Editorial: Christchurch penalty a lesson for all councils

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IANZ has revoked the council's accreditation as a building consents authority. Photo / Simon Baker
IANZ has revoked the council's accreditation as a building consents authority. Photo / Simon Baker

The rest of the country long ago grew wary of complaints from the Christchurch City Council that it was excluded from decisions on the city's reconstruction. A Government-appointed authority may have been given the leading role in the revival but the council kept responsibility for building consents. Now it has lost even that role.

International Accreditation New Zealand (IANZ), a Crown agency that assesses the competence of inspection bodies, has revoked the council's accreditation as a building consents authority. The council was given due warning a month ago that this could happen unless it met its statutory timeframes for considering building applications.

Obviously, the council's staff are facing an unusual workload. They have been receiving an average of 35 applications a day and the work was backing up at every stage in their process. But the workload was entirely predictable once the rebuild was ready to start and the council ought to have ensured it would be geared up for it.

Yet, even after the IANZ warning, not enough has happened. Just two weeks ago Mayor Bob Parker expressed confidence that the council would meet the deadline for improvement. Its failure to do so has done nothing for his prospects of re-election this year, even if the blame primarily lies with the council's chief executive, Tony Marryatt, who did not tell the mayor and council about the threat to the council's accreditation until it was in the news.

Mr Marryatt said he kept them in the dark because he was confident council staff were addressing issues raised by IANZ, and that the June 28 deadline would be met. Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee did not share that confidence. He and Construction Minister Maurice Williamson have a contingency plan prepared for the likelihood the council would lose accreditation.

The Christchurch council feels aggrieved. It claims to have been completing 80 per cent of consents within the statutory time, though Mr Williamson says the completion rate was only 75 per cent. The mayor says there is not a council in the country that gets all its consents done in the statutory timeframe, which may be true.

Builders and property owners in many other parts of New Zealand will be surprised to learn there is such a body as International Accreditation NZ with the power to hold consenting authorities to account. It is not unusual anywhere to find that weeks go by before council staff are aware an application has been filed.

But if local body officers are ever capable of being seized by a sense of urgency and making decisions with dispatch, it surely would have happened in Christchurch. The earthquakes have left some of its older residential areas unsuitable for rebuilding. The residents urgently need new homes in new communities. Engineers and developers have done the preliminary work. Building consents should not be unduly difficult.

The barriers around the central business district were finally cleared away at the weekend. The city centre is now tidy and ready for redevelopment. The Government has committed funds for some big public projects that it hopes will attract private commercial investment. It is important that council officers do not treat the blueprint as a straitjacket. Building consents need to be permissive, flexible, constructive and quick.

The elected council ought to be in charge of consents so that the people of Christchurch feel they have had a fair say in shaping their new city. It is a drastic step to take that role away, but it has been taken by an objective professional authority. Councils everywhere should take note and raise their game.

- NZ Herald

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