This week, Christchurch will find out about the governance arrangements and the transfer of power from CERA to someone else. It’s meant to happen on Thursday:

Prime Minister John Key is expected to outline new power arrangements for the control of Canterbury’s quake recovery in a speech to city business people on Thursday. This will likely set the framework for how the Government hopes to run the recovery past April next year.

The first people to know about these proposed changes for how the city will run aren’t going to be the people who live here. Nope. It’s going to be the business people. Yeah, sure, this is just a lunch, and a safe place for Key to announce the changes. But it is so symbolic of the way this recovery is being handled, and in whose interests. If National cared about the people of the city, they could have held a joint announcement alongside the Mayor at the Council building. Or better yet, they could have gone to New Brighton and stood in front of the people who have been most affected by both the quakes, and the government’s handling of the aftermath.

But no, it will be done in front of a bland group of rich white men, who have been the biggest supporters of the government’s direction. I’m not surprised, but that doesn’t mean I’m not disappointed as well.

They’re one of our societies most maligned groups, never asking for anything, never getting the breathless media coverage they so clearly think they deserve. But the property developers of Central Christchurch are going to the public this winter, to ask for your money to help them to realise their dreams of seeing their egos manifest in glass and concrete. Yes, that’s right – if you’re a taxpayer or a ratepayer, or even better, both! – these old, white, rich men want your money to help fund their vanity projects. That’s right, for a just the price of a cup of coffee, you could be helping one of Christchurch’s monied elite to construct the convention centre you didn’t ask for, or the retail centre you’ll never be able to afford to visit. Don’t delay, donate now!

Yesterday, as the council debated the budget, and headed towards an asset sell-off we’ve been told is a the only way to balance the books, they also found time to relieve property developers of the contributions they provide to council. This move was led – of course – by Cr Gough, the nephew of one of the main benefactors of this change, Anthony Gough:

Cr Jamie Gough, who led the push to scrap the development contributions, said effectively the council was making the central city a “DC-free zone”.

It was signalling it would “never be cheaper than it is today” to build in central Christchurch.

I’m sure Jamie knows this, so it doesn’t really need repeating, but the main reason why it is prohibitively expensive to build in central Christchurch is that the cost of land is so high, because the government used the Blueprint to buy up land and artificially limit land supply. This was what the developers wanted – but now they are complaining that the costs are too high. The Blueprint was a document that gave a small group of influential developers what they wanted (government intervention to prevent the collapse of central city land values, and thus the collapse of their property portfolios), and now they have successfully lobbied for a broke council to scrap one of their much-needed income sources.

But wait! There’s more!

Clearly feeling emboldened by the Council rolling over and letting them scratch their bellies, these brave developers are now demanding money from the Crown for delays to the Convention Centre:

City Owners Rebuild Entity (Core) spokesman Ernest Duval said the more the project was delayed, the more money would be needed. There was a natural increase in construction costs of about 8 per cent a year, he said, “It will cost more simply to build the exact same thing that was planned in 2013 because of rising construction costs.”

The government is already pouring at least $284m into something that no-one asked for and many have questioned whether we need. While there have been delays, we still haven’t seen a business case for the project. We don’t know how it’s going to operate. Instead of ploughing good money into a giant hole the size of two city blocks, it makes sense to wait. But these asshole developers know a sweet deal when they see one, and feel like they might as well try their luck at the Taxpayer ATM. For a bunch of people convinced that the free market will fix the central city, they aren’t too proud to repeatedly milk the public teat for money. These winklepickered parasites need to jump in their Maseratis and take a long drive on a long road out of this town. We will survive without them. There are plenty of good people who can rebuild this city without repeatedly blackmailing the place they’re claiming to save.

The Once In A Lifetime crew are getting together tomorrow night for a discussion about housing in Christchurch. Full info is as follows:

Talking Heads #2: Anna Langley, Dr Alistair Humphrey and Garry Moore in conversation with Barnaby Bennett

6pm – 7pm, June 24th, at Switch Espresso, New Brighton Mall (opposite Fish n Chicken)
The team behind the book Once in a Lifetime: City-building after Disaster in Christchurch is pleased to present the second edition of Talking Heads, a series of talks that explore the current state of play in Christchurch and expand upon some of the themes and issues discussed in Once in a Lifetime.

Join us out east for a discussion about housing: is there a housing crisis?

With our panel participants we hope to open up the conversation to look at some of the many issues that feed into housing: affordability, health and wellbeing, quality of housing and so on.

Barnaby Bennett, one of the book’s editors and architecture PhD student, hosts this event and will field questions from the floor.

Anna Langley is on the board of Tenants Protection Association and is a facilitator of a community hub which delas with social issues . Dr Alistair Humphrey is the Canterbury Medical Officer of Health and Garry Moore is a former mayor and runs the not-for profit Your Home, which buys houses in the east and moves them to sections elsewhere in Canterbury in an attempt to provide affordable housing to lower income families.

Copies of Once in a Lifetime: City-building after Disaster in Christchurch will be available for $40.

The landfill out in Burwood, where much of the demolition waste from the CBD has ended up, looks like it will continue to accept more rubble from the city for a while to come:

The slower than expected pace of demolition and increase in volume of material meant Christchurch’s Burwood Resource Recovery Park was likely to operate longer than its planned September 2017 closure date, Transwaste Canterbury chairman Gill Cox said.

“We’re not talking years and years of extensions. The demolition will stop at some stage. It will come to an end,” Cox said.

That end is not yet in sight. The first building built in the CBD after the quakes is set for demolition soon:

The original building on the corner of Manchester and Worcester streets partially collapsed in the September 2010 earthquake. It was one of the first city centre buildings to be rebuilt after the February earthquakes, reopening three years ago at a cost of cost $3.3 million. Demolition of the new building will start in the next two weeks to make way for a government plan to widen Manchester St by 9 metres.

The Mayor has questioned why the building was allowed to be built, given that it was now set for demolition. She also called the demolition “a terrible waste“. It does seem certifiably potty that in 2015 we are knocking down a perfectly functional building to widen a road. However, noted architectural historian and design aficionado Mike Yardley doesn’t think there is an issue, as the building doesn’t meet his high aesthetic standards. While you might have thought that he wrote the phrase “by-passed of personality, let alone any semblance of imagination” about himself, he did in fact direct it at the Westende Building. Yardley much prefers the work of the visionary Gough the Elder, and his accomplice, Gough the Younger.

While the Westende Building may not have the details to impress our most learned commentators, its value is more symbolic than aesthetic. Here we have the first building in the city post-quake being erased from the map for the sin of having the temerity to exist before the map itself did. This building is impeding progress – and progress is expanding Manchester St to become 6 lanes wide. And into the grander scheme of the East Frame fall the fates of a number of other buildings – including the old IRD building. Though currently slated for demolition, Barnaby Bennett argues convincingly in this opinion piece that it should be saved, and used as a facility to house artists, studios, NGOs and other groups that are desirable to the make up of a vibrant city. It’s similar to an argument I made last year around saving the buildings we had that were still standing. If there is a way to re-use these buildings – and one that makes economic sense – then we should be doing whatever we can to ensure it comes to fruition. As the Mayor said during the recent Town Hall debate, “the greenest building is the one still standing.”

Oh dear. In a sign that Christchurch is returning to it’s pre-quake normality, residents in an expensive-but-tasteless suburb are banding together to protest the arrival of – get this – an old house. The horror, the horror! Picking up a salvageable house from a damaged section is good for the seller, is good for the buyer, is good for the government, is good for the environment – but it might be a slight inconvenience to the neighbours who live in a 9 bedroom house and might be able to see this eyesore out the side of a window in the second upstairs ensuite.

Travis Country, which I had never been to, and am now adding to my “never visit” list, is a subdivision with strict covenants preventing certain dwellings:

Travis Country properties are subject to a covenant prohibiting “any dwelling other than a new house” on its sites. It also specifies houses must have a floor area of at least 190 square metres and not have steel garages or any fence made of, or appearing to be made of, iron.

Must have a floor area greater than 190 square metres? While they’re at it, they might as well add a clause “must deliberately build a house twice as big as needed, needlessly ramping up the property market and making it as difficult as possible for first home buyers to enter the market”. The average house size in New Zealand is 149m^2, so this subdivision requires that every house must be at least a third bigger than the average New Zealand house. 

The data on house sizes in that link was from 2011, so may be slightly out of date, but it should be noted that of the top ten districts with the largest houses, two of them (Selwyn and Waimakariri) are the boom suburbs on the outskirts of Christchurch. In Westmorland, the hill suburb where I used to have a paper round, the average size is 236m^2. How many rooms in these giant houses sit empty, whilst Christchurch still has people living in garages and cars?

I get this. Other people are annoying. Having neighbours sucks. Being part of a body corporate is difficult. So is working in an open plan office. Rather than develop relationships with other people, sometimes you just want to have your own room / office / house / suburb / island / planet. But as the population of the planet continues to increase, and more and more people choose to live in cities, we have to find ways of living better togather. Instead, these giant babies are choosing to live in giant houses in satellite suburbs, closing the gates on other people. The council, the government, whoever, needs to stop letting these insane covenants being placed upon subdivisions, before our city devolves into a collection of far-flung gated communities spread across the plains. 

The Government’s handling of the rebuild hit a new low point, as the latest report from CERA into EQC repairs is propaganda that would make Kim Jun Il proud. After an MBIE report looked at 14 property repairs and found that 13 of them had issues, CERA commissioned an “independent report”. The methodology for this report is extraordinary:

[A] sample of 100 houses was chosen from a pool of 200 properties selected by the Earthquake Commission (EQC), IAG, Southern Response, and Housing New Zealand.

Homeowners with open complaints against EQC or issues that were still being remediated by EQR were exempt from the survey.

So the houses are chosen randomly from a pool which contains only houses that are offered up by the bodies managing the claims, and explicitly removes ones where there are complaints.

Allowing insurers to “self select” which homes could be included in the survey was “clearly ridiculous”, and homeowners were frustrated that many of their concerns were not being considered.

More than 65,000 homes had received earthquake repairs in Canterbury since 2010, but the four organisations were able to pre-select only 200 of those for the survey.

This is like Sepp Blatter saying that his hands are clean of corruption, whilst standing on a pile of brown envelopes, overflowing with cash. What did they think this was going to achieve? Did they think no-one was going to notice? This is the behaviour befitting the dictator of a bureaucratic Eastern Bloc backwater, not a supposed 21st century democracy. EQC, and the Minister responsible, Gerry Brownlee, need to be held to account for this farce.

“Power Lists” are the pre-Buzzfeed listicle that publications fall back on when they don’t have enough news for an actual story. They’re an arbitrary list, comparing people in different professions, walks of life, levels of influence, and giving them a ranking that can’t be justified. Having said all of that, as I watched the council debtate over the Town Hall last week, I couldn’t help but think: Lianne Dalziel is now the most powerful person in the city.

In ordinary circumstances, it might not be a surprise that the Mayor is the most powerful person – but these are no ordinary circumstances. Gerry Brownlee has dominated the political environment in the city since the quakes, completely emasculating the previous mayor, sidelining any opposition MPs, and marginalising his ultimately doomed Chief Executive Roger Sutton. But the decision over the Town Hall may be the point at which we look back and say that the Council took back the power.

Brownlee’s grasp on the city has been waning since before the last election. During the campaign, the Prime Minister announced that CERA was to be brought within his own Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet – a sure sign that Key and English no longer trusted Brownlee’s handling of the recovery. While Sutton departed under a cloud, we’ve also seen a number of other high profile exits – Warwick Isaacs and Reid Stieven have also left CCDU and EQC, respectively. 

Post-election, Brownlee was also given the Defence portfolio, which has been an important but low-profile Ministry for some time. His handling of the deployment to Iraq has been a return to the cartoon buffonery that he was associated with pre-quake. I’d argue that his behaviour in the defence portfolio – arrogant, ignorant, bullying – is no different from his rule over the recovery. The difference seems to be that while he can get away with it in Christchurch, he can’t pull the same tricks in full view of parliament and the Press Gallery.

On the Town Hall, Brownlee has shown the disdain he has previously expressed for heritage buildings. He remarkably dismissed the independent report into the facility, whilst admitting he hadn’t read it. Back at the Council Chambers on Thursday, and Mayor Dalziel cross-examined her own council staff who presented the report, showing that not only did she read it, she understood it. She understood the heritage, the cultural, the environmental, and the financial implications of the decision. She could see that a full restoration of the Town Hall was the right call, in spite of the campaign from the Press, who repeatedly used their editorial and opinion pages to present a very one-sided case against it. Her experience and determination moved the windvanes of knee-jerk reaction – with two former talkback hosts sensing the changing breeze. Concillor Ali Jones voted for restoration, whilst her former NewstalkZB colleague Mike Yardley wrote on Friday that he too had become a convert after watching the Mayor’s performance.

This is but one decision, but bodes well for the campaign to bring control of the city back to the people who live and work in it. At the end of the month, the “transition plan” will come up for discussion. And there may be a transition of another kind; rumours abound that David Carter may be relieved of his terrible reign in the Speaker’s chair. The bad news is that his replacement may be none other than Gerry Brownlee. If this did come to pass – probably not before late this year or early next – then it would be left to Nicky Wagner to turn the lights out at CERA. It is into this void that Dalziel and her council are reaffirming their role as the primary determinants of the broken city’s direction. 

As you may have seen, the council voted this afternoon 12-1 in support of the full restoration of the Town Hall. I think it it’s a marvellous decision, which makes cultural, historical, and financial sense. I was there for about an hour and a half, which included a presentation from 4 council staff to the council, and then a council debate. I think I saw 5 or 6 of the councillors speak before I left, and got the decision via twitter (though it was clear which direction the vote was heading).

The presentation from the council staff was comprehensive, and a number of the councillors said that they were swayed by it. I think that’s good – it is what the council staff are there to do. Essentially, it comes down to this slide, of which I have a very blurry picture of:

The costs to the council of the various options are outlined. As you can see, the most expensive option for the council is actually to knock down, and build new. The two partial options still cost more than half of the full resotration, but only provide the city with half of the facilities. Yet, if you have been following this story via the Press, which is the place where most people get their Christchurch news, you wouldn’t have seen that. I wrote about this on Monday, but I think it needs to be said again; their coverage has been very unbalanced, and I can only assume there was a deep lying resentment for the building. They implied that full restoration of the Town Hall was financially irresponsible, when in fact, the scenarios they endorsed were actually more irresponsible. I had a conversation with my grandmother on Tuesday night, in which she repeated the points made by the Press editorial. I took her through the numbers, after which she agreed that it did make sense. But so many more people will have just taken the paper’s word for it, and I think that is a real shame.

This isn’t just a one-man conspiracy theory; the Mayor herself made it clear that she was disappointed in the reporting of the numbers contained in the report. She said that there was a perception in the media that restoring the Town Hall was the most expensive option, when in fact it was the cheapest. This was the first time I’d been to see the council in action this term, and I was very impressed with the way that she ran things. She clearly understood the issues at hand, and asked a series of very detailed questions of the council staff who presented. She made a number of points which hadn’t made it into the wider public discussion about the building. She was keen to point out that the greenest building was one that was repaired, rather than one that was knocked down and sent to landfill – a sentiment I wish the government had embraced. She also questioned how the cost-sharing agreement had budgeted a figure of $150m to build a 1500 and a 600 seat auditorium, as well as a replacement for the Court Theatre and the Symphony Orchestra, when another report showed that it would cost $190m just to build a 1500 seat auditorium.

The speeches in the debate from the councillors which I saw were very good. Andrew Turner said this was a pivotal decision for the city – and I think he’s right. It’s the Council saying “hang on – this is our city, and we’ll make informed decisions about how to best administer it”. It was quite emotional hearing Jimmy Chen talk about his citizenship ceremony in the Town Hall in ’99, and also seeing his daughter perform there as part of a schools music competition.  Glenn Livingstone said that he’d had plenty of emails from people, all in support. But the only dissenting voice he’d seen was from someone who hadn’t actually read the report – a not-too-subtle dig at the recovery Minister. Jamie Gough said that his gut couldn’t let him vote for this, and he didn’t feel it in his “heart of hearts” – but maybe he should stop listening to those organs, and use his brain when making decisions.

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.

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.

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