City has chance to lead Australasia

20:26, Aug 13 2012

If you are wondering how to fund Christchurch's future, look to the past, writes Mike Sleigh.


Christchurch City Council is currently grappling with how it helps fund the Government's bold and visionary plan for the rebuild of the central city.

The answer may lie in the city's past experiences. For, as Britain's wartime leader, Winston Churchill, famously said: 'The further back you look, the further forward you can see.'

At various stages over Christchurch's history it has faced major economic investment decisions as it sought to retain its key position in the development of the New Zealand economy.

The first, and arguably biggest, financial decision the city (or province as it was at the time) ever made was in 1859, when just nine years after its formal settlement the community of only 10,000 people decided to build the Lyttleton rail tunnel.


At 1 miles (2.8km) it was almost a world record in terms of length. It was funded by a [PndStlg]300,000 loan raised in Melbourne, which in today's terms would be roughly equivalent to our population of 350,000 people borrowing $2.1 billion,

The tunnel's successful completion in 1867 guaranteed Christchurch's future right through to today as the principal export hub for Canterbury's agriculture and in time the West Coast coalfields. In 1916, Sir Henry Wigram wrote: 'Looking back, one cannot help being amazed at the intrepidity shown by so small a community in undertaking so gigantic a task."

Then in 1935, the city engineer identified Harewood as the site of Christchurch's future airport and the council commenced buying the necessary land from various parties. The Press editorial commented that same year: 'There are still some people in Christchurch to whom parts of the report on Aerodromes prepared for the City Council by its Engineer will seem to be a fantastic prophecy. But there are also people more of them every day, and some of them it is to be hoped, among the members of the Council, who will recognise Galbraith's references to likely aviation development as the conservative and careful statement of an engineer who has related today's scientific knowledge and aviation practice and seen clearly tomorrow's facts.'

The result of that foresight is that Christchurch boasts New Zealand's only major 24-hour airport and one which contributes over $1.2b indirectly to the economy every year. The tourists arriving there contribute over $2.1b to the Canterbury economy each year and over 18,600 jobs.

But the council had to fight hard over the following years with various governments to ensure the airport's continued successful expansion. As a result of the council's foresight, it was the first airport to have a permanent terminal and the first to have full international jet status.

This underpinned the dramatic growth of both Christchurch's and the wider South Island's international tourist industry and today 90 per cent of international visitors to the South Island land in Christchurch.

Sir Hamish Hay, the five- term mayor of Christchurch, noted in 1978: 'The policy of the city council towards its airport has always been one of initiative. We have always provided facilities in anticipation of demand, so that we have always been one jump ahead of the rest of New Zealand.'

Interestingly, the decisions about building both the tunnel and expanding the airport were only made after getting leading international advice in just the same way as the council and Cera's CCDU have received such advice in developing the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan.

We now have the opportunity, albeit one born of a tragic natural event none of us would have wished for, to be one jump ahead of the rest of New Zealand and for that matter Australia.

The council will, on our behalf, have to make far reaching and what may seem in the absence of perfect information about the future, challenging financial decisions about the type of city we, and more significantly, hopefully our children and their children live in.

The decisions are crucial because, as the late Sir Paul Callaghan so lucidly pointed out before his death, New Zealand's best and potentially only way to raise our living standards to the level enjoyed by Australia is to become a knowledge economy exporting high value technology and food products that the rest of the world desires.

In this regard, Wired magazine recently reported the seven fastest job growth sectors in the United States economy were; renewables and the environment (56.8 per cent growth rate), online publishing (29.1), internet (29.8), computer and network security(21.8), wireless (21.4), e-learning (18.7) and nanotechnology (18.6). It noted: 'These new middle- class jobs are what you might call smart jobs. They're innovative and hi-tech, but most of them are located far from Silicon Valley or New York . . . The same forces of urban renewal that relaunched New York, Boston and San Francisco as bastions of liveability in the 1990s have now taken hold in smaller municipalities. Even former industrial cities . . . are finding that revived downtowns can help keep their most creative young people from moving away. '

A case study that Wired featured was Omaha, Nebraska, the 42nd largest city in the US which over the past two decades has been transformed into one of the Midwest's most vibrant cultural hubs.

Omaha boosts much of what has been proposed in the new Christchurch Central Recovery Plan. Making the central city liveable and exciting is what is necessary if Christchurch is to stem the flow of its youngest to Auckland and Australia and create a prosperous innovation knowledge-based economy for the 21st century. A city with incredible public spaces, sporting and cultural facilities together with . . . of course, a new four seasons ski resort an hour to the west and a coastal pathway 30 minutes to the east . . . will be the envy of Australasia.

As Wired succinctly noted: 'Liveable Cities draw creative people, and creative people spawn jobs.' So let's hope our mayor and councillors can take reassurance from the courageous long-term investments made by their predecessors and deliver a city for the next 100 years.

Our future is to be a city based on innovation and to do that we need to create a liveable city of such great quality that it will not only hold but also attract creative young people. It will undoubtedly cost a lot to deliver the innovation precinct, covered stadium, convention centre, performing arts precinct, metro sports centre, central library, public spaces and other assets recommended by the leading international experts involved in preparing the new plan.

But, as our city's history shows, such big investments have been made before and delivered benefits far into the future. It is very likely that anything less than $2.1b in today's terms for our current population would have seemed good value to Superintendent Moorhouse and the city's early colonial settlers.

Mike Sleigh is the development director of Porters Ski Area and executive committee member for the Christchurch Coastal Pathway.

The Press