Restoring Democracy in Christchurch

Published: Thu 2 Feb 2012 02:27 PM
Restoring Democracy in Christchurch
Hugh Pavletich FDIA
Performance Urban Planning
New Zealand
2 February 2012
At noon, 1 February 2012, some 4,000 local citizens gathered next to the Civic Building in Christchurch New Zealand, to express their anger at the poor performance of the Christchurch City Council. Many of these people had never attended a protest in their lives before - as New Zealand’s Television Close Up programme that evening - Anger in Christchurch (Video 3.45 min) - explained.
Rev Mike Coleman, a leader who has emerged in the east of Christchurch and chairs the Wider Communities Action Network representing the devastated people of the east, ably chaired the protest meeting, facilitated by Peter Lynch (with his team), who also spoke. Members of the public who wished to do so, were asked by Rev Mike Coleman to express their views as well.
The beloved Christchurch Wizard also spontaneously contributed his well received views too.
This was very much a spontaneous outpouring by the wider Christchurch community. They left heartened and emboldened from this important gathering.
Within the Close Up programme, Andrea Cummings of North New Brighton is featured. Andrea, with her husband who run a small lawn mowing repair shop, spontaneously became the focal point of their community, through the earthquake events – meeting the communities immediate needs and distributing food parcels where required.
As Andrea explains within the interview, this had to happen, because the Authorities – and particularly the Christchurch City Council – were not set up to respond, because of the centralized structure.
The Simmering Discontent Finally Erupts
While there had been deep concern in Christchurch for many years about the poor performance of the centralized Council structure, incapacitated by bureaucratic bloat (the writer has written extensively on these issues – latest October 2011 - Christchurch earthquake recovwery: The political circus), the “final straw” was the Council’s decision on the advice of its consultants, to award the Council Chief Executive Tony Marryatt a $68,000 14% pay rise mid December 2011.
The public fury was immediate.
Peter Lynch, a local resident with no prior involvement with politics, was so incensed, he set up a facebook page soon after - No Pay Rise For Tony Marryatt . On his own initiative, Mr Lynch announced publicly, that there was to be a protest 1 February 2012.
The “blundering” Council decision announcing this extraordinary pay rise to a largely “invisible” Chief Executive of the Council Tony Marratt, was followed soon after by an equally odd announcement by the Earthquake Recovery Minister Hon Gerry Brownlee, urging the local elected representatives and citizens to settle down and support the Council authorities. Brownlee “threatened” dissenting local representatives (those supporting clean local government) with dismissal, as reported by the local morning daily The Press soon after - Quake Minister Gerry Brownlee Scolds Council .
Normally, the summer Christmas breaks for a month in New Zealand, are when the country shuts down and the media “goes to sleep”, because there is so little news to report.
In Christchurch this year, following the political blunders of both the local Council and the Recovery Minister Brownlee, the atmosphere was very different, as the public and the local media erupted with “enough is enough”.
South Islands major daily The Press led the extraordinary public conversation, with other print, radio and television media participating as well. The Press however had been covering these issues for a period of 17 months, since the time of the first earthquake event 4 September 2010.
In normal times, Local Government issues tend to attract little media or public interest. But with the earthquake events still persisting (in excesss of 9,500 shakes to date), the performance of the political authorities at both the local and national levels, came under increasing scrutiny – as they failed to perform to an acceptable standard.
The Emerging Focus on Solutions
The critically important public conversation over this time, has meant that the wider public has an increasingly better understanding of the problems and what the solutions need to be. While there is loose talk about the possibility of “rates revolts” and other approaches, the three major changes required are emerging –
(1) The need for a fresh mid term election as soon as possible – likely April / May.
(2) A replacement Council Chief Executive (realistically – only a newly elected Council can do this).
(3) Abolish the Councils centralized structure and replace it with a One City – Many Communities model – where the control is at the local level. This is clearly essential for first, elementary reasons of risk management and second, as the TVNZ Close Up programme noted above highlights, the importance of local communities being able to respond quickly and effectively to the needs of local people.
As the writer pointed out in a brief address to the people gathered at the protest meeting 1 February, the recovery has not yet got underway in Christchurch, some 17 months following the first earthquake event 4 September 2010 – simply because the “top down” approach, with bureaucracies incapacitated with bloat and weak political leadership, have not been able to respond to the communities and businesses needs.
The atmosphere with respect to the Christchurch City Council bureaucracy, is that it has long been at War with its communality and business.
In development and construction terms, Christchurch has long been considered a “disaster zone”, well before the first earthquake struck September 2010. The writer has covered these issues extensively within earlier articles.
The Christchurch Rebuild Disaster
The situation has only worsened since the time of the first earthquake – and is best illustrated by the new housing consent construction performance through 2011.
Christchurch with a population of some 370,000 people, consented just 750 new conventional housing units (with 150 relocatables deducted) – a consent rate of just 2 units per 1000 population - well below replacement levels in a normal market, let alone through an earthquake recovery.
To the south and west of Christchurch is the county of Selwyn with a population of about 40,000, which consented in excess of 400 new residential units through the year – a consent rate of about 10 units per 1000 population.
To the north of Christchurch is the county of Waimakariri, of again, some 40,000 people, which consented around 500 new residential units - a consent rate of about 12 units per 1000 population.
So the construction volumes in these two smaller and responsive Local Government areas, are some 5 and 6 times greater than Christchurch on a population basis.
Christchurch in essence is being “hollowed out” as people and businesses are departed for these adjoining counties and other centres throughout New Zealand and Australia.
Statistics New Zealand announced recently, as reported - Building consents granted for 13,662 new dwellings in 2011, lowest level in 46 year series history, Stats NZ figures show |
The situation is even worse than these “bald figures” from Statistics NZ suggest – because account of the population changes over this 46 year period are not properly taken in to account. New Zealand’s current population is about 4.414 million and with 13,662 residential consents issued during 2011, this suggests a low consenting rate of 3.09 consents per 1,000 population. Some 46 years ago in 1966, New Zealand's population was 2.711 million. Adjusted for population, if the consenting rate per 1,000 population in 1966 was 3.09, that would mean that just 8,376 residential consents were issued in that year. It was likely substantially higher then.
The 2011 consenting rate per 1,000 population figure is therefore likely to the lowest since the Great Depression or in history. As noted above, the Christchurch situation is even worse still – through a supposed recovery.
To date – the political authorities have persisted with their “blundering responses” to the wishes of the earthquake ravaged city of Christchurch.
Within The Press article today Talk Of Rates Revolt As Christchurch City Council “serial political blunderer” Local Government and Environment Minister Hon Dr Nick Smith is reported to have said that a fresh new mid term election is “highly unlikely”, further compounding the political problems for his Government.
In essence – the current Government has three options – first, do nothing; second appoint Commissioners or third, allow a fresh mid term election, so that the locals can directly deal with the local political problems and inadequacies.
The current Council is clearly seriously dysfunctional, and the Smith “non solution” of appointing Kerry Marshall as an “Observer” in a vain endeavour to dampen the protest down, backfired by the Monday. When the Councils Chief Executive Performance Review saw the light of day Monday, after it was “extracted” under the Official Information Act by the diligent media, Smiths ham fisted plans were in tatters. Contrary to earlier public statements by local politicians talking in glowing terms about his performance, justifying the $68,000 pay rise, the Review itself clearly illustrated otherwise, when it finally saw the light of day.
The Government will not appoint Commissioners (contrary to the current public musings by Smith), because this would immediately collapse the local public support for the National Party, which did surprisingly well in Christchurch at the last General Election November 2011. The support for the National Party is in no small measure because the Opposition Labour Party is so internally conflicted and confused, it is currently “missing in action” as a political participant in local issues.
Further to this – the appointment of Commissioners by the Government to the Canterbury Regional Council (Envoronment Canterbury), was not popular and has not been successful to date.
While Local Government Minister Smith is technically highly ranked in the Government, in reality, he is very much seen as “yesterday’s man” so far as political influence within Government is concerned. During the mid 1990’s, the writer had dealings with Dr Smith when he was responsible for heritage issues, where he performed admirably.
It therefore seems likely, that as the local political pressure intensifies and Christchurch and citizens communicate directly with the politicians involved, that Prime Minister John Key and his Government, will see it as “desirable” to allow the local Christchurch people to sort out their own problems - with a fresh mid term election.

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