The Government did well in Christchurch at the last election, nine months after its worst earthquake. National is said to be less popular there at this election, which probably explains the announcement this week that the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority is to be brought into the Prime Minister's department. "Cera" was supposed to last five years, time enough presumably for its fast-track powers to have the city reconstructed. Growing impatience among business leaders and citizens at slow progress undoubtedly lies behind the decision to wind it down from February, more than a year early.
Earthquake Minister Gerry Brownlee put the decision in the best possible light, calling it a transition plan for returning responsibility to local government and other agencies. The announcement was laden with administrative jargon and talk of imminent progress, like all of Cera's output of the past three years. It could point to no completed projects.
Chief executive Roger Sutton, heralded as someone who would make things happen, reckons that despite the discontent the rebuild is on schedule. "In broad terms, we're about where we expected to be," he said recently. "The big anchor projects now are under way and will start coming out of the ground this year. The worries about the CBD not coming back, I think those have almost entirely dissipated."
Well, yes. There are enough signs of life in the devastated central business district to suggest the city's commercial hub has not decamped permanently. But the area still looks like a wasteland with demolitions still not finished. The blueprint for its revitalisation looks too reliant on government projects and planned "precincts" of distinctive character. While some catalyst developments may be helpful, the plan needs to let business return as and where it is willing to build.
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It is surprising that the Government should be starting to hand responsibility back to the Christchurch City Council so soon after the council has run into financial difficulty budgeting for its share of the planned anchor projects and infrastructure repairs. It faces a deficit of $883 million by 2019, according to a report commissioned by Mayor Lianne Dalziel. It needs to take some capital from its commercial assets, especially the city's splendid airport. Instead, the council's holding company is buying all shares in the struggling port of Lyttelton.
Mr Brownlee was at pains this week to assure the city that the plan to take Cera into the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet did not mean the Government was winding down its financial contribution to the earthquake recovery. It has committed $284 million to a planned convention centre, one of the anchor projects, to be run by the French hospitality giant Accor. Construction is to start next year for a 2017 opening. Another planned attraction, a new rugby stadium, is not considered urgent. Canterbury crowds rather like their temporary stadium.
Their patience has worn thin, though, with household insurance disputes and repairs that run over the Earthquake Commission's $100,000 cap. More than two-thirds of houses with damage under the cap have been repaired or replaced, over half the houses in the condemned "red zone" have been removed and land is being planned for parks and playing fields. The massive repair programme for roads, drains and sewers is half-complete. But it seems slow progress.
It was New Zealand's most costly natural disaster and the country is still learning how to deal with it. When Cera is absorbed in the DPMC it will be alongside Civil Defence, also now run from one floor below the Prime Minister. Emergency response and repair operations are likely to be led from the Beehive no matter who wins the election. The rebuild needs constant and decisive drive from the top.