John Minto: Christchurch rebuild is a 'corporate-led stranglehold'

"A full five years after the quakes vast swathes of the city centre remain in ruins." Cathedral Square from Novotel ...
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/FAIRFAX NZ

"A full five years after the quakes vast swathes of the city centre remain in ruins." Cathedral Square from Novotel Hotel looking west over Convention Centre site.

OPINION: I was taken aback by a recent Stuff story expressing hope that 2016 would see central Christchurch finally rise from its earthquake ruins.

It's deeply disturbing to think that a full five years after the quakes vast swathes of the city centre remain in ruins.

Less than two years after the devastating 1931 Napier earthquake the city held a "New Napier" celebration of their rebuild but it's impossible to see Christchurch being ready for anything like this for several more years.

Napier was left with just a single city building left unscathed (the Public Trust Office) but the city was rebuilt and most businesses were up and running within two years.

What's gone wrong here?

I've seen some people blame the slow process of democracy as the holdup in Christchurch – if only!

The previous Christchurch City Council came up with a grand masterplan for the city reconstruction in November 2011 through an extraordinary process of democratic consultation (remember Share an Idea? – all traces now erased from the Council website).

The overall framework should have become the blueprint for a "New Christchurch" but it was scuppered by the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) under pressure from the government and corporate business interests.

The government has made it clear it wants a private sector led recovery with government and Council as facilitators. There was to be minimal involvement from what the pedlars of power regard as meddling bureaucrats. We were told that unleashing the much-claimed efficiency of the private sector would see the city transformed more quickly than a central democratic plan could facilitate.

So why is so much of the area within the four avenues still a barren landscape? Why is the city hamstrung by private sector paralysis?

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The answer we are now told is a lack of business confidence. We are not talking about small, local businesses here which rolled up their sleeves and got moving with energy and determination as soon as the shocks subsided. With big businesses (often foreign owned) it's a different story. They and their foreign backers are afraid of the big open spaces and worried that if they start building too soon they won't make decent returns early enough so each is waiting for the others to act.

Having rejected our democratic plans for the city these nervous nellies are now waiting for us to build their confidence before they will commit to the rebuild.

As a result the government and corporate business interests are putting pressure back on the Council to make decisions to reassure the hand-wringers.

In particular they want the Council and government to commit to building several extravagant anchor projects such as a metro sports facility, convention centre, stadium, cultural centre, performing arts centre etc.  

These would be nice to have but they are not priorities for Christchurch citizens. In Napier similar grandiose plans for an entertainment hall, theatres and hotels were abandoned in favour of getting the basics right first.

It's not surprising the government backs these corporate priorities. They have agreed to "help out" the city by paying for the convention centre but they have backed away from providing as much of the cost of horizontal infrastructure as originally promised. The money the government saves here will likely be transferred to the convention centre while we pick up the hundreds of millions in extra spending needed on sewers and tarseal.

Instead of standing up for Christchurch City priorities and insisting on a people-led recovery our Council simply stumbles on blindly. To pay for the big corporate-comforting projects our elected representatives have approved eye-watering rate increases over the next three years and have begun to sell our assets (euphemistically called "capital-raising" by the mayor) to help pay for them. 

The city must also fund the $285 million shortfall from the refusal of private insurers to pay out the insured value of Council properties damaged in the earthquakes. 

The corporate sector is taking us for a ride with the not-so-subtle implication that unless the people of Christchurch pay massive rate increases and sell our city assets they will continue to drag their heels on the rebuild.

It's time for the mayor and Council to stand up for the people of Christchurch and rein in corporate expectations that we citizens will suffer huge financial pain while big businesses avoid the financial risks and get the gains.

Instead of a people-led recovery we are facing a slow, corporate-led stranglehold over the city's future – bankrolled by the rest of us for many years to come.

Neither the huge rate increases nor the sale of assets are necessary if the Council sticks to working on the priorities for Christchurch citizens. The capital building programme in particular needs to be rescheduled so that rate increases remain at the rate of inflation and we retain our city assets in public hands.

We elected our mayor and Council to stand up for us rather than fall over to a National Party corporate agenda for Christchurch. We deserve much better.

John Minto is a veteran left-wing protester, a former columnist for The Press and now a Christchurch resident.

 - Stuff

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