Minister intent on rebuild path

20:04, Jun 16 2012
MAN IN CHARGE: Gerry Brownlee.

You'll find plenty of people to say Gerry Brownlee's team is ruining the Christchurch rebuild. But others say a textbook recovery is under way that will amaze the world. JOHN McCRONE investigates.

Just the mention of Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee's name was enough to set off the room like the entrance of a moustache-twirling pantomime villain.

They clapped, they cawed, they jeered. Yes, Brownlee needs to unblock his ears and start listening, they cried.

It was another of those meetings of concerned citizens that has been happening around Christchurch. The heritage group Iconic had flown in University of Melbourne professor David Yencken, the urban planner credited with Melbourne's spectacular central city revamp, to talk about the principles of recovery.

Architects, councillors and other local worthies had packed the lecture theatre, spilling over into the aisles, and they weren't giving Gerry any love.

"Where is the strategic vision? Where is the community engagement?" asked organiser Mark Prain, of the Hillary Institute of International Leadership.


Speaking to people, the impression is hardening that Brownlee and his all-powerful Government department, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera), are becoming increasingly remote, retreating behind closed doors.

Because of this isolation, this top-down command and control style, we are in turn getting a Brownlee-shaped recovery, a process that closely reflects the personality of its master - the human bulldozer, the adversarial parliamentarian, wooden thinking from an ex-woodwork teacher.

From the quick brushoffs - the infamous comments about demolishing "old dunger heritage properties - to the "leave it to the market" solutions on almost everything, the earthquake recovery appears to be turning into something unimaginative and autocratic.

For many, April's formation of the Central City Development Unit (CCDU) looked like the last straw. The Christchurch City Council had delivered a central city rebuild masterplan as required, but now Brownlee was calling in outside experts to rewrite it in 100 days.

This seemed to be the final sidelining of local democracy, a mad panic to find any compromise that might placate commercial property owners and so stem the flight of investment from the city.

Opposition MPs agree that the structure of the recovery is not right. Brownlee has created an organisation too much under his thumb, too distant from those it is meant to serve.

"[With the CCDU], they've chosen the wrong model again," says Labour's earthquake spokesperson, Christchurch East MP Lianne Dalziel.

"They've chosen a model without governance and, as a result, there are political fingerprints all over the decision - Gerry Brownlee's fingerprints.

"He is controlling everything that's going on," she says.

"Cera sits in its big tower block insulated from the realities, insulated from people's ideas and insulated from being challenged or engaged," says Green Party earthquake spokesperson, Selwyn list MP Eugenie Sage.

A seige fortress mentality has taken over, says NZ First Port Hills list MP Dennis O'Rourke.

"There certainly has not been transparency around the decision- making, and Mr Brownlee and his administration have failed to bring people with them.

"The city council has been forced into a fairly subservient position, which people don't like to see. He has alienated whole communities. It's management by tightening up, not opening up, not being ready to admit mistakes," O'Rourke says.

It is what constitutional experts, such as University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis, warned of when Cera was created with unprecedented ability to set aside normal laws.

"Any time you give extensive decision-making powers with limited oversight or control mechanisms to anyone, that is going to lead to problems down the road," Geddis says.

It is also what disaster recovery specialists such as Bruce Glavovic - the Earthquake Commission's chairman in natural hazards planning at Massey University - say is all too common when speed overcomes deliberation in a government's response to a crisis.

Things may be done in the name of a community with the best of intentions, but then the lack of consultation breeds a corrosive mood of pessimism and disengagement.

People become "emptied of hope" when their lives seem run by "a big bureaucracy that they're not part of", says Glavovic.

So there appears to be a widespread sense that it is all turning sour. Cera has proved the wrong vehicle and Brownlee the wrong driver.

Yet could the talk of an out-of- touch recovery be simply a stage in the journey - a reflection of an information gap, rather than the truth of what is going on?

Solid Energy boss and Canterbury Business Leaders Group (CBLG) spokesman Don Elder certainly believes so.

Elder says ask him only a matter of weeks ago when the CCDU was announced and he was feeling quite different, rather dispirited. "We looked at it and said this is just centralisation of power back to Wellington again."

But now that he has had the chance to have a closer take, his opinion has turned 180 degrees and he believes Brownlee and Cera are making the right moves.

Instead of the CCDU being a retreat from the vision expressed at consultation exercises such as last year's council-run Share an Idea, the unit is, in fact, a statement of bright ambition.

"It's going to allow us to take the best of the city master plan and move it forward with the power of Cera," Elder says.

Laurie Johnson, a San Francisco-based disaster recovery consultant who is making a study of the Canterbury earthquakes, says the problem is Christchurch is a city still enveloped in the fog of war. "Sharing information becomes difficult in that environment."

The natural result is a sharp division into an inner circle and outer circle - those in the know and those just guessing - and the uncertainty of those in the outer circle always spawns discontent, she says.

However, just because there is a gathering mood of disconnect does not mean the recovery process itself is failing.

With a bounce in his step, Brownlee leads the way to the bus and grabs the microphone. For a day, the Earthquake Recovery Minister and his senior Cera staffers are playing tour guides to a visiting pack of journalists.

Brownlee says he set up a trip because of some of the rubbish he was hearing from outside Christchurch - comments from writers with no real appreciation of the severity of the damage.

He wants them to see the sunken houses in Kaiapoi, the crumbling hillsides of Sumner and the now levelled central city.

But even for The Press, the day is an invaluable opportunity to discover what is really going on inside the camp, to meet Cera officials previously too busy for interviews and gauge the state of mind within the organisation itself.

It is not long before an Auckland reporter confides that he is finding the Cera staff oddly relaxed. He means he expected to find them tense, burdened, defensive and overwhelmed - more like those standing on the outside of things perhaps?

However, a better description for Cera chief executive Roger Sutton, CCDU director Warwick Isaacs and others in the management team would be positive, even energised. Their spirits are up.

Cera infrastructure manager Richard MacGeorge, a Christchurch public utility consultant recruited for his experience on national-scale projects in Africa and Asia, says one good reason is that Cera is probably unique in having been able to attract top-flight talent to fill all its positions.

Often organisations have a strong boss, but then a tier of second-rate lieutenants. Cera instead starts with the confidence of knowing it that it operates with the best that New Zealand has to offer.

"It doesn't feel like a government department at all," says MacGeorge. "The atmosphere's more like an international development bank."

Cera communications manager Mike Shatford, former director of public relations with the New Zealand Defence Force, likens Cera to the crack SAS of the civil service. These are the people you would want doing the job, he says.

But the criticisms focus on the structure of Cera and the capacity of Brownlee as its decider-in-chief. Many have pointed to a lack of checks and balances on Brownlee's authority. The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act mandates for a community forum and a cross-party parliamentary forum. However, both these bodies are only allowed to advise, Dalziel says. The minister doesn't have to listen, and Canterbury MPs, in particular, feel they have been getting the Brownlee brushoff.

O'Rourke says he came in expecting a spirit of non-partisan collaboration, but has not seen it.

"Something rather better was called for. I had no choice but to become one of the critics, and if you do that, you then become the enemy."

Dalziel says different choices were possible all down the line. However, Brownlee has consistently opted for a centralised government department model for the recovery.

This makes it possible for Brownlee to review every action for its political consequences - something that was especially important in general election year, says Dalziel.

She says there should at least be a board standing between Brownlee and his chief executive, to give Cera some independence, some freedom from political interference.

So it's no surprise if Cera is turning remote and cautious, increasingly bound by what Wellington wants, as the recovery progresses.

The tour bus has not even left Christchurch International Airport before Brownlee is living up to his caustic reputation. We pass a new McDonald's franchise all ready to open, complete with celebratory bunches of balloons.

Brownlee tells us the problem is that the city council can't get its finger out to sign off the final planning consents. "Unfortunately, a fairly consistent problem in Canterbury."

If you want to know why the big decisions have ended up being taken out of the council's hands, there is the answer.

Then, later in town, Brownlee points to a row of character brick frontages in High St, only just standing, with the interiors of the buildings having collapsed.

Someone plans to try to restore these heritage properties, says Brownlee, eyebrows arched in bemusement. "Good luck to them."

However, behind the public persona - Brownlee's abrasive debating chamber style, his punch- bag ability to soak up criticism - there is another side.

There has to be for any minister who holds down responsible offices, including still the transport portfolio and the tricky job of managing the Government's legislative programme as Leader of the House.

Brownlee has a lot on and, close up, he does come across as in command of the detail.

Launching Cera's recovery strategy road map the previous evening - the regional-level plan produced as a result of a broader process of submissions and hearings during the past eight months - Brownlee rattled off the milestones to show how much has been achieved in the past year and a half.

There have been nearly 46,000 emergency house repairs, about 15,500 houses have been fully repaired, and about 2000 homes being worked on on any day. There is employment for 13,500 contractors and $600 million has been paid to those contractors.

About $3.1 billion has been paid out by the Earthquake Commission (EQC) and $4.6b by private insurance on 400,000 claims.

More than 5000 households are accepting the Government deal on red-zoned homes. About 26,000 potential new sections have been created by using Cera's powers to fast-track the district plan. Nearly $40m a month is about to be spent on the repairs to roads, sewers and other infrastructure - a total of $2.5b in the next five years.

In the central city, 1200 buildings have been demolished to date, with another 300 to go. Also, $66m of new commercial building consents have been filed in the past two months.

So there has not exactly been a lack of action there.

On the bus, Brownlee also illustrates the kind of unappreciated complexities that lie behind almost everything that needs to be done.

For example, there is the call to let people relocate any intact red- zoned homes onto new land. Developers' covenants, concerned about protecting property values on their subdivisions, are preventing that, but Cera could simply command it.

Gesturing towards the many boarded-up eastern suburb homes we are passing, Brownlee agrees it sounds a good idea. About 3000 houses would be fit to be moved.

However, they would have to be brought up to modern building codes, needing double-glazing, full insulation and probably rewiring. In the end, you would be talking about a stripped shell, says Brownlee.

"All you would be taking really is a frame, a roof and some internals."

Getting into the more general perceptions of his performance, Brownlee says criticism has to start with the recognition of just how big the task is.

For a start, the Canterbury earthquakes have been exceptional even by world standards, because there have been four big events, the last only in December. After a flood or hurricane, rebuilding can get going as soon as people are ready, but Christchurch has to be sure the land has settled.

Then there is the sheer extent of the damage. About 80 per cent of the city's civic and commercial core has been ripped up, and whole suburbs affected by liquefaction.

Brownlee says it is easy to forget how scary the prospects were after February 2011 from the Government's point of view. The warnings were that Canterbury's economy would fall apart, there would be massive unemployment and the city would be depopulated.

Yet the city showed great resilience. Now, the Government is changing down gears, building the capacity to get the rebuild proper going. Because the job is so large, creating the machinery is taking time. However, once the work starts, it will be able to move more quickly.

The same is true about the community engagement side of the recovery, Brownlee says.

It is natural that everyone has an opinion and wants to be heard, but the groups have to emerge that actually speak for the majority, otherwise the talk is just noise.

Brownlee says certain groups have been coming to the fore, like the residents' group, the Canterbury Communities' Earthquake Recovery Network (CanCern), and Elder's business leaders lobby.

These have gained a credibility and so have good channels into Cera. They are inside the tent.

"The people complaining will all be people who have a view that is not prevailing for one reason or another," Brownlee says.

"In the end, you've got to have a plan for the city that's going to work for the greatest number of people. I know people get pissed off because they think I don't listen to them. But for every good idea, there's a bad one, and I don't think we've picked out too many bad ideas so far."

Brownlee says he is able to shrug off the jibes he hears because it is the nature of the beast. "No-one will have felt comfortable about things for the past 21 months."

As with the 100 days now given to the CCDU to come up with its central-city plan, there is no winning. "First, we had lots of criticism for nothing happening quickly enough. Now we are in for a bit of criticism because too much is happening too quickly."

And as for the accountability issue, Brownlee says it does not come much more direct than the parliamentary system. Ultimately the voters will have their say, and there was a strong thumbs up from Canterbury people at the last election.

He faces questions in the House several times a week. There are select committees and other review mechanisms. Then he is a local MP out meeting people all the time.

"I get feedback when I'm shopping in the supermarket," he says wryly.

The key charges against Brownlee and Cera are that the recovery is being tightly controlled for political reasons, that it lacks sufficient public input, and that it is turning dull and unambitious.

As said, the CCDU seemed a case in point when it was announced.

Brownlee says the city council certainly produced a promising masterplan - a compact, green and people-friendly CBD organised by precincts, with cycleways, pocket parks and an opening up of the river.

The problem was how to deliver on this vision.

In a second volume to the plan, the council suggested a tight framework of planning rules and design committees that would force property owners to fit a mould.

Frankly, it was unworkable, says Brownlee. He tested the proposed regulations by sitting down with a Christchurch architectural firm and asking what would be required to get an example six-storeyed building on a particular corner through to consent.

It became obvious that making projects fit convoluted rules would paralyse development, he says.

A very different philosophy was required.

So the CCDU was set up as a development agency to do it the other way around - begin with the project and then design it to achieve the masterplan's objectives. Let the building heights, parking access and other details flow from the logic of the intended outcome.

Elder says this is what surprised him - the boldness of the new approach.

The CCDU design consortium, led by planning consultant Boffa Miskell, has been told to forget about land ownership, road grids and other restrictions, and simply put anchor projects, such as a new conference centre or sports stadium, where they make most sense, he says.

The city's problem is that property is split into thousands of individual titles, so any rebuild was always likely to be a disjointed, piecemeal affair.

However, the CCDU, backed by the power of Cera, can now come in over the top. Land can be amalgamated, by force if necessary. Owners are even being warned that new buildings that get in the way may get knocked down.

Elder says there is a clear determination to develop areas of the city as a coherent package.

"Getting the right result is more important than being constrained. We will fail through being timid."

It is the only way to bring in the corporate-scale investment needed - the offshore money from Australia and Asia, he says.

"They're saying we will put out a proposal call on two city blocks for this type of development in there - whether it's a health precinct, residential, business, a convention centre and hotels - and get people to come and bid.

"And if we have to get rid of a landowner or two, or close streets to do that, then we will if the quality is good enough and the business case is good enough."

There will be property owners who will complain, says Elder, but for most it will be a better deal. They will end up with shares in a larger land-owning company.

"They could be looking at 9 to 10 per cent returns here." An attractive city will pay in the long run.

A central-city development agency was always going to be needed, and the CCDU is going to be one with real clout.

San Francisco's Laurie Johnson says this is what makes Cera a little more unusual in world terms. As a way to manage a recovery, it is a highly centralised approach, but it looks to be moving quickly and creating the capacity to make things happen.

Again, what impresses her, having just made another trip to Christchurch to update herself on Cera's progress, is the calm energy she found. The infrastructure rebuild headquarters, for instance, is "an exciting place to be, but not a chaotic place to be," she says, quite different from even six months ago.

Plainly, there are still local tensions. The city council's role in the recovery is even more unclear. There are complaints that the focus on the inner city will detract from the recovery of the suburbs. There are many people feeling out of control over the decisions that will be made.

However, the better test right now is probably how the view looks from within Brownlee's empire.


The Press