Archives for category: Cera
photo via Hayden EM

photo via Hayden EM

8 Days till the election, and there are lots of things on. Tuesday, we had the Ilam candidates debate on CTV. It was the only chance to talk about Ilam issues with the sitting MP, and I think it was a pretty good discussion. You can watch it here. On Wednesday, we had the only Ilam candidates debate. All the candidates have known about it for ages, at least a month. Yes, it’s a busy photo – but it was pretty disappointing that only 3 of the candidates standing in the electorate were there. And of course, the only MP to have held the seat, Gerry, wasn’t there.

There was a reporter from Radio New Zealand there, and one from the Press, who filed this story. The organiser, Len McCrane, said this:

We would have loved to have Gerry here. He sent his apologies. He prefers to do meetings on street corners than to come to something like this.

The thing is, street corner meetings aren’t anything like candidate debates. I’ve been out doing some street corner meetings myself. They are a very different beast. You pick a corner, preferably high traffic, and stand around talking for 15 minutes as confused passers by wonder what’s going on. They are primarily a visibility exercise. You don’t get to do them for 2 weekends every three years and then pretend you’ve been accountable to the people you purport to represent.

There is a pattern emerging. He declines the invitation to the only public meeting with the candidates in the electorate he represents. He refuses to turn up to Campbell Live’s show on the 4th of September, despite them asking him repeatedly and giving him plenty of notice. The thing isn’t, Brownlee isn’t opposed to fronting to the press about issues – tonight, he’s appearing on Prime in a transport debate. He just wants to be able to do it on his terms. Rather than turning up to a debate and getting booed, he’d rather not turn up at all.

The problem with that – not only for Ilam, but the whole country – is that 8 days out from the election, we haven’t had a serious discussion about the rebuild of Christchurch, about the role of CERA, or about EQC. The only time it was really touched on was during the second half of the Press debate, where David Cunliffe ran through Labour’s policies for the city whilst John Key barely feigned an interest in the city he grew up in. Key’s only major announcement was to confirm that if re-elected, Brownlee would retain his portfolio as CERA Minister. What would Key or Brownlee do? We don’t know.

I’ve said this time and time again, and I guess you must be bored of it, because it doesn’t seem to make a difference. But I’ll restate it again, just for kicks. We’ve got a week until the election. The recovery of New Zealand’s second biggest city following a major natural disaster should be the number one election issue, but the Minister responsible for overseeing the “recovery”, part of the Government that campaigned on “Rebuilding Christchurch” in 2011, are going to the polls without announcing a single substantive policy about how they are going to turn this man-made disaster around. I’ll repeat: NOT A SINGLE SUBSTANTIVE POLICY*.

You, the taxpayers of New Zealand, are largely paying for this. Close to 16 billion dollars. Do you know how your investment is going? Do you care? Do you just believe the Prime Minister when he says that the city is “booming, almost full“? We, the citizens of Christchurch, are having to live this – and if you’re sick of hearing us whinging about EQC and insurance and the recovery, well, you have no idea how miserable we’ll get under a third term of National.

* merging CERA into the department of Prime Minister and Cabinet isn’t a policy; it’s an admission of failure

So last night I was in the front row of the audience at the Press leader’s debate between David Cunliffe and John Key. It was an exciting occasion and great to have so many people interested in politics in the Ilam electorate. I went with my parents, my grandmother and my great aunt – the latter who both live in Merivale, but vote very differently! I think watching it in the room is quite different to what happens on the lifestream. Firstly, it was VERY loud. Both the debaters, and the crowd. Key got a warm welcome but DC’s was louder. The two men talked over each other quite a lot, which wasn’t the most satisfying auditory experience.

James at the debate - photo by Patrick Gower (http://i.instagram.com/p/sb7DqFCA5S/)

James at the debate – photo by Patrick Gower (http://i.instagram.com/p/sb7DqFCA5S/)

Key started really angrily, and talked over David a lot. Most questions seemed to be given to Key for 30 seconds, for him to then talk for 90 seconds, then passed on to David for 30 seconds, at which point Key started sniping at him and not allowing him to answer. While I’ve seen some people comment that they thought the (lack of) moderation was fine, it made for a number of occasions where both men just talked over each other, as if the first person to stop talking was less of a man or something. Key’s question about CGT on houses in a trust did seem to catch David, but he was right to check and see. It’s a complicated issue and it’s worth being right on it.

As with the first debate, most of the commentators seemed to make up their minds about “who won” based on the early exchanges. Key was definitely much weaker in the second half. This was because if focussed on Christchurch issues, and National’s record on this is poor. When he announced that Gerry Brownlee would be CERA minister after the election, this was received with boos. There was laughter when he claimed that the CBD was “booming and almost full“. There was confusion when he started telling Press editor Joanna Norris about an advertorial supplement that will appear in the paper next week. And when he said that the government wouldn’t want to “run roughshod” the Anglican church (when talking about the Cathedral) one was reminded of some of the other institutions that this government has run roughshod over – including ECan and the CCC.

Cunliffe spoke well on these matters, as he has done over the last 3 months of the campaign in the city. He knows that Labour’s policy is popular here, as he has been down here to announce it, and has talked with hundreds of residents who are in difficult situation. Instead of just making light of people’s real hardship like the Prime Minister, Cunliffe has showed an empathy that Key lacks. While the media in Auckland and Wellington might have called it one way, the people in Christchurch were only presented with one leader who understands the issues in this city, and it wasn’t the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister announced today that if re-elected, after the election, he would look to merge CERA into the department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. This is an admission that the CERA model – authoritarian, dictatorial and deaf to the concerns of the people it claims to represent – has failed, and failed absolutely. This is what people in this city have been saying for years. When Labour announced that we would introduce a board of governance, and look to wind CERA down in 2016, National said that CERA was working just fine. Nothing has changed since then, but National know how unpopular CERA and it’s Minister are in this city, and are trying to stop the bleeding of votes.

Given what we have seen from the Prime Minister’s office through the Dirty Politics saga, it is the last place that should be running a city. The last thing Christchurch needs is another layer of bureaucracy in a city on another island. Control of the rebuild needs to be passed back to the people, by strengthening the role of the CCC.

It also raises questions for Minister Brownlee, who has been given a vote of no confidence from the Prime Minister just weeks out from the election. He’s been in charge of the rebuild for almost 4 years, but has proved to be most effective at demolition, not construction. Many people I meet in the electorate tell me that while they will be voting for National, they can’t bring themselves to vote for Mr Brownlee. It will be calls like that from National’s base that have forced Key’s hand.  But for the PM in his home city, it is too little, too late.

On August 7, the Prime Minister was in town to announce the convention centre plans. This was done in a special marquee that was erected on the site, and to a very select group of delegates. I used an OIA to ask CERA how much hosting this shin-dig cost; almost $16,000. This was an event for around 90 people; this works out at around $170 a head (on the taxpayer). I’m sure Key and Brownlee thought that the convention centre announcement would lead the news. Instead, their trip to Christchurch was derailed by the real hardship that their government is responsible for, as Paulette Barr approached the PM directly with her case.

On the PM’s trip to Barrington Mall last week, he was again approached by a resident at wit’s end. This pattern will repeat each time he visits the city until he does something to address the growing divide between those who have done ok through the quakes, and those who are still battling on a daily basis. Whilst Key and Brownlee eat canapés, there are people in this city living under canopies. Mr Brownlee needs to explain to the public of Ilam and Christchurch how he can justify spending almost $16,000 on a swanky party for him, the PM and a few exclusive guests, to announce a facility that very few residents of this city will ever have a need to use. If Mr Brownlee spent more time in the electorate he represents, he’d know that his constituents don’t care about convention centres: they want their houses fixed, their EQC claims sorted, their rents to stop increasing at double digit rates.

I’ve written about the idea of the Convention Centre before, but it seems relevant to do so again given that we now know some of the facts around it. So, to recap:

  • it will be build by a consortium of Carter Group, Ngai Tahu, and Plenary Group
  • the taxpayer will pay $284 million
  • the consortium will pay the remaining $200 million +
  • it will take up most of the area between Victoria Sq and Cathedral Sq
  • it will have a 2000-seat conference facility, hotels, residential development, hospitality and retail outlets
  • the facility will be run by Accor, an international convention centre and hotel chain which has hotels in the CBD (Novotel and Ibis)

Here are some other facts, not considered relevant:

  • the previous Christchurch Convention Centre, which opened in 1997, cost $15m to build and could host 2,250 people
  • the Auckland convention centre, being constructed by SkyCity as part of a controversial deal, will be able to host 3,500 people and is costing $402 million to build. That consists of $87m on land, and $315m for the build and fit out

christchurch-convention-centre-precinct-avon-river-view-letterbox

But probably the most intriguing aspect is the involvement of Plenary Group. Despite claims of a competitive tender process, they appear to have been the only company involved in the tender since earlier this year. They are a mysterious Australian company which specialises in PPPs (public-private partnerships) and have built a number of convention centres in Australia and Canada. Michael West at the Sydney Morning Herald has done some digging to try and find out how they work, with limited success:

The three investment bankers [John O'Rourke, Ray Wilson and Paul Oppenheim] parted way with the Dutch giant ABN Amro in 2004 and set up Plenary Group to invest in, develop and operate privatised assets in partnership with governments … Although a few entities within its burgeoning corporate empire do disclose, Plenary’s ultimate financial position is unknown. A byzantine maze of companies winds to a cul-de-sac: a private trust controlled by the three Plenary principals and associated entities.

Stepping back from any argument around the merits of the convention industry itself, CERA and Gerry Brownlee need to be more forthcoming with the public about the amount of their money that is going into this. Who will ultimately own the facility? Why are the council not going to operate it, as their subsidiary VBase did with the previous centre, and currently do with the Wigram Airforce Museum, which doubles as a conference facility? Given that more than half of the funding is from the public, will more than half of the benefits accrue to the public? How will the taxpayers know whether they have got a good return on their $284 million investment? How come it is going to cost more than 30 times more to build a 2,000 seat facility than it did in 1997? The public of Canterbury, and indeed the whole country, need to see a compelling business case for this convention centre before any money from the public purse is committed to it.

 

The Press ran a feature at the weekend that looked at the City Council’s finances, and the man who has a lot of the responsibility, Raf Manji. Undoubtedly, this is a very complicated subject, but since the release of the Cameron Partners report it has been simplified down to “we have to sell assets.” That’s not the only conclusion that one could reach from reading the report, but it is one that suits the government, who have been trying to sell off council assets since pretty much as soon as the quakes started, almost four years ago. However, John McCrone does go and talk to someone else, Christchurch accountant Cameron Preston. Between the two of them, they do a good job of explaining how we got into this situation:

On the infrastructure repairs, the council’s position was that a total of $3.4b of public works was needed to bring Christchurch’s roads and pipes back to their pre-quake level of service. But KordaMentha notes the Government unilaterally capped its “60 per cent” contribution at $1.8b. A maximum figure was named. Once the council’s 40 per cent share was calculated off that, it effectively lopped $400m off the infrastructure budget, bringing the agreed spend back to $3b.

Some 83 road, sewer and water projects got axed from the council’s priority list to make this work.

However, now – because the money actually does need to be spent says the council – the missing millions have just reappeared to haunt the accounts as the largest part of its $800m balance sheet black hole.

So $400 million went missing from the infrastructure budget from the start, and everyone knew that it was needed. The government knew it was needed, and knew that there was no room in the CCC’s budget. They knew that if the CCC were to act responsibly, they would have to find this $400 million, and that in doing so, this would create a “black hole” and a “crisis”. Then the pressure goes on the council, and the “sensible heads” like Manji to do the “reasonable thing” and sell assets. Job done. The $400 million to raise from asset sales is suspiciously similar to the $400 million that went missing from the infrastructure budget in the cost sharing agreement.

Brownlee, Parker and Joyce, put the final touches on burying the council

the government and council in happier times

But what about the other $400 million in the council’s $800 million block hole, you might ask? Well, you might like to consider some other items that were forced upon the council in the cost-sharing agreement. $253 million for a stadium (a project that will be controlled by the Crown, not the council that is paying for it). $147 million for the Metro Sports Centre – another council-funded, Crown-controlled asset. And funnily enough, that’s $400 million right there.

This isn’t a crisis; it’s a bait and switch. The government has skimped on infrastructure, and then forced the council to spend money on assets with weak or non-existent business cases. They’ve forced the council into a corner, and are now trying to tell us the only way out is asset sales. It’s not. They’ve trimmed money from the rebuild budget so that they could make their surplus, and then turn around and say they can afford to spend $300 million on a behemoth of a conference centre.

This “crisis” is a key example of just how this government are running the rebuild, and a strong signal of how they plan to continue if given another term. We can’t afford another 3 years like this. Every vote for Labour in Christchurch is a vote that says that we want an inclusive, people-focussed recovery; every vote for me in Ilam sends a signal to John Key that the rebuild isn’t working.

It depresses me to be writing this piece again. I thought we had put all of this to bed last year. Unfortunately, after the council suggested that the project was on hold, the opinion pages of the Press were once again filled will ill-informed pieces calling for the Town Hall to be pulled down. Then, some sanity. Former Arts Editor Chris Moore wrote this piece in last Friday’s art section, which summed up much of what I had been meaning to say.

There’s a widely held misbelief that the cost of retaining the town hall will prevent the construction of a series of glittering arts palaces custom-made for individual organisations. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch … The sense of entitlement accompanying proposals for the arts precinct is mind-boggling. Some individuals and groups should remember that tooth fairies do not exist.

Richard Dawkins fills the Town Hall for a lecture on evolution in 2010

Gerry’s opposition to the building is well known. We don’t know reasons for his stance; he may just hate brutalism, or internationally recognised architecture, or culture in general. The most likely reason is that he wants to knock down the Town Hall and take the insurance money, then spend it on the Performing Arts Precinct (PAP). Spending money on PAP gives him another opportunity to leave a lasting memory of his magnificence; the CCC voting to save the Town Hall means that he can’t.

The PAP is weirdly considered to be a replacement for the Town Hall; it’s not. The Town Hall does play host to a lot of arts and cultural events, such as the orchestra, choirs, theatre and the like. But it is much more than that. It was often used for conferences, with the air bridge that linked it to the Convention Centre. It hosted speaking events; I remember seeing Robert Fisk speak in the Limes Room as part of the Writer’s Festival a few years back. It had a multitude of rooms, of a variety of sizes, that could be used by a whole range of people for whatever they might think of doing. The PAP doesn’t do that.

What we’re seeing with the PAP is a bunch of very specialised cultural organisations within Christchurch seeing the dollar signs in Gerry’s eyes and putting their hand up for a bit of it. They think that if they play their part, and whinge about how awful the Town Hall was, then when the money starts flowing, it will come their way. It ain’t gonna work like that. There is a chance that if the CCC does knock down the Town Hall, they may just use the money to pay down debt. No one gets a building.

The bizarre thing about this saga is how it has been reduced to a few voices from the arts community siding with Gerry against the Council and heritage advocates. If Gerry does win, and the Town Hall is knocked down for the benefit of a handful of commercial arts organisations, what does the council do without a Town Hall? I mean, we, as a city, are still going to have a Town Hall, right? They will have to find the money somewhere to build a new one. And no, an auditorium in a convention centre run by a casino doesn’t count. We are on the verge of losing the icon of our city – the Cathedral – and the symbol of our civic and cultural lives. The people who came before us in Christchurch had the foresight to leave us with two fantastic buildings, and yet we are on the cusp of watching the last of our cultural history disappear because we left a philistine the keys to the bulldozer.

This is the CPIT War Memorial Hall at approximately 2:30pm yesterday.

 

July 9th, 2:30pm

July 9th, 2:30pm

And here it is again at 11am this morning:

July 10th, 11am

July 10th, 11am

This building was of no immediate risk. It had been there since the quakes, not causing any harm. There was no need for the Section 38 powers to be invoked to demolish it. It is well beyond the time for these powers to be used.  That the demolition was done overnight shows that the people responsible knew that this was something to be ashamed, hence doing their dirty work under the cover of darkness. It’s a disgrace.

Jim Anderton writes in the Herald in a very strong column about saving the Cathedral:

The picture of the ‘ruin’ that has been put on television and on the front page of the Christchurch Press on dozens if not hundreds of occasions is a totally false perspective of the damage that the Cathedral has suffered.

Some of the most experienced and knowledgeable seismic and structural engineers both in New Zealand and, internationally, agree that the Cathedral has not been terminally damaged and can be both made safe for repair and totally restored to the highest building code justifiably required for public buildings. No similar building in any other part of the world that I have experienced, would remotely be a candidate for demolition.

 

Jim Anderton with Anna Crighton at the Cathedral last week

Jim Anderton with Anna Crighton at the Cathedral last week

 

I recommend reading it yourself. Labour’s policy announced last week was not one taken lightly; we recognise the significance of the Cathedral and the ownership of the Anglican Church. All that we have said is that if it is to be demolished, then it should not be under the provisions of the Section 38 powers. These powers were given to the government so that they could demolish buildings for public safety without going through an RMA process. More than 3 and a half years later, it is clear that the building provides no immediate hazard to the public. If the Church wants to demolish it, then they should have to go through the process of having it removed from the register of historic buildings. To do this would require a process under the RMA, in which all sides could present their cases.

If the building is to come down, then so be it. But it should only be through a robust process, not the abuse of extraordinary powers.

(I stole the blog post title from this Decemberist song)

 

 

Here’s a surprise: the convention centre industry that will directly benefit from the government using taxpayer and ratepayer money to build a convention centre are “optimistic” about convention centres. It makes us a “serious destination” – which I suppose means that until we get one, the rest of the country will just be laughing at us and our lack of convention centre. Bloody amateurs.

Further details for the much-awaited convention centre are coming in July, Christchurch & Canterbury Convention Bureau manager, Caroline Blanchfield says. That is according to a Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) statement she received.

The CERA statement reads: “The convention centre precinct development is running to schedule, CERA is currently evaluating the proposal to select the preferred consortia and preferred operator. The announcement of the preferred consortia for developing and building the convention centre, and the preferred operator . . . will happen in July.”

I’ve written about the Convention Centre project a number of times – click through on the Convention Centre tag and you’ll bring up a stack of posts. A brief summary:

  • The convention centre was initially going to take up a whole block, bounded by Gloucester and Armagh St, Colombo St and the River
  • This block contains the old central library, which initial estimates for repair were put at $9 million
  • The old central library would have to be demolished to make way for the convention centre, and a new library would be built about 100 metres down the road for a cost estimated at around $90 million
  • The council can’t afford to spend $90 million on a library, so might have to the education of our city up for sponsorship
  • the market” suggested that a 2,000 seat convention centre was too big for the city, and the project should be scaled back
  • despite a competitive tender process that has gone on for what seems like an eternity, it was understood that there was only one company interested in building the damn thing

 

 

As we know from the Sky City / pokies deal, this government seems convinced by the merits of convention centres, and isn’t particularly concerned with evidence. So this is probably in vain, but here is an article from the US (via Eric Crampton) about the highly competitive convention centre industry, and how it ends up taking taxpayers and ratepayers for a ride:

And that illustrates the larger problem with convention center subsidies — that they tend to generate meager public returns and generous private ones.

So by all means, let us celebrate the beautiful new convention facilities we have built on Mount Vernon Square. At the same time, let us resolve not to dedicate any more public funds to a convention center arms race that no city can win.

 

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