Archives for category: Cera

As many of you will know from the various twitter, Facebook and blog posts I have been making in the last two weeks, the Draft Transition Plan is open for submissions, but only until 5pm today. So if you haven’t made a submission yet, please do so. You can do it in just a couple of minutes, using the quick and easy ActionStation submission form. If you have a bit more time, or want to make a more detailed submission, you can email CERA directly – – and outline your thoughts. Over on the Option3+ website, we have some resources that may be of use, including other people’s submissions, which you may want to use to give you some ideas, if you are unsure of what to say.

The submissions close at 5pm, but we hope that this is the beginning of a process which sees power being returned to the citizens of this city.

Documents released today under the Official Information Act (OIA) reveal the size and scale of the CERA’s covert “money pit” operation. Whilst the secret project has been a topic of frequent whispers around Worcester St, these documents are the first hard evidence that has come to light of the scheme. Located between Armagh and Gloucester St, the pit is approximately 12 metres in diameter, with an unknown depth. CERA engineers launched a series of recognisance missions into the pit, but these were abandoned after a 3-man team was lost somewhere between 270 and 280 metres below the surface.

A statement from CERA attempted to deny that the pit existed. “The money pit that you refer to is in fact a metaphorical money pit, not a literal money pit. And I mean “literal” in the “literal” sense of the word “literal”, not in the “figurative” sense of the word “literal”. This is literally a metaphorical money pit. A figurative money pit. No actual pit exists.”

However, documents released under the OIA to Rebuilding Christchurch today clearly indicate that the money pit has been included in plans for the central city since as far back as 2011, when a number of prominent Christchurch property developers started lobbying for the inclusion of the money pit in the Blueprint. When a black circle first started appearing in planning documents, it was initially believed that this was because part of the map had been redacted. However, we now believe that this black hole is in fact the symbol for the money pit.

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Business advocate and legendary rock guitarist Pete Townsend was enthusiastic about the money pit project. “This is good news for the rebuild, good news for Christchurch, good news for New Zealand taxpayers. This will create jobs, with up to 15 people required to shovel money into the pit, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. For every 100 dollars hurled into the pit, 1 dollar will go into the wider Canterbury economy. This is a good deal for Christchurch.”

When asked about whether a money pit was part of National’s “Brighter Future” campaign, Prime Minister John Key responded that it was the ultimate realisation of his vision. “What we have here, actually, is a future that has shined so bright that it has collapsed in on itself, creating a black vortex that will suck in money and ultimately end all of life on earth. We’re pretty relaxed about it.”

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee assured the residents of Christchurch that the money pit is safe, although it should not be approached without the appropriate hi-vis safety equipment. He said that the current plan was to continue throwing money into the pit, and added that they are also investigating the practicalities of trying to house some of CERA’s expanding communications department in the entrance to the depression.

Just over a year ago, it was reported that CERA had a disproportionately high number of staff employed in communications – with 5.5% of total staff in a communications role, the next highest government department being just over 2%. Well, they obviously decided that wasn’t enough, and a year later, that figure is now around 7.3%. From the Press:

The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) has almost doubled its communication budget and increased its public relations staff by a third in the past two years.

The big problem for CERA is that public trust in them as an organisation is close to zero. Instead of realising that this is a fundamental issue with the way they communicate, they’ve decided that it must be because they don’t communicate enough. More petrol on the fire, then. In the last year, we’ve had highlights such as the smartphone app that cost $80k to develop and was downloaded just over a thousand times. We also had the fantastic “Live Central” campaign, which encouraged rich white people to live in the CBD. It’d be interesting to know if they provided any advice to the PR shambles that was CEO Roger Sutton leaving.

But far more important than what the CERA comms team tells us is what they don’t. Their job is to manage the story, to ensure that the CERA version of events is the one that gets out.

The best way to ensure that they control the message is to say as little as possible. From time to time we hear stories about the number of communications and PR people employed for every journalist in the country. It’s worth thinking about that ratio in the context of the rebuild. CERA is a massive, political government department which has been placed (rightfully) in the city where it acts. Beyond the initial reporting of the disaster, there has been no increase in the resources dedicated to covering the rebuild. If anything, due to cut backs at the various media organisations, there are fewer journalists in the city than there were in 2011.

The media organisations in this city haven’t been able to increase their staffing to cover the increase in government activity post-quake. The Press, which Brownlee infamously called “the enemy of the rebuild”, has two reporters who cover the rebuild. They have some very good reporters on other beats which frequently overlap with what CERA does, such as the business and property sections. They also have some excellent feature writers, with articles from Philip Matthews and John McCrone often leading the debate on rebuild issues. Radio New Zealand has 4.5 reporters in the city, who are meant to cover everything that happens here – not just rebuild issues. Campbell Live was obviously a champion for the city, doing a lot of great reporting on the state of the rebuild, and they’re now gone. Aside from that, the TV networks don’t have the resources based here to do complex investigations.

I know that the journalists working in this city are doing their absolute best to get stories out. I also don’t doubt that the people who work in comms at CERA are good people, trying to do their best as well. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves; CERA is one of the most powerful, least transparent government organisations New Zealand has seen in a generation. Like something from the Soviet Union, it is a command and control department; and also like our socialist brothers, command and control of the media message is a critical part of its ongoing success (while I’m riffing on the Marxist metaphor, Fiona Farrell talks about Brownleegrad in her recently released book).

The suppression of any genuine opposition to the government’s actions in Christchurch, despite the obvious failures in the CBD and out East, is remarkable political management. That the Message® about the recovery is so removed from the situation on the ground is victory for the comms department – Duncan Garner wrote about what he saw when he was down here last week, and he didn’t pull any punches. It’s not that these people are bad at their job; it’s that the job they are doing is actively misleading the people of Christchurch about the state of the city. That’s something we should all be alarmed about.

At the end of June, the Prime Minister came to Christchurch to announce what is probably the most important document for the city’s recovery since the Blueprint. It’s the Draft Transition Recovery Plan, and it’s about the transition of power from the government (via CERA and CCDU) back to local authorities in Canterbury. It’s so important that the government decided the public only needed 30 days to read it, think about it, and make submissions on it. The full document is here, and I’d recommend that you try and give it a read. I don’t just mean Christchurch residents. Everyone in the country should have an interest in this, and anyone in the country can make a submission on it. There are some good bits in the document, like this:

International research shows that, for recovery to be sustainable in the long term, it needs to be ‘owned’ and led by local communities and institutions. Central government leadership and coordination of the recovery, through CERA, was needed in the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes, but the time has come for central government’s role in the recovery of greater Christchurch to evolve.

It is hard to resolve the intentions of the paragraph above with the recommendations of the report. Though advocating for local and community ownership of the recovery, the main thrust of the Draft Transition Recovery Plan is to give CERA a change of name, to Regenerate Christchurch, then put that in charge for another 5 years. The responsibility for the Residential Red Zone will go to Land Information New Zealand; another lot of powers currently held by CERA will move across to MoBIE. While saying things like “the central city is at a critical point and requires a step-change in approach to ensure its recovery”, this document suggests an entrenchment of the status quo. It’s a recipe for disaster, with Head Chef Brownlee being joined by Sous Chef Joyce.

We’ve got just over two weeks to make submissions, and tell the government that this just won’t do. I’m sure they will try and ignore us; we need to get thousands of submissions in on this, so they can’t ignore us. While none of the suggestions put forward in this document are ideal, a group of us have formed around the idea of Option 3+. Option 3 suggests that the to-be-created rebuild entity be led by the Christchurch City Council, not the Government. We’ve started a campaign to get as many people are possible to submit in support of this idea. We’ve called it Option 3+, as we think that while Option 3 is the best of the three proposals, we would like to see more than that. If you’re submitting, you might want to say you’re submitting in support of Option 3, plus additional community feedback, or plus an additional focus on the suburbs. You can check out the Facebook group to see what other people want for the city.

There are a number of ways you can provide feedback, including via email, going to the website, or hitting them up on Facebook. You’ve got until 5pm, Thursday the 30th of July.

Tim Hunter, the CEO of Canterbury Tourism, writes a stirring opinion piece about the pros and pros of the proposed convention centre. It’s his job to promote this boondoggle, so you can’t criticise him for that. You can criticise him for the very poor arguments he puts up. He says there are “eight compelling reasons”. Let’s go through them:

1. Job Creation

There is a long, convoluted paragraph which takes a bunch of hypothetical numbers, inflates them, multiplies them, and then uses this to say that it will create lots of jobs. I think you could go through all the assumptions, but rather than that, just look at the final sentence:

The good news is that many of these jobs will be available to students and younger employees on a part-time basis.

Good news? This is good news? Essentially, what he is saying is that $500m plus of investment is going to result in a handful of low-paid, part time jobs in the hospitality sector. This is not good news. There are many ways in which the government could better spend $300m if the outcome was “jobs”. They could start by putting that money back into fixing the city’s horizontal infrastructure, which would not only directly employ a large number of people, but would also improve the quality of life for everyone in the city, not just the few who attend conferences.

2. Significant economic benefits

Yeah. The economic benefits of convention centres have been wildly overstated. Probably the most comprehensive piece on this is from Gordon Campbell. But long story short – we’re a small country with a tiny domestic convention market at the arse end of the world, in which at least half a dozen regions are building conventions centres to try and attract hypothetical conventions away from the other centres. It doesn’t add up.

3. Government gift

The taxpayers of New Zealand are bestowing a “gift” upon Christchurch that they haven’t been asked to give to a city that hasn’t asked for it. Bizarre reasoning from Hunter.

4. Stimulating our knowledge economy

If the government wanted to stimulate our knowledge economy, then they would take this $300m and put it into the research and development sector. Hobnobbing at a $1000 plus registration conference might make the Minister for Business and Innovation feel good, but it doesn’t contribute much to innovation and development. This money could be put aside in a fund to stop some of our best Post-doc researchers from leaving the country when they don’t get a piece of the pittance of money that is available through competition research funding.

5. Tourism and hospitality boost

I don’t really see how this differs much from point number 1, except this is meant to help the hospitality sector over the quiet winter months. If your business can’t plan for things that happen every year, like the seasons changing, then I think you’re doing businessing wrong, and I’m not sure how a convention centre is going to magically fix that.

6. Investment catalyst

A good number of investors have new hotel projects planned for Christchurch that will only be activated once construction of the Convention and Exhibition Centre commences.

Another way of putting that sentence would be: “Philip Carter, brother of the current speaker of the house and one of the South Island’s richest men, is waiting to see if the government puts money into the convention centre that he is a partner in the construction of, before he invests to fix the hotels he owns which have been given favourable terms of operation.” That these hotels “will only be activated” once the convention centre begins sounds vaguely threatening, as if Murray McCully needs to come down with some sheep and a facilitation payment.

7. Attractive precinct design

Well, I think we can agree to disagree on this point.

8. More efficient

This centre is going to be more efficient than the last one, which was of course built less than 20 years ago for $15 million dollars. If a centre being built two decades later, for more than 30 times the cost of the previous one, wasn’t “more efficient” than the last one, then we’d have to find some new and more efficient ways to fire the project managers.

The deadlines for a number of the apparently critical anchor projects were pushed out late last week. If you’ve read this blog, you know what my feelings are on those projects, so I won’t go into them again. However, there was one thing that especially concerned me: the cost. The delays were to three projects – the convention centre, the metro sports facility, and the Margaret Mahy playground. When defending the decision, Gerry Brownlee said that these were a billion dollars of projects and it needed to be done right.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee said the three projects would cost about $1 billion between them, and it was important not to rush them.

I don’t disagree with the sentiment, but when did these three projects get to a billion dollars? I’ve looked back through the costs to try and find the original estimates. The playground is budgeted at $20 million. Metro Sports is meant to be around $225 million ($147m CCC + $70m Crown). The convention centre is meant to be around $500 million, with $284m of that being Crown money. Those of you with School C maths will have worked out that those totals come to $750 million, which is a full $250 million short of a billion. We know that the Prime Minister can’t rule out the Convention Centre cost rising – is that what is being signalled here? With the Council under the pump to sell assets or raise rates, it must be incredibly dispiriting to be working with a government that can’t even manage their end of the bargain without the costs blowing out by a third.

An opinion piece from Felicity Price ran in the Press last week, putting the case once again for the Council scrapping the Town Hall and spending the money on a performing arts precinct. Price used to be involved with both the Court Theatre and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, and documents the hardship that people in the arts in Christchurch are going through.

Right now, our city’s musicians, actors and all the people they rely on for the show to go on, are enduring some pretty appalling conditions. The Council and Cera need to get back together and come up with a solution that doesn’t have our actors and musicians freezing to death for the next five years or more.

Court audiences love the funky, vibrant theatre in Addington, love being able to park for free right outside and have a better view of the stage than at the cramped Arts Centre venue. But they don’t have to build sets wearing battery-heated Antarctic-issue jackets and fingerless gloves, or get headaches from the strip lighting while they either freeze or fry in the poky portacabins out the back where wardrobe, ticket sales and admin are based.*

I’ve bolded that particular sentence, because I think it highlight’s Price’s argument. In her view, it is the responsibility of either the Council or CERA to come up with a scheme to stop actors and musicians from freezing to death. Call me old fashioned, but I thought it would have been the responsibility of the employer to ensure the wellbeing of their employees. As Price mentioned on a number of occasions, arts attendances are higher than they were pre-quake. Huge amounts of money were donated by individuals and businesses to help arts organisations. And yet, calls from these organisations – privately run organisations, I should add – for hand outs from the public continue with a depressing regularity.

If the attendances are up, as boasted about in the article, then surely you should be putting some of that revenue towards improving the wellbeing of your staff, or looking to improve your premises. But instead of taking responsibility, Price suggests that the already cash-strapped Council should be finding money in it’s budget to build facilities for a professional theatre company. While she is claiming that Court technicians are metaphorically freezing to death, the Council is having to debate whether it will put money towards people literally freezing to death. To me, this shows how detached from reality, and hand-out dependant, some of the top-level arts bureaucrats in this city have become post-quake (speaking at Gap Filler event a month or so ago, Jenny Harper suggested people submit to the Long Term Plan, asking them to postpone infrastructure works for another year or two so she could have her art acquisition budget restored.) Artists are notorious for having their heads in the clouds, but you could argue it’s the administrators – not the practitioners – who have taken leave of their senses.

* I am willing to bet that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people working in the building industry in Christchurch right now who suffer similar, if not worse conditions, every time the weather packs it in. But they don’t have PR people extolling their virtues in sympathetic opinion pieces in the Press, so they don’t count.

About a month ago, the incredibly useful website was relaunched with help from the NZ Herald. I had a few ideas for OIA requests in my head, and once the site was up again, I fired them off. One of these requests was about the app produced by Future Christchurch, call “Chch Story“:

Chch Story, a brand new mobile app packed full of inspirational stories from real people who’re making their mark on the city, as well as anchor project updates and interesting facts and figures about the rebuild and recovery. Stories are geo-tagged, so when the app is opened, viewers will automatically see a map with the stories that are closest to them.
“Initiatives like Chch Story are bringing to life the stories behind the bricks and mortar and giving people the opportunity to see what’s happening in the medium they like best,” says Mr Ombler.

This app cost the best part of $80,000 to develop (GST exclusive). I also asked for the number of times the app has been downloaded, which was 1447 times. That works out as $54 per app. Try and find another app in the app store which costs $54. CERA is throwing money and people to get their version of the rebuild story out to the public, with their rugby-team sized communication department, and this well-meaning but expensive foray into the digital world. The paltry number of downloads shows just how interested the public is in the official take. It’s hard to reconcile the brightly coloured, optimistic version portrayed through the official channels with the empty sites and road cones of the central city. Throwing good money at an app is clearly not the way to generate any meaningful engagement.

UPDATE: to quote Barnaby:

$80,000 on an app 1500 people have downloaded. Thats twice as much as we spent making and printing 2000 copies of the 500 page our book on the rebuild.

On Tuesday evening, Canadian urbanist Charles Montgomery gave a couple of lectures about his thoughts on Christchurch. I wasn’t there – it was cheap Tuesday date night* – but it sounds like he had some good things to say. The headline was the Convention Centre:

Putting a convention centre in the middle of Christchurch’s city centre is a mistake, Canadian urban experimentalist Charles Montgomery says.

“If your interest is in creating rich, social, connected enviroments in your core you should be very wary of plans to drop mega structures into that fabric. Convention centres are notorious, because of their architectural requirements, for killing street life around their edges,” Montgomery said.

The response from CCDU director Baden Ewart is straight from the CERA play book. He also had some interesting thoughts about residential density:

Montgomery said Christchurch should be encouraging higher density housing and aiming to have far more than 20,000 people living in the central city because that would increase opportunities for people to connect socially, which was the most important ingredient for human happiness. Within the central city core and the eastern frame, there were tremendous opportunities to create the kind of density people loved, he said.

“Young people want more freedom. They don’t want to spend their lives mowing a lawn. They want more freedom to spend time with their friends and families, to go out, to access the riches of the city. How do you get that? By moving a little closer together.”

This is all great stuff and I’m glad to see it getting some attention. But it does bring up a point that was raised to me by former mayor Garry Moore a few weeks ago – Overseas Expert Syndrome. Moore described how when he was mayor, people were far more likely to listen to someone with a funny accent coming here and telling us things, than we are to listen to our own experts. Which I’m sure is a thing worldwide, but we New Zealanders, with our sense of inferiority of place, seem more susceptible to this sort of approach.

The irony of which is that one of our very own experts, Gap Filler co-founder and Once in a Lifetime editor Dr Ryan Reynolds, is currently in Copenhagen, where he is lecturing on urban design and activism. Maybe when he gets back off the plan, we should listen a bit more carefully to what he has to say.

* I went to see Dior and I, which was very enjoyable, much of this was due to the performance of Raf Simons. If you would like to come and see another suave european named Raf, then tonight I’m hosting a debate with council finance supremo Raf Manji on asset sales. It’s at 5:30pm at the EPIC centre. Free to come along, and hopefully informative! More details here.

Barnaby has written a very long investigation about the Convention Centre, which you can read here. There is one of thing that doesn’t come up, which I have been thinking about. Pre-quake, and actually still to this day, the council-owned company V-Base runs conferences in the city. They also ran Lancaster Park. At the moment, their main conference facility is Wigram Airforce Museum. The new convention centre is done in a deal with Accor, who are meant to be running the conventions. What I’d like to know is whether this means that the government is putting money into a convention centre that will be run by a French company in direct competition with a company run by the ratepayer? If so, what does this mean for V-Base? Will the council have to wind it up, or will it try and out-compete? Seems like a relevant question to have answered before we spunk out $284 of public money.


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