Archives for category: The Press

Amongst all the other decisions at Council last week, they also voted down a roading project. A bunch of people are pissed about it – Waimak mayor, the NZTA – so the Press have gone in hard on the issue.

The city councillor responsible for overseeing transport in Christchurch is defending his decision to vote to pull funding for a crucial roading project. Cr Phil Clearwater heads the Christchurch City Council’s infrastructure, transport and environment committee and was one of seven councillors who last week voted to remove funding for the northern arterial extension and Cranford St four-laning from the council’s Long Term Plan (LTP).

The decision shocked both the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) and the Waimakariri District Council, which were expecting the city council to rubber-stamp the $50 million project they had been jointly planning for years.

I think the angle the Press are trying to run here is “this guy is in charge of transport, so why he no moar roads???” It’s nonsensical. Just because Clearwater is the head of the transport committee, that doesn’t mean he has to blindly vote for roading extensions. In fact, his experience as the head of this committee should suggest that he actually has more expertise on the subject, instead of him being singled out.

And singled out he is – though 7 councillors voted against it, he is the only one named. The other six don’t even get a mention in this. Clearly, the Press don’t like the People’s Choice councillors, whether it be their opposition to asset sales, or their defending of the Town Hall. All that said, this seems a remarkable ad hominem attack on one of the councillors who was just doing his job. As the story belatedly mentions at the end, there was public opposition to this project:

The city council received 45 submissions regarding the extension, with 37 expressing opposition.

If only the Press had access to the names of the 37 people who submitted against this, maybe they could do stories about them too?

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Yesterday, we had some rare good news about a heritage building: an independent business case supported the Council’s plan to restore the Town Hall. The numbers add up – in fact, it’s the best value proposition. That didn’t stop the sad but predictable chorus of opposition. Gerry Brownlee doesn’t think it’s a goer – but admits that he hasn’t actually read the report.

“It does have a ring of ‘it is too good to be true’ about it,” said Brownlee, who acknowledged he had not read the Deloitte report.

So the man responsible for the destruction of Christchurch’s built heritage doesn’t think the restoration is a goer, and he is basing that decision on literally nothing, as he’s too lazy to read the report. Why is his uninformed opinion even being quoted then?

But Brownlee’s opinion is uninformed and easy to dismiss. More concerning is the undying resolve of the Press Editorial to have the Town Hall demolished. In this editorial, they again question the decision, and back it up with a series of factual inaccuracies and half-baked agendas. Firstly, they muddy the figures about how much money is or isn’t available.

Under its insurance policy, if the building is repaired the council could get a payout of up to $68.9 million. If the building is not repaired, the payout would only be the indemnity amount of just over $32 million … But something other than full restoration may be possible. Restoring the auditorium and the foyer alone would cost $91 million. Restoring and reconfiguring the James Hay as a venue for symphony orchestra performances and the like would cost $109 million.

So the total cost for repairing the complex is listed at $127m – and yet the Press is advocating for two options which would see only half the building repaired, but cost much more than half of the full complex? This is also seems to be based on the assumption that if you knock down half the building, you get half the insurance money. If we’re generous, and assume that demo’ing the Town Hall but leaving the James Hay, results in a payout halfway between the repair and indemnity values, that puts the insurance payment around $50m (I think this is on the high side, but let’s play along). The council would still have to find $60m to restore the James Hay. Compare that with the difference between the full restoration cost ($127m) and the payout ($69m) and you find a similar sized gap ($60m). So the city ends up demolishing half of it’s best building for no apparent financial reason. This isn’t how the Press sees it:

Both of these lower-cost options would leave more for whatever is left of the idea of the performing arts precinct.

This seems to be the main reason for all these financial gymnastics.

The original plans for the precinct have long since evaporated but the council is still publicly committed to spending $30.5 million there. That is clearly not enough for any theatre or venue of any distinction, and probably would not be enough to lure the Court Theatre back to the centre of town.

So is the main goal of this exercise to “lure the Court Theatre back to the centre of town”? What no-one has sufficiently explained to me about the “Performing Arts Precinct” is why the ratepayer should be stumping up cash – in part generated by knocking down civic buildings – to try and lure a privately-run company to move their business back into town. The Court Theatre and the Symphony Orchestra might be Good Things®, but they are private businesses. Private businesses, which in the case of the Court, are doing very well in their new locations. The people who write the editorials at the Press, as well as the people who lobby for the Court like Felicity Price, don’t seem to think there is anything out of the ordinary about this.

More than anything, this reflects an ambition for those in power to see a privatisation of public space and the advancement of select private interests. The civic functions of the Town Hall complex – which was, on the 22nd of February, hosting two giant PPTA meetings – can be pushed to one side as the Right aim to frame this as an argument about “poorly used performance space”. The social and cultural benefits of a public space are near impossible to monetise, and thus don’t factor into the calculations of a Minister who will dismiss reports without even reading them.

I can only hope that the Council stays strong, and continues with the full restoration of the Town Hall this Thursday. Despite the best attempts of the Minister and the Press to make this a live issue, their arguments don’t stack up. A full restoration makes financial sense, it makes architectural sense, it makes cultural sense. More than that, it makes sense symbolically, in both showing that the Council still has the power to control the direction of this city, and that in the face of so much needless destruction of our built heritage, Christchurch can pull together to restore one of our greatest buildings.

We always knew Ilam was going to be an uphill battle. But we didn’t think we’ve have to spend so much time battling the Press, as well as the sitting MP. At the weekend, the Press provided comprehensive coverage of the electorates in Christchurch. Of all the electorates covered, Ilam was given the shortest article, with the headline “Brownlee a certainty“:

Gerry Brownlee, one of the South Island’s most powerful politicians, has held the Ilam seat for nearly 20 years and appears to be in a one horse race yet again in one of the safest seats in New Zealand.

The thing is, Ilam isn’t one of the safest seats in New Zealand. It’s not even in the top ten safest seats in the country. Selwyn, for example, is the second safest seat in the country – but was given twice the coverage. Also, this line is quite untrue:

However, both men are targeting their campaign at the party vote, indicating Brownlee is a certainty to retain his seat.

We’re running a strong two tick Labour campaign. Yup, we’re after the party vote – but to imply that we’re not campaigning for the candidate vote is entirely untrue. As I’ve found throughout the campaign, Ilam is a greatly unequal electorate, with some very rich people living just a few streets away from some of the poorest areas in the city. What would the sitting MP – apparently such a dead cert – do to improve the lives of those people who are doing it so hard? What would he do to improve the outcome for people who are still struggling with EQC, for which he is the responsible Minister? Would would the Minister of Transport do to improve the congestion on the roads in the north-west? The public are none the wiser on the answer to any of these questions, as Brownlee won’t front to any public meetings, and the Press haven’t bothered to ask him. The cursory coverage which the Press has given this electorate does it, and the 50,000 people who live in it, a great disservice.

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.

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.

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)

I’ve been up in Wellington for the last 24 hours, for the launch of my cousin Lotta’s book (which you can find more details about here) and so have been less connected that I usually am. So you may or may not have seen a couple of things that I’ve been involved in. The first was a post I wrote at The Standard, about the recovery (of course):

For so many of the people in this still-broken city, they feel that this is a journey which they have been left to walk alone. More than that, it is a journey which they are walking alone, into a howling headwind of government bureaucracy and ineptitude. Too often they find themselves fighting against the state, rather than working with them. One gets the impression that for all the visits and photo ops, Key just doesn’t get the situation down here.

The second was a feature by Philip Matthews in the Mainlander section of the paper, that interviews a range of Christchurch candidates, including myself:

In one way, Dann might have been an odd fit for Ilam, but in another, it was an ideal match. As earthquake recovery minister, Brownlee has been the chief target of Dann’s Rebuilding Christchurch blog. Now he gets to take him on in person. Dann is increasingly convinced that the blueprint is not working, and is too ambitious for a city the size of Christchurch. The widespread apathy in the city is just as problematic.

“We seem to be sleepwalking towards knocking down cathedrals, knocking down heritage buildings, knocking down a swimming pool to build a playground. National can say it has a mandate from 2011, but no one voted on a stadium, no one voted on a convention centre and no one voted on the frame.”

In a worrying development, the Press has joined up with the Taxpayers Union to push the latter’s asset sales agenda:

The Ratepayers’ Report found in the Canterbury region the Christchurch City Council was the worst-performing council in terms of operating expenditure, spending $3901 per ratepayer – well ahead of the national average of $3175.

“Worst performing” is an interesting term. I think they mean “spent the most money”. If a family of six spends $300 a week at the supermarket, and a retired couple spends $150, does that mean that the family of six are “worst performing”, or just that they have different needs? This is the sort of reductio ad absurdum rhetoric found in this piece. If only there was some major event that had happened in the city that had caused the council to increase it’s spending for some reason …

But wait! The CCC’s debt is set to increase as they take on the cost for the anchor projects of the rebuild. So to cut their cloth, the totally non-partisan Taxpayer’s Union recommends

The council data suggest that without more central government money, Christchurch City’s decision to keep assets such as the airport and Orion will need to be re-examined.

What a surprise. The CCC should sell off these assets, which produce a dividend that has kept rates in the city down, so we can build Brownlee’s egotistical anchor projects, like the Stadium and the Convention Centre – for which the business case remains non-existent.

The best-performing Canterbury council is Mackenzie District. It has the lowest average rates, the lowest operating group expenditure per ratepayer, the lowest group liabilities per ratepayer and the lowest staff to ratepayer ratio. “It appears to be a slick operation,” Williams said. “Ratepayers in Christchurch City and Waimakariri may want to consider why their councils do not appear to be providing the same value for money as Mackenzie District.”

The Mackenzie Country is a lovely place. It is also the home to a mere 4,000 people. So to compare the operation of New Zealand’s second biggest city to that of a district which has the same number of people as a well-attended speedway event is beyond a farce. Ratepayers in Christchurch City and Waimakariri may also want to consider whether they enjoy council services such as pools, gyms, kerbside recycling, cultural events and other such things which are provided in cities.

Speaking of the Mackenzie Country and the Taxpayers Union, yesterday I received a response to my OIA about the businesses cases used by the Crown Irrigation scheme. I asked for them to provide me with a business case for their decision to invest in the CPW scheme. The papers released by CIIL have almost every single word of substance redacted.

Screenshot 2014-06-11 11.11.49 Screenshot 2014-06-11 11.12.05

It’s a joke. So the taxpayer is putting $6.5m into an irrigation scheme, and we have no way of finding out how it is being spent, what the business case was, what the returns might be. Surprisingly, the silence from the Taxpayer’s Union over this unaccountable spending of taxpayer money has been deafening.

Every Wednesday, The Press runs an opinion column from their “At Home” editor, David Killick. These are very popular, w weekly grab-bag of assorted ideas about the rebuild of the city. I don’t usually read them, but this week’s one was about inner city living. As someone who lives in the inner city, I thought I should read it. I didn’t get too far before something stuck out like a sore thumb:

The Cera-CCDU Blueprint, drawn up in just 100 days in 2011, was initially hailed as bold and visionary.

Um. The CCDU Blueprint was launched in 2012. Now, this might seem like splitting hairs, but I am a little shocked that someone who’s primary role is to comment about the rebuild doesn’t know when the single most important document informing the rebuild came out. It could just be a simple mistake. I’m also a little bewildered that none of the subs picked it up. (For those who were wondering, the Blueprint was released to the public on July 30th, 2012.)

As to the rest of the content – well, I live in the CBD already, and made a very conscious choice to do so. There are a couple of things that concern me about this piece, but I’ll limit myself to these two:

One concern remains – while cafes, restaurants, and bars do add life, Christchurch does not need a return of out-of-control drunken youths creating mayhem in the inner city. Tougher laws and policing, plus a strong dose of self- control, are called for.

David, I’m not sure if you have been into the inner city on a Friday or Saturday night lately, but “out of control drunken youths” as you call them are already back. Both the St Asaph St and Victoria St bar areas are overflowing with drunk people late at night – though many of them aren’t exactly “youths” any more. It’s not pretty, and it’s not sustainable, but hand-wringing and moralising about it is not the most effective way to resolve it.

Lively music and entertainment are to be welcomed, though, and if you don’t like them, don’t live there.

I like live music. I’ve been in bands, and DJ’d around the place for a decade now. I work in a live music venue. So I like live music AND I live here – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be working to reduce the impact of late night noise pollution. If we are going to rebuild mixed-used residential with cafes and bars, then we could do smarter things to reduce their noise impact on their surrounds. If you’re going to custom build a venue, maybe it could be subterranean? Or if the apartments are properly sound insulated, then sound might not be such a problem.

Having lived above bars and music venues for much of the last decade, I can say that it isn’t the music that drives you nuts, it is the emptying of the bottle bins that happens once the bar is closed. There are ways to mitigate this. I think this is a very reductionist argument – if we want 20,000, or even 50,000 people living within the four aves, then we’re going to need to be more welcoming than just writing off whole swathes of the population who don’t like live music or the idea of “drunken out of control youths”. It’s going to need to cater for all sorts, and be designed in a way that brings them together, rather than crudely classifying them.