James Dann: Two years, little progress in Christchurch

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There is little progress to be seen in the two years since the February 22 quake. Photo / Geoff Sloan
There is little progress to be seen in the two years since the February 22 quake. Photo / Geoff Sloan

Two years on. One year on from the one year anniversary, the city feels very subdued. There is no big civic memorial ceremony, instead a number of smaller, community-focused events. Many people had flat out forgotten that today was ... today. In theory, so much has happened in the last year. In reality, there is little progress to be seen.

The biggest, flashiest thing to happen was of course the Blueprint. The plan for the centre of Christchurch was announced live on both major TV networks, complete with bold animations and bolder promises. The centre of the Blueprint is the Frame, the massive property purchase that will shrink the effective size of the city's core. It has been a great sell by the Government; they call it the Green Frame - it lets them say that they've listened to people, that they want to build the eco-friendly, sustainable city that so many people called for in the Share an Idea process. But what they are really doing is using their dictatorial powers to acquire great tracts of land in the central city. The rationale being - and they have made no bones about this - to maintain property prices for those who own land within the frame by reducing the supply of land. Millions of dollars will be spent to maintain the property prices of some of Christchurch's richest men. One of the main benefactors will be Phillip Carter, brother of former Local Government Minister and current Speaker of the House David Carter, father of current City Councillor (and possible mayoral candidate) Tim Carter.

The NBR rich list estimates his wealth at $95 million.

Another beneficiary of the blueprint will be Anthony Gough, the terribly dressed uncle of Councillor Jamie Gough. Gough Senior has been gushing about the Blueprint, describing it as an "exceptional document because it halved the build space. If you had land in the right place, you just put your foot down on the accelerator and go." Lucky for some. And what if you don't happen to lucky or well connected enough to be a beneficiary of the blue print? Well, tough luck it seems. "It's all being done by people, locals like us. There are really no outside of Christchurch people doing it." That might be a proud boast for a parochial property developer like Gough, but it also shows how little confidence investors who don't have an emotional stake in the city have in the process here. In the first months after the quake, Prime Minister John Key talked repeatedly about the role of outside investment in the city. With that money failing to eventuate, the future of the CBD lies increasingly in the hands of Christchurch's rigid Old Guard.

Setting aside a discussion about the economically dubious projects that the Government is forcing the council (read: ratepayer) into funding, including the convention centre and a massive covered stadium, there is one question about the Frame that every taxpayer should be asking: should hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money be spent to maintain the portfolios of a select group of well-connected Christchurch property developers? While limiting land supply might benefit the few, it will have a detrimental effect on the standard of living for most in Christchurch. With land scarce in central Christchurch, it will be too expensive for all but the most affluent to build houses there. Former Housing Minister Phil Heatley said exactly this, telling a housing forum in the city that high central-city land values would make it hard to justify including state houses and affordable housing in the new-look central city.

That said, the Government hasn't exactly been chomping at the bit to build new houses. They have zoned 7,859 properties as red zone; and yet they have only built temporary accommodation for 83. Insurance companies aren't much better: of the 18,500 homes in the severely damaged bracket, a third of claims have been resolved; yet only 400 homes have been repaired or rebuilt. In two years. Contrast this with the situation in Haiti, the Caribbean nation that was devastated by a quake in early 2010. Despite having an only barely functional government, with much of the aid money earmarked for construction lost to corruption, within two years, at least 5,700 new permanent homes had been built, and another 15,000 repaired. The whole of New Zealand should be outraged that a country with delusions of first-world grandeur is less able to house its own people after a natural disaster than one of the basket cases of the Third World.

Brownlee's spin machine has moved into overdrive in the past week, attempting to assure people - especially those from outside Christchurch - that everything here is going well. We live in a rebuild zone now, apparently. Most people down here don't share that enthusiasm. In that same CERA survey he was so keen to push as a positive, 57% of people said that their quality of life had deteriorated since the earthquakes. More than half. People down here can't keep being promised that things are about to ramp up. They need action; on housing, on insurance, on the EQC. This isn't just about ungrateful Cantabrians carping and moaning on: the government has hitched the promise of economic recovery onto the rebuild; all New Zealanders have a huge amount staked on the recovery of this once-proud, now broken city. I hope that in another year, I can say something more positive about progress down here.

* James Dann is a Christchurch blogger. Read more at http://rebuildingchristchurch.wordpress.com/

- NZ Herald

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