Is the rebuild worsening poverty in Christchurch?

JOHN MCCRONE
Last updated 10:45 14/12/2013
Christchurch Methodist Mission chief executive Mary Richardson
CHCH KIWIS BATTLING: Christchurch Methodist Mission chief executive Mary Richardson.

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The Rebuild

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Half of Christchurch is on an income of less than $30,000 a year. It is not a rich city. But the earthquake recovery seems more about the haves than have-nots. 

As 2013 draws to a close, assessments are being made of where Christchurch's earthquake recovery is at. And the dawning question is could success be failure here?

Say an ambitious central city with big convention centres, innovation precincts, five-star rated office blocks and upmarket retail does emerge from the earthquake rubble over the next five years.

Say the Canterbury economy does sing along at China-like rates of growth of 7 per cent or more - that it is true, as Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce chief executive Peter Townsend stresses, the rebuild is only 5 per cent started and next year will see the money flow through the region like an electrical jolt.

Say even that Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee gets his dream of the covered rugby stadiums and Olympic rowing courses which will cement Christchurch as the undisputed sporting capital of New Zealand.

All these things could happen, but for larger Christchurch - the real Christchurch of the Kiwi battler - they might also be a failure. Post-quake, they might only have the perverse effect of locking in a greater level of social inequality.

Christchurch Methodist Mission chief executive Mary Richardson made this point sharply at the annual Political Studies Association (PSA) conference held at the University of Canterbury this month.

Who is Christchurch, she asked? The rebuild seems squarely aimed at the hopes and aspirations of the well-off, but the latest census figures show half of Christchurch gets by on an income of $30,000 a year. So it is certainly not a city of rich people, says Richardson.

Nor is it particularly a city of the young and thrusting. "In the next decade, close to 20 per cent of the population will be over 65 years old. In two decades, this group will make up over a quarter of the population - and the number in the over 85 age group is expected to increase 600 per cent."

Another big chunk of Christchurch are not home owners, says Richardson. "We have a third of households who are renters," she notes.

"The average house price is close to $500,000, which caters for incomes of over $100,000. The average rental for a three-bedroom house is $440 a week, and for a four-bedroom it is $600, which is higher than the gross income for half the population."

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There are the other stark markers of inequality, a two-speed Christchurch. One in four children live below the poverty line. " We have a city which along with the country has the greatest variation in educational outcomes in the OECD."

"And yet," says Richardson, gesturing towards her audience, "the city is being designed and planned by and for people like you and me, with bars, cafes and retail for those with discretionary income, with conference centres for those who like coming to conferences."

So a bright and shiny central city will in fact be rubbing people's noses in what they have not got, what they cannot afford, says Richardson. It will leave them feeling shamed and out of place.

Sure the dollars are going to flow through the rebuild in a golden river, but in whose bank account are they going to land? Whose city are the grand projects going to improve?

"When we talk about building better, we need to talk about building more than buildings."

It is a harsh way of looking at it. But with a new city council in place, a surprisingly large swing to Labour with Poto Williams' victory in the Christchurch East by-election, there seems a mood to question priorities.

The Government-led recovery is achieving a lot of remarkable things at great pace. Yet with 2014 being the year when the business of reconstruction will get going in earnest, now is about the last chance to consider what the choices say about what is not happening.

Perhaps even more surprising than Richardson's remarks at the PSA conference was the address by newly elected Fendalton- Waimairi ward councillor and finance committee chair Raf Manji.

A former money trader like Prime Minister John Key, Manji told the conference that the Government's blueprint plan for the central city, with its upsized anchor projects, is based on a broken financial model of speculative debt.

Manji says the world has not even emerged from the last global financial crisis caused by gambling on property values, and yet Christchurch is staking its future on a doubling down on the same economic bet. "We're repeating the mistake of a speculative bubble in the rebuild."

Manji says the Government has ignored a fundamental principle of disaster recovery in its command and control approach to fixing the city. "We really are living under a dictatorship."

He says there has not been enough genuine consideration of what the entirety of Christchurch might want and this has produced a widespread sense of disengagement from the political decision- making.

"Something that I found when out campaigning for council was often people would say, when I asked them had they voted, 'Oh, it's not for me.' So people have really switched off from the democratic process."

Echoing Manji, former Ngai Tahu strategy manager Sacha McMeeking says the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) has taken a "stakeholder democracy" approach where the real consultation - or horsetrading of vested interests - takes place behind closed doors between partner organisations.

"Most of us know that is the reality, we just try not to talk about it," says McMeeking.

The end-of-year assessments having been taking place elsewhere. TV One's Q+A programme brought together Brownlee, Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel and others on the grassy banks of the Avon River.

Radio personality Gary McCormick struck a convincing note in saying that the recovery experience - particularly the insurance wrangles - will leave Christchurch changed in ways the Government does not yet seem to realise.

"We've turned Canterbury people into a group who were formerly pretty respectable, decent, by and large white and middle-class people who thought the system worked for them, into people who have no faith in the system at all."

Brownlee then also struck his bum note about building stadiums and rowing lakes which will cement the city's sporting reputation - although Brownlee would feel he was talking to a hardened constituency on that one as well.

The TV question and answer session highlighted the two sides of the recovery - the fact that doing something with energy and positivity can mean that some alternative focus is going to miss out.

But also that it is complicated. For example, Ngai Tahu kaiwhakahaere Sir Mark Solomon remarked that the rebuild has not put enough emphasis on sustainability.

"It was certainly one of my visions that we would adopt full green technology across the city. But if you go through the subdivisions - including our own - it's the same old, same old."

Dalziel chipped in to agree the people of Christchurch should be served much better on this score. "And this new council wants to restart that conversation about how to make it real. There are elements missing from what is our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

"But hang on," Brownlee quickly countered. It isn't all about solar panels on roofs, he said. Look at the homes at Ngai Tahu's Wigram Skies.

"They're all double glazed, they all have insulated floors, ceilings and walls, they all have heat pump arrangements in them." Just by being modern, they will be a big improvement on what there was before.

So a lot of these criticisms are more about perceptions, argues Brownlee. The recovery proves not as lop-sided once you get past the easy political point-scoring.

I meet up with Richardson later for a cup of coffee and the chance to compare notes. In general there are not many surprises about how the recovery is panning out, we agree. The warnings were loud from the start.

Within a couple of months of the February 2011 earthquake, only a week after the bill to create Cera was rushed through Parliament, there was a Resilient Futures conference held at Lincoln University.

At that meeting, Dalziel slammed the Government for imposing a top-down bureaucratic model when the experience of every other world disaster is that recovery plans should form from the community up.

Massey University professor Bruce Glavovic, the country's top recovery expert as the Earthquake Commission (EQC) chair in natural hazards, was equally forceful.

"How is [Cera] going to capitalise on local culture and knowledge? How is it going to mobilise local capacity to rebuild? How is it going to enable local communities to make choices that will build safer and more sustainable communities?" Glavovic asked.

One of the untold stories of the earthquakes is the way Glavovic quickly found himself sidelined along with others who had the temerity to criticise the Cera approach.

There were also the warnings about "shock doctrine" - the fact that large disasters give the ruling powers the opportunity to advance their existing political agendas. The right answers seem already known, which is why there is no need to ask the folk on the ground too many further questions.

Richardson, a former policy development manager at Christchurch City Council, is less conspiratorial. Life is not quite as deliberate as that, she says. But she believes the decision-making processes have suffered from being too hermetic.

The need for speed has made it difficult for Cera to consult widely, she says. And then there is just an inadvertent self-reinforcing bias in that the recovery is being led by a group of people all talking to others more or less exactly like themselves.

"By definition, they will all be people who've achieved an education. They will be on a high income - although they might not consider it a high one. And they will be relatively young as well.

"I know this from my own experience in policy making. They will think they're catering for the whole of Christchurch because they're managing to cater for the whole of their worlds."

So even if Cera and other officials are acting with the best of intentions, their limited view of life is going to result in a blinkered approach to the recovery.

What is an example of what she would be doing differently then?

Richardson says working for a church charity, she sees that other half of Christchurch. And the No 1 post-quake issue there would be the cost of rental housing.

The recovery seems to be almost entirely about red-zoning, insurance repairs, protecting home-owner equity - the difficulties of people lucky enough to have owned a house in the first place. But Richardson reminds that a third of the city rents.

"What's happened to them is their rents have skyrocketed. So on top of every other complication they probably had in their lives - employment, parenting, mental health or whatever - they now have a housing situation where rents are way too high."

Richardson says the rental crisis was completely predictable. Not only did the earthquakes take thousands of houses off the market but renters would have to compete against insured home-owners looking for temporary accommodation.

However, the Government's attitude was the market would provide. And now that market reality is a dozen people sharing a house, people camping in garages, people sleeping in cars, says Richardson - the long-term social costs of which could be expensive.

"For little children, this has been three years of their life where they've had no home, they've been living in disruptive and often unsafe environments." You can see the rebound effect of that further down the road, she says.

So this is what people meant when they warned that disasters have a way of worsening social inequalities unless there is a specific focus on stopping it happening, says Richardson.

For those at the bottom, those with the least control over their lives, we are seeing the least being done to sort their housing problems. Richardson says the Government and council do have various social housing initiatives. But these are happening slowly and piecemeal. There is none of the urgency that attaches to the Government's economically focused initiatives like the central city master plan.

And meanwhile, she says, the inflated rental market is providing a golden investment opportunity for the "haves" of Christchurch. What better time to speculate on rental property when any old dunger is going to earn top-dollar? Again someone's definition of success is another's evidence of failure.

Richardson says it is not that the Government should not be pushing the rebuild of the central city, or green-lighting new subdivisions, but that if there had been a more genuine engagement with the interests of the whole of the city, a more balanced sense of priorities might have resulted.

Somehow the social justice question got put off limits, she says.

"The question everyone asks is well, did the earthquakes cause this? Wasn't it already bad before? But I don't care whether it was due to earthquakes or not. This was our opportunity to solve it."

- The Press

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