Editorial: Council must be courageous
The Christchurch City Council's decision to pause its project to restore the Christchurch Town Hall until its financial position is clearer is plainly a wise one. The council had intended to begin seeking expressions of interest from companies who wanted to be involved in the project in May. But that has not gone ahead while the council awaits the outcome of negotiations with is insurers. That makes sense. There would be little point in committing a lot of time and money to the project if in the end there would be no rational way for the council to complete it.
Officially, the project is simply on hold. The last council had committed itself to restoring the Town Hall and very shortly after the election the new council, some of whose members had been strong critics, backed that decision. According to Deputy Mayor Vicki Buck the council remains "fully committed" to that decision.
It is no secret, however, that some have developed misgivings over the project. Cr David East conceded this week that the project "sits there with a bit of an axe over its head periodically". Those doubts were increased when an audit of the council's finances by corporate recovery specialists KordaMentha revealed that the council faced a cost over-run of $534 million. That figure has itself been questioned, but whatever the precise numbers, the council is clearly under financial pressure. The rates rise for next year and for at least two years after that demonstrate that plainly enough.
The real uncertainty, however, is the size of any settlement the council is able to make with its insurers. The wrangle over that has been going on for many months and the insurers and their underwriters have been in the city recently. It is a fair guess that some hints of the likely outcome of those negotiations have had a bearing on the council's decision to pause the Town Hall process.
The Town Hall was insured for $69.1 million, but not all of that is necessarily recoverable. In any case, repairs have been estimated to cost $127.5m, more than it cost, in inflation-adjusted terms, to build.
The decision to go with a repair of the building has always been contentious. The Town Hall has many defenders as a striking example of a period in Christchurch's architectural history, but it has also been criticised by many, particularly in various performing arts fields, for its limited usefulness. The auditorium, while much praised for its acoustics, was only occasionally a suitable size, the theatre was not much liked by stage people and the other venues were not very popular.
Performing arts people had been looking forward to the creation of a new precinct, with state of the art facilities for each of them, as set out in the blueprint for the rebuilt central city. The decision to spend so much on the Town Hall deeply compromised those plans, elements of which remain uncertain. If the Town Hall decision were reversed, those plans may be able to go back to an original track. The elected members of the council may be reluctant to revisit its decision now but if the numbers no longer add up it is essential that they find the courage to do so.