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.

photo from the Press, by Iain McGregor

Yesterday, the Prime Minister was in town for a big-ticket announcement in a bigtop tent. Unfortunately, events got in the way, and the convention centre has been over shadowed by an impassioned plea made to John Key while he was out looking for votes in Riccarton Mall. Paulette Barr was at her wit’s end, so decided the best way to get some traction on her case was to put it to the PM directly:

“I was just saying, ‘Look, what can you do for us, it’s three years. We had liquefaction come right through our house. They had to remove the skirting boards because the liquefaction had gone in and contaminated the place,” the 61-year-old said.

Barr and her house-mate, Maureen Doherty, 74, said they had put their lives on hold since February 2011 as they waited for an over-cap EQC and NZI private insurance claim to progress on their Hills Rd property.

While Key might think he’s coming down to sing of the brighter future song sheet, he’s finding that people still have the helplessness blues. It’s a sure sign of how desperate the situation has become, how broken the process of dealing with EQC and insurance has become, how out of touch his Minister Brownlee has become, that the only way people think they are going to get anything resolved is by appealing directly to John – either the PM Key, or people’s champion, Campbell.

The Minister of Transport released a statement on Wednesday which boasted that traffic volumes were up, and that this was a sure sign of economic recovery:

“Total travel [measured in kilometres travelled] was flat between 2005 and 2012, but growth returned in 2013 with a 1.6 per cent increase in total travel nationwide, and more recent data suggests larger increases are on the way,” Mr Brownlee says.

What is interesting is the first part of that statement. Total travel was flat between 2005 and 2012 – that’s 7 years. Growth in road travel had stabilised, which may have been for a number of reasons – increasing awareness of the environmental cost of road travel, concern at the cost of petrol, increase in the availability of the internet reducing the demand for meetings. A progressive, forward-looking Minister of Transport – one who was aware of the inevitability of climate change and our need to reduce carbon emissions – might have championed this statistic, and looked for ways to start reducing the amount of travel. But no, not Brownlee. For him, progress is a SUV hurtling needlessly down a 3-lane highway, one person in the cab (one example would be traffic coming in to Christchurch from the north; 84% of vehicles on this stretch have just one person in the car).

Why is road travel increasing? Probably due to the billions of dollars National is throwing at their Roads of National Significance program. We know that if you build a road, people will use it. It seems that as the RONS start coming online, people are using them, and road travel is going up again. From Christopher Kissling, an emeritus professor of transport studies:

Motorways induce more demand. Congestion never disappears. Experience elsewhere shows that fixing one black spot simply moves it to another place.

It is remarkable that after the best part of a decade, while road travel was flat, and the evidence pointing towards climate change was stacking up, this government is still fixated on finding ways to increase road usage, and to open up new areas of our country for mining and drilling for more things to burn. But then, should we really be surprised when this Minister is the man who was proud to open the Pike River Mine?

Brownlee opens Pike River Mine - from Rebecca Macfie's excellent book "Tragedy at Pike River Mine"

Brownlee opens Pike River Mine – from Rebecca Macfie’s excellent book “Tragedy at Pike River Mine”

 

I have a guest post over at the Standard right now – Walking through the wrong door is the least of Gerry’s problems. Jump over there and read it in full!

What we need in Christchurch is more houses, now. Affordable, well-designed, well-insulated houses. Lots of them. This is why Labour’s Kiwibuild scheme will roll out 10,000 houses in Christchurch in the first 4 years. People have waited too long for the invisible hand. Labour believes that the government has a strong role to play in alleviating the considerable stresses in the Christchurch housing market. Not only do National deny that there is a housing crisis in Christchurch, they have left the rebuild in the hands of a man who demonstrated at the airport last Thursday a level of arrogance that suggests he is completely out of touch with the people he is meant to be representing. While the PM may have chosen not to accept his resignation, the people of Ilam don’t have to: they have the chance to show Gerry the exit door on the 20th of September by voting Labour and voting for James Macbeth Dann.

 

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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 in Christchurch, we’ve grown used to the government exercising the extraordinary powers that they’ve had since the quake. While they were granted so that they could get the recovery moving, they seem to have been mainly used so that CERA and CCDU can knock down heritage buildings without going through an RMA process. The most recent case was the Majestic Theatre; the next looks to be the War Memorial Hall at CPIT. This was built in 1935 to honour the 71 students of the college who died in World War I.

Technical College _0001

The building was opened by the Govenor-General, Lord Galway, in 1935. Our current Governor-General has been exercising his extraordinary powers, on something that also has to do with heritage and World War I:

The governor-general has been forced to use his special powers to avoid the embarrassment of New Zealand’s Anzac Day centenary centrepiece not being completed on time … The lack of action eventually threatened the park’s completion to the point where the Queen’s representative, Sir Jerry Mateparae, last week had to rubber-stamp a resource consent to get the ball rolling again and save the Government’s blushes.

In Wellington, the Government is pulling out all the stops to ensure a WWI memorial is built in time for the 100th anniversary of ANZAC Day; in Christchurch, the same government is using Section 38 to ensure that a WWI memorial will no longer exist on the 25th of April, 2015. While the Minister of Arts Culture and Heritage hasn’t shown much interest in preserving Christchurch’s buildings, as I’ve blogged about before, he does care about our military history. He’s issued three statements about Christchurch heritage – and 8 about the National War Memorial. As he is clearly concerned with honouring the people who served our country in war, here’s hoping that he steps in to preserve this memorial.

I am disappointed that CERA are invoking their war-time powers to demolish a building that is a reminder of the horrors of war. Labour believes that the time for using Section 38 powers to pull-down buildings is over, and would ensure that a building such as this would not be demolished without first going through a consultation process with the community.

I don’t know how he does it. Alongside running one bar, Smash Palace, and building another, Brick Farm, Johnny Moore still manages to find time to churn out a column for the paper every week. They are consistently some of the best analysis that gets printed in the paper. This week’s was on point:

In a town that has mountains of paperwork to climb before you even think about building, lumping a heap of extra rules into the mix is not the type of thing that excites developers or people wanting to build. Ask anyone that has built anything substantial since the earthquakes what portion of their total cost was consumed by paperwork and you will be staggered. Add to that the expense of foundations and it doesn’t leave much to throw at a building.

Then you get well-intentioned but ultimately idiotic planning in areas like the South Frame and it becomes clear that there is little incentive to build in the central city, let alone in any of the designated precincts.

If you want more insight like this, then pick up the paper every Thursday – or you could wait until our book, Once In A Lifetime: City Building after Disaster in Christchurch comes out in late August, as he has an essay in that!

(for updates on Brick Farm, check the Facebook page)

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