Brownlee: 'Debunking myths and nonsense'

STRAIGHT TALKING: Mayor Lianne Dalziel and Earthquake Minister Gerry Brownlee at the February 22 civic memorial service.
STRAIGHT TALKING: Mayor Lianne Dalziel and Earthquake Minister Gerry Brownlee at the February 22 civic memorial service.

It's time to debunk some myths about the recovery, the government's role in it, and the blueprint for Christchurch's CBD. Time and again these myths are being perpetuated by people with vested interests or who know better, so let's clear a few things up.

One popular nonsense is that the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) has ballooned in size beyond what was envisaged and now does work other agencies should be doing, or is duplicating the ongoing work of other agencies.

Recovering from the Canterbury earthquakes was a human and financial resource burden the whole country knew was too great for Christchurch to bear alone.

In response the government established the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Fund and CERA.  Only as we made our way through the response phase into recovery proper did it become apparent exactly which work streams the government needed to take on, and how many people would be required to undertake them.

The "staff of 50" line you hear about how big CERA was apparently supposed to be stems from a question asked when CERA was established, and referred to its probable establishment numbers.  It's worth noting this didn't take account of the 150 or so people who were already working in the CBD on the demolition programme, or on administering the CBD cordon.  Those functions soon became CERA's responsibility.

So CERA was never going to have a staff of just 50, and if you take a moment to think how many people you'd expect to direct and oversee the investment of some $15 billion of taxpayers' money, and a $40 billion recovery overall, I expect you'd come to the conclusion that the current staff of a bit over 300 isn't large at all.

Planning, leading, and coordinating the rebuild and recovery effort was, and is, a massive effort.  It remains one of this government's four priorities and that's why it has a senior Minister responsible for it.

Some are saying now is the time for the disbanding of CERA and the establishment of some sort of transitional agency to manage recovery, with an eye on the expiration of the Canterbury Earthquakes Recovery Act in April 2016.

Given CERA's workload in undertaking or overseeing 24 recovery work programmes with multiple partners and different accountabilities and responsibilities, CERA is actually looking to bolster its governance capability.  Its central coordination role in the recovery and the very large amounts of non-departmental Crown expenditure it's overseeing demand it.


So talk of CERA's demise is extremely premature.  CERA's authority to suspend or amend laws or regulations that might impede timely recovery, under the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act 2011, might expire in April 2016, but the government's investment and interest in the recovery will go on for some years beyond that date.

People now criticising the governance structure of the recovery need to remember that CERA established a formal Recovery Strategy, which was signed up to by all statutory partners - including Christchurch City Council (CCC).  It sets out all the work required to keep the recovery on track.

The Recovery Strategy outlined 24 recovery programmes across the six key areas of recovery - economic, built, natural, cultural, social, and leadership and integration.  CERA is leading nine of these programmes, but only those where it is exercising CER Act powers or where functions are being undertaken that are not typically the domain of local government.

Other recovery programmes are led by other Crown agencies, including education, sport and recreation, arts, culture and heritage collections, and heritage buildings.  The Iwi Maori recovery programme is being led by Ngai Tahu and the Natural Environment programme by Environment Canterbury.

CERA provides support to these agencies and partners, but it does not do their work for them, or duplicate their work.  The Mayor voiced a view on NewstalkZB this past Tuesday that there was widespread duplication between Council and CERA, and even beyond that between CERA and the CDHB, and other agencies.

CERA audits its work programmes and is confident that statement is incorrect.  CERA works to support the CCC, CDHB, and other agencies on recovery-specific work programmes, but doesn't duplicate.

I know the work of the Christchurch Central Development Unit's programme, and planning components of the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan, takes place in an area that is typically the domain of local government, that being Resource Management Act land use planning.

However, the functions of CERA are focused on the use of the CER Act powers only.  This is undertaken working closely with councils (as they have knowledge, expertise and on-going functions and responsibilities) with the CER Act enabling intervention into typical RMA processes to support focused, timely and expedited recovery.

If circumstances were business as usual this would be a council activity.  But we are far from in a business as usual situation, so the opportunity the CER Act provides is more streamlined processes to speed up recovery.

An example is the work we are currently doing with CCC to use the CER Act to expedite CCC's District Plan review.


Another often perpetuated myth is that CERA took over the CBD blueprint and implemented a plan that the government wanted - a plan that ignored the wishes of the people who took part in the council's excellent Share an Idea consultation process.

Again, there's not a grain of truth in it.  I've said this repeatedly over the past 18 months but it gets little traction with the media or critics, so perhaps they'll listen to Peter Marshall, managing director of Warren and Mahoney architects, which was part of the consortium that delivered the CBD blueprint.

Asked by Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand this past Saturday if there was any truth to claims "there's no evidence of what people said they wanted in the city through the Share an Idea process" he said:

"No, I'd reject that Kim ... [people] have expressed such opinions, but if one looks at the recovery document put out by CERA about a month after we'd completed the blueprint - and of course running in parallel with this was the council's Share an Idea [process], which was an amazing world class idea ... if you look at the recovery document, Share an Idea and all those lessons that were distilled from that are in there."

Mr Marshall went on to explain that the key themes people asked for - a greener, more pedestrian friendly, lighter, more sustainable and safer city - were all taken into account in the CBD blueprint.

It was not "the government's" document.  It was a document prepared following a tender by a group of eminent practitioners from here and overseas who took full account of what the people of Christchurch asked for, and they did this with the technical support of CERA and - it may surprise certain critics - senior officers of the Christchurch City Council.

It was also consulted on with a reference group of senior members of the business community, as they represented the constituency we need to invest and have confidence in the city's future.

Let's not forget that when the public was polled on the CBD blueprint by UMR in the weeks following its publication they found almost universal awareness of it, and a very strong majority supported it.  Only 13 per cent of Christchurch residents said they opposed it. Now some councillors say it needs an overhaul - yet I haven't heard any of them state what elements need to be altered, and what they'd replace them with.

It's a shame so many of these critics seem intent on doing their negotiating on these matters through the media, rather than having the sort of level headed and apolitical engagement with the government they preach about.  I would prefer not to have to pen a column like this, but the misinformation goes on and on.


Another myth worth quashing while we're at it is that the council is paying too much for maintaining services to the residential red zone, and that it shouldn't have to pay anything because the zoning itself was a government action they had no choice in.

Putting to one side the mire this city would have been left in had the government not taken the matter in hand; claims of the council being left with an unfair financial burden are also untrue.

The current cost to provide essential services - waste water, storm water, water supply and roading - to the residential red zone is $808,000 a month.  Of this the Crown is paying around 60 per cent, or $569,000, and CCC 40 per cent ($394,000).  So CCC's annual cost of providing services to the red zone is $4.7 million.

While the Crown is paying around $6.8 million a year to maintain those services, there's also the fact that the Crown, as the new owner of over 7000 former residential properties in the red zone, is still paying rates to CCC on those properties.  Last year this rates bill was $11.5 million - which is more than the entire operating expenditure the residential red zone is incurring and 2.5 times the $4.7 million contribution the CCC is making.


Finally, let's just reflect on the Christchurch City Council.  This organisation is going through a massive and much needed change process, which I respectfully suggest leaves it in no state to begin leading the region's rebuild and recovery efforts.

It has a new council, with energy and ambition, trying to understand the breadth of its role.  It doesn't have a permanent chief executive and is still recruiting for a number of its key senior executive roles.  Its consenting function is being overseen by a Crown manager.

I understand it is about to announce other significant organisational changes too, so it's hard to see what ability the organisation would have to take over big chunks of recovery work programmes at this time or in the near future.

The government is committed to making its relationship with the council work.  I have gone out of my way to do that, notably by holding back gazetting the Land Use Recovery Plan last year.  Everyone must agree this was an urgent piece of regulation, as it delivers more land sooner for residential development across greater Christchurch (which is the only way we'll see pressure come out of the housing market).  Rather than gazetting it in October I waited till the new council was elected.

I then engaged with them over a three week period in a manner which saw significant change made to the plan - change every councillor but one said they were comfortable with.

I know this is a new relationship with a group eager to deliver change, so some early posturing is understandable.  

But the reality is that the crown is contributing over $15 billion to the rebuild and there is still much to be done.

In my view the council should be more focused on how to maintain momentum beyond April 2016, when CERA's statutory powers expire, rather than worrying about taking over from CERA, and giving people the impression this needs to happen sooner rather than later.

The Press