Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni: ChCh locals left out in the cold

Not everyone is sharing the excitement of the Garden City rebuild

Illustration / Anna Crichton
Illustration / Anna Crichton

When I was in Christchurch recently to interview the two main candidates in the Christchurch Central electorate, I was shocked to see that people on the street seemed even more weary and downtrodden than ever - just as we're hearing everything is on the up.

People seemed not just tired, but exhausted to their bones. Residents in frequently-flooded areas were grimly determined, but in truth, they were over it. Some had kids who cried whenever it rained, because they were so scared of flooding. At public meetings, people burst into tears because they sometimes couldn't even get out of their homes in bad weather. The news of the day was that a woman who'd had a caesarean two weeks earlier was now living in a garage with her baby. Rents were just $20 cheaper, on average, than in Auckland.

It wasn't doom and gloom for everyone, of course. I met Nicky Wagner, the MP for Christchurch Central: an affable, hard-working woman. She was full of the joys of spring, about all the great opportunities the rebuild offers.

She acknowledged there were problems, but even then disputed how bad they were: she believed, for example, there were only about 30 cases of genuine, absolutely-nowhere-to-sleep homelessness in the city; that the other 5000-7000 people identified as homeless in recent statistics did have somewhere to sleep - even if that was on someone else's couch.

She is right to suggest that a rebuild offers a unique opportunity to create a city of the future. But it seems the opportunities are being shared unequally, leading to vastly unequal outcomes. Business is charging ahead, millions of dollars in public and private money is pouring into the city. But the people who are best at capitalising on this surge of capital believe, as such people always do, that a strong business backdrop will inevitably lead to the provision of appropriate social services.

Developers and builders are very busy indeed, but does that necessarily mean people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder will be housed as a result? Schools are being built and expanded, but does that mean they will cater for communities with deep connections to their own schools, in their own areas, who want to travel to and from school without the expense of a car or public transport?

The anguish many people feel in Christchurch is being compounded by a government still very much in "command and control" mode. One might think it was time to be more conciliatory, but no: there has even been talk that if National wins the upcoming election, it is mulling replacing local city councillors with appointed commissioners, and restructuring the city council.

Sounds pretty undemocratic on first blush. But the tired people of Christchurch are facing their problems alone. Media stories of heartbreak and difficulty still get an airing, but the wider issue about how democracy is being eroded in Christchurch, and how that is setting it up to fail many of its people in the future, is not so visible to the outsider.

The problem is that the conversation about a national disaster has been sheeted off to Christchurch, when, in fact, current-day Christchurch is any town or city in New Zealand with its infrastructure ripped away, exposing a very vulnerable underbelly. Four years on, Christchurch is just a tiny fraction of the way through its rebuild - and that should give us all pause for thought.

- NZ Herald

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Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

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