Paul Little at large

Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: Failures of seismic proportions

By Paul Little

Christchurch Cathedral's potential for a rebuild was the subject of lengthy debates. Photo / Simon Baker
Christchurch Cathedral's potential for a rebuild was the subject of lengthy debates. Photo / Simon Baker

For many people in Canterbury, the earthquakes of September 2010, February 2011 and later had little or no effect. Their homes were not damaged, their incomes not affected and their families emerged unscathed.

For the others, although the scale of the initial catastrophe has been terrible enough, the disastrous inadequacy of the attempts to deal with it by those in charge have been shameful. Much of the necessary repair work is still being discussed and argued over nearly four years later. On the way, we have seen appalling behaviour.

Few ancillary brawls have been as unedifying as that over the severely damaged Christchurch Cathedral.

Whether to rebuild or finish the work God started has been the subject of lengthy, acrimonious and expensive court battles that show, at best, a poor sense of priorities. Surely this time and money could have been better spent on supporting those in need of help and a home, rather than fighting over this overrated monument to Anglo-centrism?

For the answer to that question you need only look at the speed with which the replacement "cardboard" cathedral was conceived, erected and put into use.

Morale-boosting attempts, such as reserving walls as spaces on which people can write their hopes for the future, prompt more pathos than confidence and merely highlight the inadequacy of such gestures.

The ripple effects of many human tragedies that go unreported continue to spread. They are unnoticed because they are domestic, not life-threatening and affect only a handful of people. For example, some parents who had separated, but continued to live in the same city for their children's sake, can no longer do so because one had to move to find work.

It's increasingly hard to see why the people who have conspicuously failed to do their duty by the city are still in charge, notably Minister for Earthquake Recovery Gerry Brownlee.

A council for infrastructure development report noted, in euphemistic officialise, that "co-ordination across central government agencies, Christchurch City Council and the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera), and programme governance and procurement, were identified as key areas needing improvement". A month earlier Brownlee had been caught snooping around in opponents' emails for information to use in an attack on their earthquake responses - effectively using this tragedy to score political points.

He got it wrong and had to apologise.

In February he was a bit startled to learn that only 15 per cent of insurer-led rebuilds had been completed, and 4000 people were waiting. Another 2630 were still waiting to hear if they even qualified. Meanwhile, people are taking things into their own hands. Rather than wait for a rebuild, former red-zone businesses have moved to the safer fringes and others have moved in to serve them.

People are starting to thrive. They have worked out solutions that suit their abilities and needs. The development is natural and evolutionary and therefore likely to last.

But it doesn't suit national and local governments that have their heart set on a bright, shiny new town centre with all the modern urban cliches and needs to spend that money to spark a moribund economy.

The council "wants to stem the haemorrhage of business from the central city by clamping down on commercial growth in the suburbs". Yes, I know - it's as though they haven't noticed the earthquake.

So the council is considering revising its district plan, which would prohibit business on the fringe and get those rascals back into the centre of town.

In years to come, the response to the Canterbury earthquakes will loom large in any comprehensive history of bureaucratic folly and governmental intransigence.

- Herald on Sunday

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