Editorial: There is no excuse for delaying official information

The Piano has been one of the successes of the performing arts precinct but where is the rest of it?
Iain McGregor

The Piano has been one of the successes of the performing arts precinct but where is the rest of it?

Compared to the eye-watering price tags attached to some of the remaining anchor projects from the 2012 Christchurch rebuild blueprint, the performing arts precinct is fairly small beer. 

The precinct is focused on the corner of Gloucester St and Colombo St. The Government has so far spent around $20 million on buying land for performing arts spaces, including The Piano Centre for Music and the Arts, which opened in 2016. It is negotiating to buy land worth another $4.8m.

The performing arts precinct was conceived within a wider vision that would have seen the Christchurch Town Hall removed from the equation. That was former Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee's preferred option. The Christchurch City Council's determination to keep the Town Hall in play did not kill the Brownlee dream but it did leave it slightly wounded. 

Five years after the blueprint was released, we have a busy and beautifully refurbished Isaac Theatre Royal. The Piano is a valuable addition to the cultural scene. Hotel owners and other property developers are keen to improve Cathedral Square. But the remaining arts precinct sites stubbornly persist in being the same gravelly wastelands they were in 2012. 

READ MORE:
* Why the deafening silence over Christchurch's performing arts precinct?
Government close to buying last two sites for Christchurch's Performing Arts Precinct
Piano Music Centre's five-year wait ends with the sound of music
Performing Arts Precinct vision document released
Official Information Act request charges for media in spotlight

We reported a year ago that the Government was "close" to buying all the land it needed. There has been no discernible progress since. It has become too easy for the agencies involved to build a wall of official silence. As The Press discovered this week, the Christchurch City Council has still not released minutes, reports, emails and correspondence that were requested in February and other parties have little or nothing to say. 

The council issued terse statements rather than offering interviews. One government department would pass the buck to another.

A new Court Theatre is the largest missing piece of the puzzle. Press reporters have become used to hearing nothing more detailed from either the Court or council than variations on a line that "negotiations are ongoing". While this line is clearly not untrue, there are frustrations in seeing a public agency such as the council be so unwilling to account for the time and money it spends on our behalf. 

The Official Information Act (OIA) requires public bodies to respond to requests within 20 working days. The council keeps extending this deadline. The timeframe approaches 80 working days and the information has still not been provided.

A Press reporter was told that the council would charge an astonishingly high fee of $2500 to provide documents. When the information request was narrowed, it was treated instead as an entirely new request and the long, tiresome process started all over again. 

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OIA abuses and delays have unfortunately become almost routine. Former Prime Minister John Key even admitted in 2014 that the Government likes to wait the full 20 working days if it is in its interests to do so. That was under Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem​. Her replacement, Peter Boshier​, has promised to be much tougher with Government agencies and recently urged Prime Minister Bill English and his ministers to be more open and accountable. 

It is to be hoped that some of that thinking might trickle down to the Christchurch City Council. 

Philip Matthews is senior reporter with Fairfax Media in Christchurch. This opinion piece ran as an editorial in The Press on June 17, 2017. 

 - Stuff

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