Chch rebuild going pear-shaped

When Australian IAN MAXWELL presented an outsider's view of Christchurch's post- earthquake condition, he got a lot of feedback - not all of it positive. But he still thinks the rebuild is all going pear-shaped.

I have a confession to make. I wrote and conceived my previous piece in this paper ("Gutting of city will increase divide", Perspective, April 4) but it included many of my wife Johanna's thoughts.

She was born and raised in Christchurch but left there some 20 years ago to live in Sydney. Most of her family still lives in Christchurch and she regularly visits.

Before the earthquakes she harboured strong desires to return to live there one day; these are now gone.

When the earthquakes hit, she was terribly affected. Initially, she was very worried for her family. After that she became more and more concerned about what was going to happen to her city.

Over time it became very apparent that the responses of the various New Zealand authorities to the earthquakes were diametrically opposed to her views as to what should happen.

I summarised many of her opinions in the article that I wrote, partially motivated by my concern that she felt powerless to do anything. At least by my efforts at getting her thoughts out there she now feels that she has been "heard".

Not being a native of Christchurch, my own views are somewhat more dispassionate.

However, being a visitor over many years I have developed a fondness for the city and its inhabitants.

I only wish the best for the place and its people, and I am fairly sure the current responses to the earthquake will not allow for the best outcomes.

At a high level, I see three key issues.

First, many people are still literally shell-shocked, and in that state are not able to see clearly as to what should happen.

Second, the Government is acting quite unilaterally and without what I would call good leadership.

And, finally, the key choices as to how Christchurch can be rebuilt are not being properly explained or debated; there are many choices but this is not universally understood.

These issues are all interlinked. The people, being shell-shocked, are actually quite easily shepherded by the Government and the media.

In fact, the people are also quite divided and angry, as can be seen be responses to articles in The Press on the subject.

The Government thinks it is displaying strong leadership by acting decisively, and choosing one preferred outcome for the future without really consulting the people.

I truly believe that the Government and its agencies are acting in good faith; I just do not think they are necessarily right in this belief.

Let's start at the end-point.

Right now Christchurch has two extreme choices.

The first is to rebuild the city, inclusive of all its heritage buildings (the ones left standing, that is) and including a grand plan for beautification of the whole city; this is the expensive option.

The second is the cheap option, which is to knock everything down and rebuild the city with tilt- slab buildings (an often-quoted example), lots of expansive car parks, the existing road layout and no further consideration of the urban environment.

There are, of course, many paths in between these two extreme options.

While the first option may look more expensive, it has to be emphasised that this would be an investment, not an expense.

To put it bluntly, when one invests more, one expects both a larger return on that investment and a larger debt that has to be repaid over a longer period.

When you cheap out, you may have lower debt, but you also have an asset that is worth much less and with lower economic returns.

In the context of a city, a well- thought-through and beautiful city, with much of the heritage maintained, can be imagined to attract more tourism and more business activity.

In my business travels around the world, I have noted that the beautiful cities attract business and migration, and tend to outgrow their uglier counterparts in economic terms.

Small cities that are beautiful also have the happiest inhabitants.

In the long term, well-thought- through and large infrastructure projects tend to be "profitable"; and by profitable I mean that the debt (typically bonds) that is raised to fund the projects are repaid and the people get the benefit of the infrastructure.

For the citizens of Christchurch, it would be irrational to support any of the "cheap" options; these are simply being proposed by your Government since it makes their own jobs, in the very short term, easier. But who cares about that?

In the context of a government in control of a situation, such as the rebuild of Christchurch, what is good leadership?

There is an old Chinese maxim of leadership that states that "When the job gets done, the people say 'We did it ourselves'."

The most important role of government right now is to make the process of rebuilding Christchurch inclusive.

The people, already feeling a sense of loss and displacement, need to feel that they have some control of and input into the process.

My feeling is that the opposite is happening in Christchurch.

Legislation allows the organisation in control to act with "emergency" powers and without serious consultation; and they are doing so.

But by its doing so many people are feeling seriously alienated; one only has to read blogs on the internet to confirm this.

The second key element to good leadership at a time like this is to explain the choices. There are certainly differing visions for the new Christchurch, and these all come with different price-tags.

Higher costs imply higher repayments, which might also impact other government programmes; this can all be explained.

I personally think that the people of Christchurch and New Zealand need to decide for themselves what type of investment they prefer to make in this rebuild, rather than the Government deciding secretively that it wants a cheap option.

Who knows, it may actually be true that New Zealand can't afford anything but the cheap option, but wouldn't you want to know this to be fact? Good leadership would also focus on healing for the people. Right now in Christchurch there seems to be (at least) two camps of people.

The first are those who are articulating their grief about what is happening to their city in the rebuilding process.

The second group wants to "forget about it all and just move on", aka "pull it all down and hope for a Napier".

Because of the apparent lack of moral leadership by the Government or anyone else, there is very little empathy towards the other from either group and the mood is quite divisive.

Good leadership would be inclusive of all the people in the process, and much of the current antipathy could be defused with this approach.

I suspect that many of the people who just want to pull it all down and move on will later begin to feel a sense of delayed loss, and may eventually get quite angry as to what was done and how they were duped. In fact, this may be a time-bomb waiting to go off.

It's not too late for things to change. The process of the rebuild can change, and the people, heritage organisations and local government can all be included in the process. The vision for the future can be re-discussed.

Haste can be deferred. Government can show leadership. It just needs a few people with influence to stop, reflect and realise that this is all going quite pear-shaped (doesn't the cathedral decision prove this?) and then to take action.

After all New Zealand, you only have one Christchurch.

Ian Maxwell was born and raised in Australia, has a PhD in chemistry and is an entrepreneur and venture capitalist.

The Press