City of secrets breeding fear
In Christchurch, what people know about their own lives can sometimes feel insignificant compared to what they don't know.
The devastating February 2011 earthquake ravaged much of the city, and the organisations tasked with putting it back together have sometimes appeared less than forthcoming with the public.
The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) is yet to release any information explaining the rationale for the zoning of residential land in the city, which started over a year ago.
The Christchurch City Council's draft central city plan is being trumped by a government-led blueprint, developed behind closed doors by Cera's Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU) and due for release at the end of the month.
The council itself has also come under fire for excessive secrecy: in February, more than 4000 people gathered outside the civic offices to protest over the body's lack of transparency and call for fresh elections.
There are growing calls for an earthquake insurance tribunal to force answers from the Earthquake Commission (EQC) and private insurers, while contractors working for residential rebuild manager Fletcher EQR are afraid to go public with concerns for fear of losing valuable work.
Add it all together, and it becomes easy to understand why some feel the city is becoming overrun with secrets.
Leanne Curtis, spokeswoman for the Canterbury Communities Earthquake Recovery Network (CanCERN), says many residents cannot shake the feeling they are not getting the full picture from officials.
"We can't get basic priorities and questions answered clearly, so we feel like there's secrecy at every turn."
Curtis says the EQC, Cera and other organisations appear to be "working in silos" and keeping information to themselves, rather than sharing it freely for the good of the city. As a result, people only get snippets of information, leaving gaps that are filled in by overactive imaginations.
"[People] can't get any clarity, so they're left with rumours, and that just leads to fear."
She believes the disconnect between how much officials feel they are sharing, and how much residents feel they are receiving, may undermine the city's recovery. If residents don't feel fully involved in what is going on, Curtis says, they may not be willing to endure the lengthy and difficult rebuilding process.
"Some people will walk away: they'll say, 'I'm not a part of this recovery, so I'll just walk'."
Charles Eadie, who led the rebuild of the Santa Cruz CBD following the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, says transparency is "critically important" to a successful recovery.
"To the extent that there is information that is withheld or unclear, or if there is suspicion about any particular decision . . . that uncertainty is going to cast a cloud over the community."
When he first took up a role in the Santa Cruz recovery, Eadie faced pressure from politicians to keep things under wraps.
Instead, his background as a planner led him to take the opposite approach - releasing whatever information he could, as soon as he received it.
"Once that happened, people said, 'How can I help?' Instead of being suspicious and angry, they were partners."
Labour MP Clayton Cosgrove says the lack of transparency is slowing down the recovery, with people reluctant to make big decisions while they are missing vital information.
"If you don't communicate with people, don't give it to them warts and all, they won't be certain about things and the show slows down, and no-one wants to see that."
Mayor Bob Parker disagreed with those who label his council secretive, but believed there were times when information could have flowed more freely from organisations.
However, the once-in-a-lifetime nature of the recovery process - and the importance of getting it right - has sometimes been more important than adherence to complete transparency.
"It hasn't been as open as you would expect in a normal, day- to-day process, but this isn't an ordinary process," Parker says.
Cera chief executive Roger Sutton begs to differ with those who label Cera, and the city, overly secretive.
"I don't get that feedback . . . if people have those concerns, I'd be keen to hear about them."
Sutton says the department took communications advice from emergency officials in San Francisco, Chile and Australia, and is well aware of the need to provide information in a timely fashion.
He spends an hour each fortnight fielding queries from concerned residents on talkback radio, and says the release of the CCDU blueprint will answer most questions about the central city.
However, Sutton is aware that the clamour for information is unlikely to dissipate any time soon.
"In an event like this, I think there's an insatiable demand for information, and satisfying that entire demand is almost an impossible job.
"We work hard at all our communications. We try to be as available as we can but some people will still want to know more."
PROPERTY VALUES COULD BE SKEWED
Property values in Christchurch's earthquake-hit central city could be "distorted" if the Government takes over large parts of land for key anchor projects, a developer says.
The Christchurch Central Development Unit, tasked with preparing a blueprint for the central city rebuild, is due to release its plan at the end of this month.
Property owners will find out whether their land has been earmarked as the site for one of 12 planned anchor projects when the plan is released. There are fears any Government-led land acquisitions could have an impact when the Christchurch City Council revalues the city's properties next year for the first time since 2010.
Property developer Ernest Duval said many developers were uncertain about how land in the quake-hit central city would be revalued, given the lack of purchases and sales in the last year. Duval said the unit's plans to acquire land for important projects, such as a new convention centre, could skew property values in some areas.
"If they have a strategic need for a site, they may pay more for it, or they may not even look to pay people for land.
There could be winners and losers, depending on where exactly you are." The potential distortion of market values would need to be taken into account during the valuation process, he said. Council corporate services manager Paul Anderson said the council was aware of the importance of the revaluation process.
"It's a massive exercise to do, values are going to change right across the city."
The valuations would be carried out by Quotable Value, the country's largest provider of rating valuation services, and be peer-reviewed by an external company. Anderson said QV would consider the implications of any acquisition of land during the planning process.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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