David Williams: Labour will be judged on Christchurch’s red zone

Labour should work hard on ensuring Christchurch’s red zone becomes a tourism drawcard, otherwise the party's own recovery in the quake-hit city might be short-lived, writes David Williams 

COMMENT: Terrible times bring out the best in people. Beyond selfless acts of rescue, sacrifice and bravery on February 22, 2011, and the Student Volunteer Army, one of the best collective movements in Christchurch since the deadly quake was ‘Share an Idea’.

Over six weeks, Christchurch people left messages, filled out questionnaires and posted notes to say how the central city should be redeveloped. There was a two-day expo in May 2011, as well as online comments and a series of public workshops. I attended the expo with my wife, marvelling at the sheer number of people proudly putting forward their vision for the city.

It culminated in 106,000 ideas being funnelled into a draft Central City Plan. Share an Idea won an international award. Then it was largely ignored.

The plan was superseded by the Government’s recovery blueprint and the goodwill built up was lost.

Another such moment is presenting itself in Christchurch – for government agencies, the city council and, crucially, for Labour’s chances at the next general election.

Last month, Regenerate Christchurch – a joint Crown-council agency which rose from the ashes of the feckless Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) – set out 10 concepts for the future of Christchurch’s so-called “red zone” land.

(The Government spent more than $1 billion buying a huge swathe of quake-damaged land stretching from the central city to New Brighton. The 602-hectare area is eight times the size of Auckland Domain. Its book value is now $19 million.)

Concepts include a sports lake, tourist attractions such as an Eden Project similar to the original in Britain, and, controversially, housing.

Yesterday, Regenerate Christchurch said it had received 1871 responses, which should be made public within weeks. The shortlist will be announced early next year.

The agencies involved in the red zone plan might be forgiven for taking so long if they get it right. But Labour might not get a second chance.

Chief executive Ivan Iafeta, the former boss of CERA’s residential red zone, said most people didn’t support large-scale residential development, including a potential landswap with two publicly-owned golf courses. But some people did endorse “innovative and adaptable housing”.

Anger at lack of progress

A lack of progress in the city’s east has angered many. It's a searing indictment on the last government; a slow-moving slurry of broken promises. CERA failed to deliver a red zone plan. As it stands, Regenerate Christchurch’s draft plan isn’t expected to be finalised until the end of the year. By then, it’ll be more than eight years since the September 2010 quake.

New Canterbury rebuild minister Megan Woods needs to ensure the Government picks up the pace in the east. To do the job properly, the coalition might need to spend more than the $300 million capital “accelerator” fund Labour promised to “fill the gaps” in Christchurch.

The agencies involved in the red zone plan might be forgiven for taking so long if they get it right. But Labour might not get a second chance. No doubt, the popularity of now Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern swelled Labour’s vote in Christchurch. But there was also a feeling, not unlike when National’s John Key emerged, that it was time to give the other mob a go.

This is Labour's chance. The red zone is their place.

In the red zone, Woods has the chance to make her mark on Christchurch’s recovery. Labour won’t be blamed for delays or cost-overruns in the central city “anchor projects”, many of which haven’t even started. But given it has arrived just as the red zone plans are being decided, it could rightly take a hit if things don’t go well.

How could things go wrong? 

Firstly, if the people aren’t listened to. Often there’s a sense that bureaucracies are just going through the motions and will do what they want anyway. If there’s a sniff of that in the red zone, it could be political dynamite, in the worst way, for Labour.

To just roll over and put houses back on red-zoned land would not only show a lack of ambition, but a lack of common sense.

Secondly, if the concepts lack ambition. Some of the central city anchor projects seem innovative and dynamic, but too much of Christchurch’s rebuilt buildings are striking examples of last century’s way of doing things. Or as one headline in The Press poses, “why did Christchurch rebuild the city of yesterday?”. If there’s too much focus on process and not enough on progress there’ll be widespread disappointment.

Lastly, tourists need compelling reasons to come to Christchurch. The quakes battered the industry, with the number of available hotel rooms and backpacker beds falling by over two-thirds. International tourism is yet to recover. The red zone is a chance to do something innovative; something ambitious enough to put Christchurch back on the international tourism map.

Investment returns

Speaking about the Government’s $1.5 billion spend on red-zoned land, Regenerate Christchurch’s Iafeta told The Press in August it was prudent to consider how the “investment” could be “returned to the country”. One would hope he wasn’t talking about houses.

To just roll over and put houses back on red-zoned land would not only show a lack of ambition, but a lack of common sense. Let’s remind ourselves what the government told us in June 2011, when it made offers to the insured owners of red-zoned land. It said there was: “significant and extensive area-wide land damage; a high risk of further damage to land and buildings; and uncertainty over “uneconomic” engineering solutions. Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee said at the time: “In some areas, we’re talking about the need for up to three metres of compacted fill to bring the land up to compliant height, along with many kilometres of perimeter treatment.”

Regenerate Christchurch's feasibility study says area-wide remediation is now economic. Filling and raising the land, and securing it with stone piles, would cost more than $100 million but, we're told, the land could be sold for a profit of $35 million. That's not a great return on investment. And why take the risk? Christchurch’s house prices are falling and developers are already building more homes than they know what to do with.

Woods told Newsroom this month “the eastern suburbs are a priority for us”. Then she should work hard on ensuring Christchurch’s red zone becomes a drawcard, in New Zealand and overseas. If it’s not, Labour’s own recovery in this quake-hit city might be short-lived.

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