Who will run the rebuild of Christchurch?

It could be the turning point. The Government has to decide what kind of recovery structure it leaves Christchurch with. So what is public opinion saying? JOHN McCRONE reports.

Former Christchurch Mayor Garry Moore holds a talk shop on submissions to the Cera transition draft proposals. Photo: ...
Stacy Squires

Former Christchurch Mayor Garry Moore holds a talk shop on submissions to the Cera transition draft proposals. Photo: Stacy Squires.

What is the collective term? A fug of conspirators? It is Tuesday night and ex-Christchurch mayor Garry Moore is ring-leading a group of disaffected citizens down at his son's bar, Smash Palace.

Tucked in cosy around the tables, a mix of the city's young and old, the question is well what do we think? What are we going to say?

Just tell them to give us back our democracy answer more than a few voices. "Yes, take back the city is a phrase that resonates with me," agrees rebuild blogger Barnaby Bennett.

Will the new-look Christchurch be extraordinary or ordinary?
Dean Kozanic

Will the new-look Christchurch be extraordinary or ordinary?

But submissions from the public are easy to ignore unless we make specific points to counter the meeting's more seasoned campaigners.

Well how can we be specific when the Government's proposals are so opaque, replies Bennett? "I found the draft document simultaneously dense and empty – almost designed to be hard to submit on." That draws a hollow laugh.

Finally, perhaps rather accidentally, the people of Christchurch are being given the chance to have some kind of say in the running of their city with the launch of the draft Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) transition plan.

Investment banker Tim Howe says clashes between the Government and city council was enough to put off outside investors.

Investment banker Tim Howe says clashes between the Government and city council was enough to put off outside investors.

After a few knock-backs in the courts over a lack of formal process, Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee and Cera are now producing publicly-consulted recovery plans to pave their major decisions.

So for a short time – just the month of July – people are being asked to comment on the Government's proposals over how it intends to hand back power to local government now that Cera's five year reign is coming to an end.

Plenty is at stake because it has become clear that the Christchurch recovery started with a rush and then turned bureaucratic.

Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel with Prime Minister John Key and Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry ...
Tony Stewart Photoshots

Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel with Prime Minister John Key and Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee at the announcement of the draft Cera transition plan.

Even voices inside the business community are saying the Cera political model was wrong – an unfortunate exercise in command and control thinking. Whatever replaces it for the next five years of the rebuild really has to get it right to make up for lost ground.

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So what does that future look like? At Smash Palace, the consensus is no-one has quite worked out the Government's motivations here.

Is this an honest, good-faith, pushing of the refresh button that people ought to support? Or is its draft plan simply going to deliver Cera in drag, more years of much the same?

Opinions fly. "Gerry's still going to want sign-off on every little decision," somebody sings out.

Another comes back that Brownlee isn't necessarily the bogeyman of the piece. If the city hadn't had a strong character to stand up for it at the Cabinet table, push hard for its interests, the whole rebuild might have been dumped back in local laps rather sooner than wanted.

Avon-Otakaro Network's Evan Smith wonders if despite all the calls to hand back democracy, the city council is that much better equipped to run the show. What will be gained if it is just a swap of bureaucrats?

Bennett wins support for his call for community engagement to be treated as the recovery's new anchor project.

Landcare ecologist Dr Colin Meurck agrees, saying the Government must make social recovery its focus – heart and soul before bricks and mortar.

By the end of the evening it is agreed to create a Facebook group, Option 3+, to nut out a position in public. A pleased looking Moore tells everyone to tap into their social networks, get the wires humming, so the whole town emerges with something definite to say.

Speak up and let them know what Christchurch wants, he urges.

What happened to Christchurch's post-quake creative optimism?

Putting a finger on it, the disappointment being expressed is that Christchurch was promised the extraordinary and yet is being delivered the ordinary in its recovery.

The earthquakes released a surge of community feeling and creative optimism. Christchurch was going to rebuild itself as a liveable, sustainable, adventurous, 21st Century city. A jump into the future. With the insurance dollars and the world's attention, there was the opportunity to astound.

But the central city especially has turned into a project-centric property play. Convention centres and office blocks. Even if it all gets built back as envisaged, the results are likely to be merely the kind of competent "by the metre" development that could be rolled out in a modern city anywhere.

And this is not just the view from Moore's circle of activists. It is the complaint of outsiders like Stephen Selwood, chief executive of the NZ Council for Infrastructure Development (NZCID).

Selwood says he talks to Asian and Australian investors and they ask where has Christchurch's excitement gone?

Christchurch was going to be distinctive but is headed for bland, says Selwood. "I hear words like 'what a disappointment', 'a fantastic opportunity lost'.

Selwood says the impression from outside is that Christchurch did almost too well in its early emergency phase. There was the community spirit, a unity of thought. Things like the Volunteer Student Army and Share an Idea gave plenty of reasons for the city to pat itself on the back. And with Brownlee, there was a suitably strong hand in charge.

But then – probably buoyed by how well it was doing and also because the council would have floundered with the responsibility – the Government stayed on in control. With the formation of Cera and the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU), bureaucratic structures took over.  Bold action became impossible.

Christchurch was meant to flower as an investment location, well positioned as a smart little city, the hub of a food basket. World money was queuing up for the first couple of years.

Selwood says the Government was talking of public private partnerships (PPPs) of the kind that have invigorated London's Docklands and other cities.

"There would have been equity investors for the justice precinct, the metro sports centre, the hospital – all of those public assets. Private capital was really keen. But the opportunities were never provided so those investors all left town."

Selwood says it was a classic case of risk-adverse bureaucrats reverting to what they knew. "They wanted to run traditional competitive tenders that would be seen to deliver value for money."

It was timid thinking that would deliver projects at lowest upfront prices but not consider whole-of-life running costs or best urban renewal practices.

Christchurch investment banker Tim Howe, co-founder of Ocean Partners, agrees, saying CCDU was meant to be the city's commercially-minded development agency but ended up trying to get private money on government terms.

Howe says it was simply a case of the wrong political model being forced on the central city's recovery. Because Cera and CCDU were government departments, officials could not speak freely with the business community and all dealings had to be at arms length. Ideas could never flow.

Both organisations were also staffed by people on short-term contracts rather than professional managers employed by the city for the long haul. "The places became a revolving door. There was a huge rotation of staff."

And then the decisions were frequently clunky. The CCDU decided to encircle the city core with the green frame to create an artificial land shortage and maintain property values. Yet that saw all the quick development jump outside to places like Victoria Street. Meanwhile, the Government's own projects like the convention centre became too expensive to deliver.

Howe says possibly worst of all for investor confidence was that the Government and Christchurch City Council were so often at odds. He was representing foreign investors who could soon see the cracks in the happy facade the authorities tried to present.

So when it comes to the rebuild, there are some local rich-listers – the Carters and the Glassons – who are reinvesting their insurance pay-outs in central city precinct projects. There is also the government and council money that has been committed. Yet there is hardly a dollar of new outside money being attracted to Christchurch because its recovery is exciting the commercial world's imagination, says Howe.

That moment when Lonely Planet and others were talking about the city being the start of something internationally interesting looks to have come and gone.

Christchurch needs a roadmap

Mayor Lianne Dalziel is conscious of the unity issue. There are still enough ministerial slap-downs to show the relationship between central and local government remains rocky.

But look, Dalziel protests, bringing up a photo on her phone. Here she is smiling alongside Brownlee and Prime Minister John Key at the Chamber of Commerce lunch where the Cera transition plan draft was announced. A record of a moment that is a good advert for the city.

It is also an open secret that Dalziel had to have last ditch discussions with Brownlee to force changes in what he was about to propose to Cabinet. The Saturday before the Monday, the two were locked in a face-to-face meeting over the detailed wording of the transition document.

Dalziel continues smoothly that what matters is the result. The Crown has the ultimate authority. It does get to say what the institutional arrangements are going to be for the next five years of the recovery.

But it also wants its exit strategy. And it is in everyone's interest to set up some kind of enduring co-management structure that recognises the Christchurch recovery is going to be a work in progress for years to come.

Dalziel says the transition has to focus on processes rather than personalities. And the council has been doing its part to prepare for the next stage of the recovery.

Dalziel points to notes she has had scrawled on a whiteboard in her Mayoral office for nearly a year. In simple terms, the council needed a budget and a roadmap.

The budget is the Long Term Plan which the council signed off in June. Dalziel says this confirmed the council had the money to do what it says it will do and not suddenly need to call on the Government for emergency funds. That is important for being now treated as a full partner.

The roadmap is then the replacement Christchurch District Plan – new rules to settle the shape of the city – a document which is being fast-tracked with the help of a Government-appointed review panel.

Dalziel admits the District Plan is proving a bumpy ride, but she says it looks out 20 to 30 years into Christchurch's future, setting strategic growth goals and accounting for natural hazards.

It is the place where commercial aspirations and social needs will find their balance.

So what does that next stage of recovery governance look like to her? Despite Dalziel's talk of unity, the initial Cera proposals had quite a different slant.

Its report, drawing on discussions of an advisory board led by former Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, suggested more a simple handing back of responsibilities to the relevant ministries and local authorities – a return to the pre-quake status quo.

Rather than a super-city shake-up like happened for Auckland, it was noted that Christchurch had a good working relationship with the surrounding district councils of Selwyn and Waimakariri, and also the commissioner-led Environment Canterbury. So no need for a unitary authority or anything radical on that score.

And then for the central city, Cera talked of replacing the CCDU with a new regeneration authority run by a stakeholder board. This would have the responsibility of finishing off the planned anchor projects, but nothing much more than that.

Dalziel wants a commercially-run regeneration body too. And the council had already made its own beginning there, setting up Development Christchurch as an arm of Christchurch City Holdings Limited in April.

However Dalziel intends something much more ambitious – a legacy agency that is going to have a "whole of city" mandate. So not Cera's winding down model, a transition back to status quo, but the creation of a council-controlled organisation that can lead development right across Christchurch.

Dalziel says it is about delivering the community's broad ambitions. "Cera is talking of a central city focus because the anchor projects there need momentum. But you cannot separate the CBD from where people live. New Brighton, Richmond, Lyttelton, Sumner – they are all places that need regeneration after what's occurred."

A good example is the New Brighton revitalisation plan, she says. Local shop-owners and community associations have developed the ideas. A development authority would have the skills to find commercial partners, streamline the consent processes, make the dream happen.

The Avon River residential red zone is another thing a regeneration authority could take over. Cera's proposal is simply to transfer responsibility for the red zone to the relevant ministry, Land Information New Zealand (Linz). There it will be landbanked and maintained as Crown property.

But if instead there is a commercial organisation with the job of developing the red zone as a public asset, then that might see Christchurch pulling off the various eco-sanctuary and water park proposals that would get the city on the world's radar again.

NZCID's Selwood says which way the Government goes on the design and scope of Regenerate Christchurch, as its seems likely to be called, will be a good test of its intentions.

He says there is the danger of duplication and continuing confusion if the city doesn't come out with just one development agency. And also if the Government is determined to keep the controlling share until its various anchor projects are safely done.

"The Crown's motivation is obviously to manage the funds it is putting into the central city. But it should be a jointly-owned urban development agency – 50/50 shareholders from the start.

"Just forget about how much money each is putting in because both have a vested interest in a good outcome for Christchurch. So it needs to be a partnership which forces them to work together, no majority holdings that gives one side the upper hand."

However Selwood says it is a positive that the Government has said there will be a board to prevent political micro-management and that Brownlee has agreed to meet with Dalziel to figure out the details.

With Cabinet decisions scheduled for August, the bones of the agency could be in place by Christmas. A commercial rethink on stuck projects like the convention centres and stadiums could follow soon after.

Selwood says Christchurch may have been heading for mediocre outcomes, but if there is the will to sort out the rebuild structures, then there is every chance of getting back to a recovery that is excited about its future.

Is the fighting spirit alive and well?

At Smash Palace, the concern is about the shortness of the consultation period. The transition proposals are the first real chance for the public to comment on the Government's performance during the recovery, speak out about what needs to be different. Yet only four weeks have been given to get organised.

However, Moore reassures this is just the start. He points out the Government has to pass a bill in Parliament early next year for whatever arrangement follows Cera. And unlike the original Cera Act pushed through under urgency, this one will have to go through the select committees and readings in the House.

So he sees it as the start of a people's campaign. "We'll bring ACT, the Maori Party, United Future and all the opposition parties down here, show them the state of the city, tell them the kind of things we want happening."

Moore says he drove a mate living in Hornby around East Christchurch the other week and even someone living in the same city was shocked at the condition of the roads, the general lack of progress. So the Cera transition legislation will be a real chance to remind the rest of the country of why locals are not happy.

Moore says the city was a little quiet at the start of the year – feeling beaten down. Anyone could see the central city was struggling. Cera and CCDU already felt as though they were packing their bags for departure, not too bothered. The city's leadership had become hollowed out, the voices lost because of several years when local opinions hardly mattered.

Now there is a mood to be stroppy and demanding again. Recognise the mistakes and fix the divisions. Moore says at meetings like these he can see the fighting spirit is back.

 - The Press


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