Cera not Christchurch's 'moral authority'

19:08, Oct 05 2013
Calendar Girls
ON THE WAY OUT: Christchurch's Calendar Girls building will be demolished to make way for central city parks and walkways.

A strip bar and prostitution business is being acquired using government quake powers. Jarrod Gilbert argues moral judgment should not play a part.

Christchurch is beginning the process of an unparalleled (in New Zealand, at least) effort of town planning. A large and modern city is being completely redesigned on a drawing board. This opportunity has been afforded due to the devastation wrought by the Canterbury earthquakes, and all efforts are quite rightly being made to make it "the most livable city in the world".

This is a terrific aim, but we cannot destroy businesses and livelihoods along the way - regardless of what we may think of those businesses.

Vast tracts of empty space currently exist in the city due to unavoidable demolitions, but several undamaged buildings need to be compulsorily acquired so the urban redesign and rebuild plan can be realised. One such structure is the large, modern, purpose-built Calendar Girls building, which contains a strip bar and a separate business involving prostitution.

This building sits in what has been designated "green space" and therefore the Canterbury Earthquake Authority (Cera) has deemed that it must go and has suggested a 10-month timeframe.

Clearly, moving this business is going to entail a significant financial burden, both for the owners of the two Calendar Girls businesses and for the nearly 60-odd people who are employed there.

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Expecting a business to relocate in 10 months seems like a particularly arduous ask. Constructing a new building alone would take longer than that and, in the meantime, who pays the bills? The crux of the matter, then, is compensation.

Concerns arise that due to the nature of the business, it apparently curries little sympathy within Cera. For example, compare the fate of Calendar Girls to the only other building in the vicinity that survived - a popular franchised gym. Les Mills has been given special allowance to stay within the green space.

On its own this may not be of critical concern, but it does raise issues of subjectivity in the decision-making process. More concerning is just where the Calendar Girls businesses will go. Cera may not like facilitating adult entertainment in the inner city, but a vibrant and legal business that is forced to move surely deserves a location likely to make it as successful as it currently is.

Cera is an important government authority established to facilitate the rebuild. It is not the city's moral authority. The Public Works Act, the usual tool to acquire property says that owners shall be left "no better or worse off". That seems sensible and has worked in New Zealand for many years. The legislation that empowers Cera has usurped the Public Works Act and ought to work under the same principles.

If I were a business owner in Wellington, I would be watching very closely. If a quake destroys that city but your business survives it may not be an enviable position. What Mother Nature leaves behind the government may take.

Many members of the public may have little moral appetite for the business of Calendar Girls, but it is rarely the easy cases where important rights-based battles are fought.

Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist lecturer at the University of Canterbury and is the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions.

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