Rebuild needs community's involvement

Christchurch East MP Lianne Dalziel
Christchurch East MP Lianne Dalziel

It is time for an honest debate about the direction the Christchurch recovery is taking, writes Lianne Dalziel.

"I say to the people of Christchurch: We are committed to helping you rebuild your city from the grassroots up - not the Beehive down."

It was with these words that Labour leader David Shearer encapsulated the vision that Christchurch is crying out for.

Mr Shearer, better than anyone else, understands the process of recovery, albeit overseas in war-torn environments, where there is no trust, no semblance of order and limited capacity for what we might describe as civil society.

Looking around our city of Christchurch, it is easy to draw the analogy with a war zone. The scale of the damage has been immense.

That is why we, in Labour, have called for a non-partisan approach from the outset.

That is why we have consistently advocated for genuine community engagement.

That is why our constant call has been for good governance structures that ensure that decision-making is free of political interference and vested interest.

That is why we have said that the Government must be prepared to stand alongside people, rather than cast them to the mercy of the multinational insurers.

That is why we have said that there must be accountability and transparency at every level.

As we come to the end of yet another year, it is time for an honest debate about the direction the recovery is taking.

Much has been said recently about democracy. There are many who feel they have lost their democratic voice, and they have.

The minute the Government decided to establish a government department to run the recovery, as opposed to an independent Crown entity, and exclude the people and their democratically elected council from the process, the recovery was on the wrong track.

The question is, how do we get it back on track?

The Government is intent on dismissing any dissenting views.

This was probably best encapsulated in Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee's response to Kevin McCloud, the Grand Designs presenter, who has been invited to help judge the design competition for new housing in the city centre. He has studied the history of art and architecture at Cambridge University. In other words, he knows what he is talking about.

He said: "Christchurch's ambition as a city has been to make it one of the most sustainable places on the planet. You can't do that with national government intervention. You do it with local communities - ground up, not top down."

He was not saying that this is an either/or. Of course government intervention is required, but you do it collaboratively with communities, engaging them in the process of shared learning and decision-making.

It is an exciting proposition. Mr Brownlee's reply was: "I have no response to Mr McCloud's ideas. We get lots of tourists and lots of tourists have lots of ideas and I don't respond to them either."

This is simply not good enough from a Cabinet minister charged with the responsibility of leading our city's recovery.

I have tried to understand why Mr Brownlee has adopted this attitude. He thinks our call for community engagement is nothing more than wanting to sit around in groups singing Kumbaya.

He had to apologise to people for saying that he was sick of their "carping and moaning", when their only crime was to try to ascertain the impact of the government land zoning on their community through an online Facebook survey.

It seems Mr Brownlee believes people should just let him get on with the job he has been given.

When he went to Japan recently, he spoke of "unbending leadership". He talked about community groups coming together.

"They will often be loud and dissenting voices. They will often be contradictory of each other. They will seldom recognise the complexity of the problems being dealt with by authorities, but they are extremely important because they become the outlet for the frustrations that naturally occur for people in these situations, but they must never ever get in the road of a constant stream of decisions all focused on recovery."

It was disappointing to see that he has learnt nothing about recovery in his just over two years in the job.

As a result, New Zealand is not keeping pace with international knowledge which reinforces the need to listen to those community voices, no matter how dissenting they may be perceived by the Government to be.

Empowering communities is vital after a disaster, and yet this Government has disempowered communities, as well as their democratically elected council.

The failure to work collaboratively with the Christchurch City Council over the Government's blueprint for the central city has locked out the voice of the people even further.

The council's Share an Idea campaign has ended up nothing more than a preliminary input to a draft plan, which was then taken behind closed doors for a 100-day makeover that left it bereft of the community's vision.

We can see how the community is excluded when it comes to the council's decisions about its own property. The Centennial Pool is in the Government's frame and will be compulsorily purchased by the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority.

All the public support for its retention amounts to nothing against the Government's decision to replace it with a playground and to locate a large swimming complex on the other side of the city centre, away from the residential population it served.

The Christchurch Town Hall is not located in the Government's performing arts precinct, so the council's decision to save what is designated under the city plan as a Group 1 heritage building doesn't fit with the Government's plan. This leads to the minister publicly attacking a decision that is the council's to make.

That is not good enough. It stems from the Government's Beehive-down approach to decision-making.

In his open letter, McCloud highlighted the international trend towards "an inclusive design process which is not just about consultation, but which involves residents and key non-professional and cultural stakeholders in every step of the design process".

That is the message the Government needs to hear.

Democracy is not only about casting a vote every three years for your council or your government. It is about having a voice and having that voice heard.

Harold Flemming once famously said "the wisdom of the community always exceeds the knowledge of the experts".

This Government is not listening to either.

Lianne Dalziel is Labour MP for Christchurch East.

The Press