Editorial: Positive signs in Christchurch

Seventeen months on from the earthquake that devastated Christchurch on February 22 last year, positive messages are finally beginning to emerge from the battered city.

Economic activity in the Canterbury region leapt 8.6 per cent in the March quarter compared with the same period last year, the most encouraging sign yet that the residents are beginning to focus more on the task ahead than fearfully glancing back at the rumblings of aftershocks.

There is still a long way to go though. The owners of commercial buildings and many thousands of homeowners still have little idea of whether they can afford to rehouse themselves and their tenants, or even if they will be allowed to use their own land, and those two issues need to be sorted urgently.

Insurance companies are playing hardball with both groups, a situation that Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority chief executive Roger Sutton acknowledges is causing some residents huge stress. The insurance companies are facing payouts of billions of dollars and are trying to cut those payouts as thinly as they can get away with.

Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker has again urged the Insurance Council to get on with the settlements. Residents were frustrated, he said, with the circuitous combination of letters and phone calls and messages when they needed the companies to deliver on the insurance premiums they had been collecting over the years.

Insurance is not the only frustration though. Many landowners in some central city areas have been unable to redevelop land judged to be safe for rebuilding because some of that land will be confiscated by the earthquake recovery authority for "anchor projects", the 12 planned projects including a convention centre and public transport hub that will form the structural centre-points of a rebuilt inner city.

Those projects are essential ingredients for Christchurch's future but the uncertainty about where they will be sited and whose land will be confiscated is a major frustration for landowners who want to bring order back into their own lives and businesses. The recovery authority is refusing to identify the land it wants until its blueprint is completed.

Even so, Canterbury is clearly now moving forward. Job prospects are improving and fewer people are taking flight. In the March quarter last year, the period that covered the devastating earthquake, the city recorded a net loss of 717 people and in the following month the population fell by another 462 residents. Last month the city had a net gain of 33, a small but encouraging indication that more people are accepting that Christchurch has a safe and viable future.

Also encouraging is the call by the Government's new super agency - the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment - for tenders to supply about 5 million litres of paint for the rebuild. Some 100,000 homes with between $10,000 and $100,000 of damage need to be repaired and the tender announcement will have come as welcome news to many thousands of families who have spent the past 17 months in limbo, many of whom have had to continue living in their damaged houses.

Painting is a small part only of the total repair work, estimated to cost a total of about $2.5 billion, but it is another sign that the region is taking more small steps in the right direction.

All New Zealanders will wish Christchurch a bright and prosperous future.

The Southland Times