The first is the first of four guest posts from my friend Barnaby Bennett, PhD candidate, chief egg at Freerange Press and editor of the magnificent book “Christchurch: The Transitional City Part IV“.

No government was ever going to be able to seamlessly respond to a crazy series of events like the earthquakes that hit Christchurch between September 2010 and the end of 2011.  It was an insanely complex and difficult event and the tangled nature of all the little parts mean the development of new ideas and plans and the construction of these is no easy task. Yet, this shouldn’t mean a pass card for our representatives. In this article I’ll argue, and explain, why I think the removal of the public from most of the rebuild process is a critical mistake both politically for the government and for the citizens of Christchurch.

It’s common to view debate and argument as evidence of processes gone wrong or the result of someone’s bad idea. It might be hard to work out who’s to blame or what has gone wrong, but surely a functioning democracy with strong leadership shouldn’t have so much public argument and debate?  Then there is another view that sees public discourse and discussion as a necessary and important part of democracy, as the critical part of politics where many and varied publics get to partake in a conversation.  I favour the second view, and thus believe public argument and discussion is especially critical in post-disaster situations where the amount of problems, issues and difficulties are amplified.

The reality is that any government or group of politicians was going to be inadequate. The public forms in response to this inadequacy. The problem is not whether we have arguments and debates, but whether we are having them intelligently and openly.

The fallacy of the way CERA has operated itself starts to be revealed when we consider its organization from the perspective of public debate.  With a local council struggling to deal with an enormous disaster, and the people of the city reeling from the physical and emotional damage, the extra horse-power of the central government should be there to promote better forms of democracy and better ways of arguing and disagreeing with each other. Instead, it has taken over power, denied the public access to its decision-making and treated the CCC as a rogue organization, when it is supposed to be there to support the cities elected representatives. A clear example of this is that CERA has still not given substantial information about major anchor projects such as the Convention Centre to the elected council – yet expects the council to be able to make sensible decisions about what facilities an arts precinct should have.  This is idiotic planning.

CERA has set itself up in what appears to be a strangely naïve manner, and this I suggest is a direct result of the political leadership from the office of the Prime Minister at the beginning. The CERA legislation (which was criticised by legal experts at the time it passed through parliament) put all the power at the cabinet table.  On one hand this makes sense – the Prime Minister and other senior ministers want direct supervision and control over this huge and economically vital process. But by doing so they become directly responsible for the results.  If it fails, there is no one else to blame.  This single political factor is what, I think, has led to the ongoing denial of the involvement of Christchurch people in the rebuild of the city, and also why there has been no public recognition of the many failures that have occurred so far. I also think that some failure is ok. This is an immensely difficult situation; no one was ever going to get it all right.  But the way to fix failure is not to keep it secret and deny it is happening. This just leads to the erosion of trust that we are seeing in the city at the moment, and explains why CERA and the minister are so deeply disliked.  Basically we are sick of being lied to and not engaged with. I don’t think the minister or the Prime Minister do this because they like it; they do it because to admit problems would be admit that their entire process back to the weeks after the quake is flawed.

The politically smart thing to do would have been to create an entity like the CCDU at arms length that had very strict areas of responsibility, that was created to work with the cabinet and the CCC (not over the top of them). By keeping them at arms length the government would then able to publicly intervene (on behalf of the public and tax-payers) when bad decisions are being made. This would keep the process in check, and it would politically protect the government as they would be fixing things up rather than admitting failure as happens now.

Instead the presence of the cabinet and the office of the Prime Minister runs deep into the blueprint process. What hasn’t been discussed in public is that the plan A of the blue print which involved attracting billions of dollars of investment into the city has been almost complete failure. What we are seeing now is a desperate attempt to develop a plan B.

The CCDU scheme was almost entirely based on a logic of attracting international investors. Just watch the video to see that camera flying in from over the Southern Alps to understand that the logic of this plan was never based on the needs of the citizens of Christchurch. The narration for the video that was released on the day of the launch of the 100-day plan was written by the Prime Minister’s office, and it reveals how the plan is focused almost entirely on gaining foreign investment into the city. These investors haven’t turned up (why would you invest in the middle of a swampy earthquake-prone city with no particular economic plan?) and in the process they’ve ridden rough–shod over the local landowners who want to reinvest because it is their home. The only progress in the central city has been on the massive state-led projects (and that has been very slow). This leads to the government press releases that cite progress of money spent and resources used and a circular logic of “we’ve done some stuff – and this is evidence of stuff happening.”

Apparently the brief for the main CCDU plan was developed by the Prime Minister’s office (a group of around 50 people at core of government).  We can speculate that the main anchor projects that the designers and planners located in the city were developed from here.  The anchor projects can be split into two groups. The first are projects that the council had planned to do such as a new convention centre, stadium, and things like the library. These were all substantially increased in size, scope and expense. The other group of projects were formed after the council’s plan: the justice precinct, the arts precinct, massive upgrade of the Avon and the frame. The innovation precinct that sits uncomfortably in the plan because it was introduced around day 92 by Stephen Joyce.

Understanding that the one hundred day plan was driven from the very top politically explains how CERA has become such a political entity. Recently getting in trouble for frequent re-tweeting and re-posting of National Party announcements. It seems it’s no coincidence that the naming of the blueprint and associated branding is similar to National party colours.

There is a sense amongst some commentators that the rebuild should not be politicized. I think this is naïve for two reasons. The first is that planning and urban design are intensely political activities that are based on often conflicting and contradictory visions of the future. Planning is almost the essence of politics. The second is that the current approach being led by this government is intensely party political – and to suggest that everyone else should just roll over and ‘trust the experts’ can only be described as naïve. The ‘let’s not politicise this’ comment in the context of Christchurch amounts to ‘shut up and let us get on with our plans for things’. It’s a good rule to never trust anyone who says they don’t want something to become political.

Around two thirds of the new central city are government- or council-led projects. This is political. The forced purchase of massive parts of the city to make way for high-end apartments (this is what is now happening to the green-frame) is political. The government not opening up the redzone in the city and keeping Cathedral square closed (allegedly because they didn’t want people protesting in the square) is political. CERA re-tweeting the announcements of the National Party is political. I’ve been told by a senior member of the CCDU that the decisions being made at both CERA and CCDU are more about pleasing the minister than making the right decisions for Christchurch. This is political.

The key point that I’m trying to make here is that controversy and argument is often a productive thing, and politics is part of this process. We need more of it here in Christchurch – not less. I’m constantly staggered there is not more outrage around things in this city: the forced closing of legitimate businesses to make way for economically questionable projects, the recent declaration that the residential red-zoning was unlawful, that the green frame is now turning into high-end accommodation, that three years after the quake there still hasn’t been any substantial consultation with the community about the blueprint or any of the major projects, that half the top heritage listed buildings in the city have been demolished and there is still no heritage plan in place, and that the transport plan was stupidly unlocked from the planning decisions and has been stalled in the ministers office for around 6 months now etc.  We are a city with too many problems and a stretched and exhausted public. But that public is re-energised by engagement not by exclusion.

Planning problems are about making complex trade-offs and negotiations between many different types of actors; between different public groups, different organisms and ecological populations, different government departments, different communities, different competing visions of the future and of cultural identity. I for one don’t trust any elected politician or expert to be able to quantify all this complexity and make a decision on behalf of all these groups.  I have much more faith in the rich intelligence of the people that live in this place, and the thousands of years of lived experience in this city needs to be the thing that drives the rebuild. We just need to keep working out ways to make these processes as intelligent and productive as possible. Handing it completely over to the experts is a naïve option. I’ve trained for almost a decade in this stuff and worked in various post-disaster and development situations in Sri Lanka, Canada, South Africa, Australia and here. Trust me when I say that the experts don’t have all the answers to the problems (it’s the same fallacy that sees traffic engineers making critical transport, urban design, and planning decisions through out the country).

So far the plan has been based on a possibly good-willed but politically dangerous approach shown by this government. Their need to control the process and the narrative (especially now we are moving into election year) around the rebuild is strangling this city and the current process needs to change. I am not saying all this to be anti-National or anti-government; I am saying this as someone that is pro-Christchurch and wants to see the best possible city emerge from this crazy past few years. But to do this we need the public spotlight to enter into the debates around this city again. This isn’t because democracy and public participation are nice to have or because some people seem left out. But because when there is no external examination of an organization intellectual laziness creeps in and people often fall back to their default ideological positions (in this case it is a strange mix of pro-business with support from big government.) This in turn leads to a siege mentality and a belief that no-one else understands the issues, and as a result we get an organization with its head in the sand; blind and deaf. Over a year ago I asked a CERA representative if there was any plans to have either public feedback on the plan or any sort of international peer-review and the answer was negative in both cases. This goes against all best practice and sensible urban development. It is quite simply a disgrace and we deserve better from our political representatives.

In part two of this series I will look at some of the key appointments that have been made and see how these have affected the development of the new Christchurch.