Christchurch Earthquakes: The Political Circus

Article – Hugh Pavletich

There is a attitudinal change underway in Christchurch, New Zealand, following the first major earthquake 4 September 2010, the second 22 February with the third 13 June 2011. To date, there have been some 7,700 aftershocks in total and they are …


Christchurch Earthquakes: The Political Circus

Hugh Pavletich | FDIA Performance Urban Planning
24 October 2011

Christchurch – A Bureaucratically Buggered City

There is a attitudinal change underway in Christchurch, New Zealand, following the first major earthquake 4 September 2010, the second 22 February with the third 13 June 2011. To date, there have been some 7,700 aftershocks in total and they are still continuing.

In development and construction terms, Christchurch was on its knees prior to the September 2010 event, mainly because the failed amalgamation of local authorities some 20 years earlier, had bureaucratically buggered the city, sapping it of commercial vitality and enterprise.

Development in the wider city had degenerated very much in to a “political game”. Some six months prior to the September 2010 earthquake, the writer discussed within “Houston, we have a (housing affordability) problem”, where Christchurch was getting it wrong with its “dense thinking”. And importantly – what some of the consequences are for the wider economy.

The bloated centralized Council “ruled” – and still does – so that now, it is at war with its community and business.

It is very much now a contest between the romantics and realists – whatever their political persuasions..

The realists will prevail of course, as increasingly the romantics will be found to have nothing to offer – other than continuing failure.

Until the realists prevail, there will be no effective political leadership, to allow the city to start on the necessary path of recovery.

The Leadership Vacuum

The three key players to date have been the former accountant / forex dealer and current Prime Minister Rt Hon John Key, former woodwork teacher and current Recovery Minister Hon Gerry Brownlee and former chemist / television presenter and current Mayor Bob Parker.

From the time of the first earthquake event, September last year, these three people never grasped what needed to be done, to maintain public morale and ensure commercial confidence was maintained.

An effort was made during the early part of this year to address the “leadership vacuum”, by bringing on board Roger Sutton, Chief Executive of the local Orion electricity network provider, to head up the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, responsible to Minister Brownlee. Sutton has failed to date. He has not replaced the civil service management team, with skilled specialist people from the private sector to support him.

Sutton’s abilities appear to begin and end as a “communicator”.

Attributes – Resilience, Affordability, Flexibility

It is also clear that none of these people realise that for a city to thrive and cope with adversity, it must be resilient, affordable and flexible.

Let’s consider these three attributes –

(1) Resilience: The ability to cope with adversity and recover quickly. Poor quality urban governance and planning means the city has lost this important attribute. Because of this, these earthquake events will likely cost $30 billion, where the costs should be closer to $10 billion (refer writers June 2011 article Christchurch earthquakes: Council Stalled Recovery) – with comprehensive lost opportunity costs higher still. Some 12 months following the first major earthquake event, the recovery has still to get underway

(2) Affordability: Christchurch’s generally poor quality housing stock is rated “severely unaffordable” at 6 times annual household earnings, as this year’s 7th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey (the writer is the co author) illustrates. It should not exceed 3 times annual household earnings, in normal and properly governed markets.

(3) Flexibility: Because of the bureaucratic, “anti market” and highly prescriptive planning and generally hostile governance (with notable exceptions), there is no scope to make timely changes, in attempting to address issues at the local level.

Instead they have chosen to take the bureaucratic approach, in endeavouring to deal with issues. Properly, they should have realised that their role was to focus on being enablers and provide a sound regulatory environment, to allow people with their homes, communities and businesses to get back up on their feet as quickly as possible.

One great success through this saga of poor quality governance, was in how the central businesses that were able to (following the most destructive earthquake event of 22 February 2011), managed within 7 to 14 days, to have their operations up and running throughout the suburbs of the city. A spontaneous and truly remarkable achievement, where there was little involvement by the Authorities.

During this “spontaneous exodus”, regrettably, the Authorities disrupted and denied many businesses the ability to retrieve stock, files and equipment. Most of these businesses will long remember these difficulties, when considering whether or not to return to the central area in the future.

The Draft CBD Plan Fiasco…

As though that wasn’t enough, the Christchurch City Council in “adding insult to injury”, ignored business completely and instead embarked on an unworkable and highly prescriptive Central City Planning exercise – in large measure, devoid of competent research to back it up.

Light rail was thrown in to this hodge podge for bad measure – with a dart board cost estimate of $400 million. No one was kind enough to tell Mayor Bob Parker, that Christchurch is not Hong Kong.

….and the Public and Business have had a gutsful……

A seasoned Wellington based commercial property investor, Sir Robert Jones, provided a very thoughtful response soon after with an Opinion in The Press late September “CBD cannot be rebuilt”, stating plainly:

“Christchurch has always justifiably boasted of being our garden city. A new and realistic strategy should build on this desirable feature and abandon thoughts of resurrecting its CBD. It could follow the model of many Christchurch – size American cities with insignificant CBD’s and instead comprise suburbs, each with its own commercial centre of low rise, low cost, walkup offices with shops below in garden settings, much like the delightful Havelock North. Such buildings are quickly built, cheap and will find a ready investor market.”

These considered comments from Jones are important, because residents need to be reminded that Christchurch is part of the New World. Hankering for the whimsical “aesthetic delights” of the pre automobile cities of the Old World (as romantic architects – and here – and their professional cousins urban planners tend to do) is futile.

Instead of fantasising and becoming even more irrelevant within the development and construction sectors, the architects would be well advised to discuss amongst themselves, how they might play a more constructive role. Just “playing politics” to fill in the day, is not good enough.

Little wonder the engineers are the lead profession of our built environment today, as this concise (unlike the verbose eyewash architects inflict us with) and highly relevant report (in conjunction with the Royal Society of New Zealand) dealing with the Christchurch earthquakes illustrates. This report is a great credit to the engineering profession.

Successful cities in today’s globally competitive world, must be resilient, affordable and flexible.

The Press Readers Poll that followed with over 9,700 responses – the largest on record – illustrating that around 65% of respondents shared Jones’s views. Curiously, these results were the opposite to what the Council was pressing for with its Draft CBD Plan, with its sham consultation “Share an Idea” exercise. And a costly one at that.

This would suggest that business and the community are to a large extent, on the same page – while the Council (bureaucracy in the main) is out on a limb.

The McFarlane family interests have been committed and loyal investment supporters of central Christchurch for generations. At the CBD Draft Plan hearings soon after, Angus McFarlane justifiably laid it on the line – as reported by The Press –

The draft plan for the recovery of central Christchurch is a “rubbish pipedream”, that has terrified potential investors, councillors have been told.

The Christchurch City Council’s draft central city plan came under fire from property owners during yesterday’s public hearings.

Councillors sat in stony – faced silence as property owner Angus McFarlane said the “obstructive, dictatorial and impractical” plan was a “rubbish pipedream”.

McFarlane, who said he owned more than 10,000 square metres of the city, said the city was in despair before the earthquakes, with a failing central economy and diminishing values.

He told councillors they had made a mess of the city before the quakes and the draft plan “proves you have got it wrong again”.

The Chief Executive of the Property Council of New Zealand, Connal Townsend, largely reinforced McFarlane’s comments.

The barrage from the business community has been relentless. Finally the beleaguered Mayor Bob Parker, was forced to capitulate and arrange a rather hasty meeting with the business community (the writer was not invited – having been told not to communicate with him by email, for good measure). These were in the main people who had been supporters of the Council for years. They had chosen for their own reasons not to say anything publicly, when clearly, there have been serious problems with this Council for the past two decades.

Mayor Parker must have been disappointed with the reception he got from these carefully chosen individuals from the business community, as reported by The Press “Investors will fund rebuild of Christchurch”.

Hamish Doig, a local commercial real estate agent (and a cheerleader for the Councils CBD “visions” in the past) told Parker, that it will take “more than smiley faces and pretty pictures” to rebuild the city.

Doig was referring to the “Share an Idea” Council sham consultation exercise, originally organised by the planners and Parker, to sidestep and ignore the business community. Council staff had told central property owners earlier, that they were not interested in meeting – advising these commercial property owners to air their views at the “Share an Idea” show (with crayons provided). The message was clear.

Respected retail entrepreneur Tim Glasson reinforced Doig’s statements, adding –

“It’s all very well to have a vision, but if that vision isn’t going to work financially, it’s not going to happen.”

Mayor Parker should have been reminded of his failed involvement in the Magazine Bay Marina fiasco.

Ten years later it is still a wreck.

And other Council development “initiatives”, such as the “Hendo deal”, Turners & Growers, Civic building and others. As one leading politician told this writer “There isn’t a commercial brain in the place”.

Long term property developer and financier Humphry Rolleston was reported as saying –

However, Rolleston said he could not think of one Christchurch high-rise that had been a commercial success…….Taller buildings had done “a lot of damage” to the city in the past 30 years.

Rolleston spelt it out very clearly to the Council people –

“Councillors lacked the expertise” Rolleston said.

“You haven’t been trained to do it, you are not property developers and I think it would be wise to pass over that responsibility to a forum which you are part of” he said. Investors were “frightened” by the councils “overregulated” process” Rolleston said.

As is usual with those from the business community, Rolleston made the suggestion that a “Mayoral Group” could be formed to “attract fresh capital” to the city. Hardly a solution – as the real problem is that the structure and culture of the Council needs to be dealt with – with urgency.

Rather surprisingly, Rolleston obviously didn’t realise that once Parker had pulled him in to his orbit, the Council bureaucrats will control them all anyhow.

Then The “Brownlee Bombshell”

As though the Draft CBD Plan fiasco wasn’t enough, the bureaucrats (many seconded from the Christchurch City Council) over at the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA), led by Rosalind Plimmer from the Department of Internal Affairs, were up to the same mischief, with disastrous changes to the Regional Policy Statement – an Order from Recovery Minister Brownlee.

This should properly be referred to as the “Brownlee Bombshell”.

It seems clear that Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee hasn’t even read this Order.

Back in 2007 / 08 Brownlee had been Chairman of the NZ Parliament Commerce Committee Housing Affordability Inquiry.

He knows right from wrong on these issues.

Coming in to Government late 2008 and being appointed Minister of Economic Development as well, Brownlee and his colleagues knew exactly what the problems and solutions were, as his colleague, Housing Minister Hon Phil Heatley made clear early in 2009, at the time of the release of the Annual Demographia Housing Survey. Prime Minister John Key told the international community soon after through the Wall Street Journal “You can’t spend your way out of a crisis”.

Interest Co NZ reported on the “Brownlee Bombshell” and the writer commented (2) as well.

This is referred to as Chapter 12A – Regional Policy Statement and is the usual hodge podge of quack planning lore – divorced from the real world.

Not only is their grossly insufficient land supply made available on the good ground on the fringes of Christchurch, where the real demand is, but this Order actually bans the provision of new family housing on the fringes of Christchurch.

If new home buyers want a conventional family home on 700 square metre lots / sections or more, they are forced from Christchurch and will have to go out to the adjoining counties of Selwyn and Waimakariri , where densities of 10 per hectare minimum are allowed. Policy 11: Residential Densities states –

Residential subdivision and development shall achieve the following net densities, arranged over the whole of an Outline Development Plan area shown on Map 1 and for intensification developments:

(a) 10 lots or household units per hectare in Greenfields Areas in Selwyn and Waimakariri District;

(b) 15 lots or household units per hectare in Greenfields Areas of Christchurch City;

(c) 50 lots or household units per hectare for intensification development within the City Centre Area;

(d) 30 lots or household units per hectare for intensification development elsewhere as identified within the Christchurch City Plan.

(c) and (d) are unmarketable of course, as Christchurch residents are acutely aware (because of the earthquakes) of the dangers of dense development.

Living on top of one another, like battery hens, is not the “Kiwi way”.

Medium density with sections / lots of 450 square metres or less (b – above) are environmental eyesores and not suitable for normal family living.

What people want are reasonable size sections / lots, where they can grow vegetables and trees (where the roots don’t interfere with services), have room for the kids to play and park cars, caravans and boats. And as we do not know the future (unlike indoctrinated urban planners who fantasize that they do), people need large sections, so that they can modify and add to their homes, as their needs change and incomes rise.

Christchurch too is New Zealand’s Garden City – as Sir Robert Jones reminded us – and we should be proud of that.

There is abundant land supply available in New Zealand, with our small population of just 4.4 million, as the writer made clear some years ago within New Zealand Lifestyle Block Mythology. Just 0.70% of New Zealand is urbanised.

Although public officials have conned some of the gullible public in to believing the myth that we must be sustainable and conserve resources, the real reason is because Local Government has lost control of its costs and the capacity to meet its infrastructure responsibilities to the public it is paid to serve.

Indeed – being preached to by public officials about how to manage resources property, is an insult to the public. They are hardly “glowing examples” of the wise use of resources.

“Brownlee Bombshell” Ignores Real Issues

No attempt is made within Chapter 12A – Regional Policy Statement to address any real issues of course. It is a ham-fisted hodge podge of inappropriate muddled and micro planning – completely contrary to the spirit and intent of the Resource Management Act. Well at least as the original architects of the Act intended it to be.

It is not only incompetent – but callous as well.

In generating this drivel, it seems Brownlee, Sutton and Plimmer and the other people at CERA, did not think for a moment about the additional hardship they are inflicting on the people they are paid to serve. And Sutton at $500,000 a year, is “handsomely paid” to serve the public and perform to an acceptable standard.

Brownlee – Where Are the $200,000 Fringe Houses?

As the writer made clear on Canterbury Television Jo Kane One on on Programme (Video) back in June (did you get that Brownlee – back in June), the priority should have always been to get affordable fringe land opened up, so that $200,000 house and land packages ($50,000 for the serviced lot – $150,000 for the actual house construction) were made available for people to relocate to. Particularly those from the Red Zone, where the average payout will be in the order of $295,000.

But then the writer made this clear to the Authorities via the New Zealand Herald back September 2010, a few days following the first earthquake event – Earthquake highlights need to open city limits. And for that matter, as far back as early 2005 – some 7 years ago – when the first Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey was released.

What needs to be done has been exhaustively discussed these past 7 years – refer Performance Urban Planning – Highlighted Article Section in particular.

The people of Christchurch do not deserve this political circus.

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