU and with CCC. We have a cost sharing agreement that facilitates the development. Let us get on with it and we will deliver it."

At this point, council staff were considering putting the new central library on the arts precinct site and possibly locating the Court Theatre in the James Hay Theatre in the Town Hall.

Once the Government was in control of the project, they approached the Music Centre, offering them a site on the precinct that was at odds with the council master plan.

The change did not go down well.

The council had spent $66,000 in fees to work up the master plan that had now been completely rethought by government.

A month after the Government took over the precinct project and stopped buying land, council staff still appeared perplexed about why this had happened.

A sign of the distrust between the two parties was highlighted in an email by the council's urban adviser, Hugh Nicholson, on May 12.

He was speculating about problems with the delivery of the recovery blueprint.

"The blueprint is very clearly under the control of the minister [Brownlee] and potential changes or actions need to be weighed up in the light of the national elections later this year.

"The risk to the government's reputation is that the media perceive any changes to the blueprint as a ‘failure'.

"I wonder whether some of this is complicated by the CCDU/council relationship - to my mind at the very least it would make CCDU appear better if the council ‘failed' to deliver its projects on time.

"Even if there is no malicious intent to delay sorting out the land required to deliver council's projects including the library and the performing arts precinct, one would have to conclude that there was no incentive to resolve the issues either - delays to the council cast CCDU in a better light."

- The Press

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