And to the victors, the spoils – ‘business as usual’ in Christchurch

The Taking of Constantinople – and then came the looting

[Warning: Very Long Post]

The strangely mis-named Christchurch and Canterbury ‘recovery’ continues to unfold in highly predictable ways.

Even Christchurch’s arsonists appear to have aligned their activity with the interests of the ‘recovery’ – or at least with the plans in the Blueprint for the central city.

The Government’s broom – with a little help from the criminal element – has now almost completely swept away the fragmented pieces and crumbs of the old ingredients – in the central city, ECAN and Christchurch schools.

And, as the new Christchurch is being mixed together and pushed into its carefully commercially-designed oven, the Government is poised to cut generous-sized pieces of this cake-in-the-baking to the favoured few left standing.

It could not have been more symbolic.

The destruction of the historic England Brothers Building in central Christchurch bya suspicious fire is “devastating”, the owners say.

The building, also known as the Billens Building, was destroyed in a blaze around 9.20pm on Friday.

The England Brothers (Billens) Building was the one bought by the Christchurch Heritage Trust, which had plans to fully restore and rebuild the heritage site. As I mentioned in this post,

 the Christchurch Heritage Trust bought the England Brothers House building on the stretch of High Street south of Tuam Street. As Trust Chairman Derek Anderson explained earlier this year:

… the trust would spend $4.4m to secure the building, rebuild the interior and strengthen its facade to 100 per cent of the earthquake code.

The trust would then lease the building to tenants.

Anderson said the building was an important part of High St’s streetscape.

“Lower High St will be the city’s heritage precinct because there’s not much left otherwise,” he said.

“We are conscious of preserving what we can now. It’s one step forward and two steps back. We’d put in a lot of work to save things, and now they are gone we’ve really got to make a good job of High St.

Unluckily for what’s left of Christchurch’s heritage buildings, the area is now plonk in the middle of the ‘innovation precinct’.

The building was in a series of about half a dozen buildings in lower High Street yet it was specifically targeted.

The arsonist(s) was either extraordinarily lucky in their asocial choice of random target or well-read enough to realise that there was no better way to kick Christchurch’s heritage supporters (and associated ‘carpers and moaners’) right in the guts than set aflame the building upon which they had placed so much hope and, of course, so much of their precious money.

Still, as I said, at least it removes a potential obstacle to the apparently ever-so-urgent task of rebuild and ‘recovery’. Without that heritage anchor in lower High Street, opposition to it being flattened to make way for the Blueprint’s ‘innovation precinct’ will no doubt be greatly reduced.

In fact, the recently opened EPIC ‘Sanctuary’ building, poster-child for the innovation precinct, sits in all its gaudy blackness less than a stone’s-throw from the torched rear of the Billens Building. Echoing a focus on ‘economic recovery’ that we’ll meet again and again below, Minister Steven Joyce said at the opening that,

“The opening of EPIC is an important step in the economic rebuilding of Christchurch and will create a valuable focal point for ICT businesses in the city,” Mr Joyce says.

“The blueprint for the new city includes plans for an innovation precinct in this area. EPIC, which will house 16 high-tech companies who have faced challenges with premises since the earthquake, is effectively the start of this,” Mr Joyce says.

Interestingly, Stage 2 of the EPIC project – to be up and running in five years – involves five buildings where now there is only one temporary building.

It’s probably a moot point, now, just how those five buildings would have fitted around the Christchurch Heritage Trust-owned Billens Building, not to mention the other buildings on High Street.

Yes, progress towards the ‘recovery’ is gathering pace whichever way you look.

In fact, the awards to the captains of the ‘recovery’ are already being thrown about like bridal bouquets after a wedding. CERA Economic Recovery Manager, Steve Wakefield, is the first to be honoured for his contribution by having “been named the nation’s top chartered accountant” after “being nominated by an anonymous advocate“. Pivotally – for the recovery -,

He was part of the team that came up with the Christchurch Central Development Unit [CCDU] as an appropriate tool for Government intervention and said he was pleased with how the city was faring.

This award was bestowed despite resigning from the position a year earlier than he expected to rejoin Deloitte’s, presumably because his work was done – if it needed doing in the first place.

Peter Townsend, for one, is already on record about the ‘bizarre’ survival rate of Canterbury businesses and the low net loss of population which barely registered a problem (and here he also notes the bouyant export sector). Put bluntly, “Christchurch has not actually taken a backward step in business terms“.

Yet, so we are daily led to believe, there is an urgent need to ‘fix’ the economy by pushing ever onwards with the Grand Central City Plan and, of course, the ‘efficient’ operation of ECAN – that vital lynchpin of Canterbury’s ‘recovery’ from the earthquakes (more on that below).

The Central City

The CCDU Blueprint is starting to deliver the central city on a plate to the largest property owners who, prior to the earthquake, were increasingly desperate over their declining property values.

This is being achieved by ensuring that the designated retail precinct is restricted to areas that they dominate – though international competition provides a twist to that story (see below). Additionally, only large (7500sq m or greater) plans will get the nod.

Despite the predictability of it all, the details remain fascinating and, as usual, very revealing. Those details also help the rest of us to decode so much of the rhetoric we’ve heard over the last two years.

One aspect of that rhetoric has been the seemingly aspirational call not just for ‘recovery’ but for ‘enhancement’, a call thoroughly embedded in the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act. This embedding has led to its inclusion in the CERA Recovery Strategy and, consequentially, in the Directions for Education Renewal in Greater Christchurch.

From the CERA Recovery Strategy;

The CER Act defines recovery as including both restoration and enhancement. Recovery is inherently future focussed and there will be opportunities to “build back better” when repairing damage caused by the earthquakes.

Opportunities for enhancements should be considered, including where:

  • they lead to increased resilience and/or functionality; or
  • are cost-effective according to life-cycle analysis provided that they do not come at the expense of the repair or replacement of essential infrastructure and services elsewhere.

For the purposes of this Strategy, “recovery” does not mean returning greater Christchurch to how it was on 3 September 2010.

And, from the bureaucratic echo-chamber, we have this in the Directions for Education Renewal in Greater Christchurch (p. 6),

“Recovery” is defined as including both restoration and enhancement within the strategy, which also sees recovery as future focused and taking opportunities for enhancements. Recovery does not mean returning to the state that existed on 3 September 2010.

‘Enhancement’ is, of course, always a ‘good thing’ – for someone.

But one person’s ‘enhancement’ can be another person’s catastrophe.

There are now clear clues about just for whom the ‘enhancement’ is being primarily designed, and it’s not for the general population of Christchurch.

Any complaint about this process of ‘enhancement’ has been met with accusations of ‘naysaying’ and ‘holding up the recovery’ or other formica-thin nonsense posing as socio-political analysis. That decisions from above are actually ‘enhancing’ is apparently in need of no discussion, and certainly not debate.

There’s a further piece of rhetoric that, here in Christchurch, we have become very used to over the past two years. It’s the repeated claim that, post-quakes, it’s not possible to continue with ‘business as usual‘.

In fact, once again, the CEO of the Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce, Peter Townsend, has been the one who has found it unendingly necessary to repeat this mantra.

Mostly, Townsend has used the phrase when arguing that Christchurch City Council should (or must) consider asset sales to fund the ‘enhanced’ recovery – whether to cover the “unexpected multi-million dollar bill for Port Hills land” (courtesy of a decision by the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister) or, again, to ‘be brave’ in how they cover the costs of the rebuild.

But he’s been talking up non-‘business as usual’ scenarios since shortly after the 22 February, 2011 earthquake. I was surprised by his comments at the time – I even commented in a previous post that he seemed to get what needed to be done when he argued the following:

Another possible scenario, one that Townsend said he would prefer to see, is property owners relinquishing control over land in exchange for a pooled ownership arrangement where they could effectively be shareholders in reconstructed subdivisions.

He said a block-by-block redevelopment (similar to what was employed in Kobe, Japan after a 1995 earthquake) would potentially be more attractive to locals and businesses that wanted to remain viable in the area.

“It may be better for property owners to take a share in some sort of entity that will take the city forward rather than to have a 1/4 acre of land with a tilt-slab on it that doesn’t fit into an overall plan that has little value.”

Mea culpa.

When praising Peter Townsend for his apparently extraordinary willingness to depart from basic property right principles for the ‘greater good’ I didn’t notice that very ‘business as usual’ term – “shareholder” – and its very important meaning.

I had assumed, way back then, that an argument for a ‘pooled ownership’ arrangement would be one based upon democratic participation in any ‘pooling’ (given the extraordinary circumstances) and democratic regulation of the design principles employed, on the assumption that the CCC and not the CCDU would be running the central city rebuild – using ‘Volume 2’ of the Draft Central City Plan (the volume ‘put to one side’ by Gerry Brownlee when he established the CCDU to take control of the process – as I noted here.).

Instead, it is now all too clear that what Townsend, and others, had in mind by ‘pooling’ was  ‘regulation’ of the small property owners by the big property owners.

What was I thinking?

Unlike voting in a democracy, the value of a vote as a shareholder is proportional to the ‘share’ of investment in a venture. It is not ‘one property-owner, one vote’ – it’s one dollar of investment, one vote.

Serves me right for not thinking like a business person. Peter Townsend’s ‘preferred scenario’ was one that delivered the central city retail precinct to Central Christchurch’s property-owning luminaries – the Carters, Goughs and co. … or even bigger ‘boys’ from elsewhere.

Last month was the deadline for ODPs and as it turns out, most of them were single claims led by wealthy locals for areas of property they mostly own.

For example, the well-known names of Philip Carter, Peter Guthrey and the Ballantyne family have formed the BCG Alliance to jointly develop the 2.6 hectares stretching from the Lichfield St car park through to Ballantynes, the Crossing and right to High St. This alone covers over 40 per cent of the retail precinct area.

Another prominent family, the Goughs, have an ODP to develop their Oxford Tce bar area, while Nick Hunt of Lichfield Holdings is representing some landlords who occupy the next stretch from Shades Arcade to Colombo St.

Each of these plans is going to have its battles. Even with single proposers, there will still have to be negotiations over any pockets of uncontrolled land [What a fascinating phrase – ‘uncontrolled’, as if no-one owns it or, perhaps, the wrong people.]. Other property owners will either be bought out or persuaded to become part of the wider project [aka, an offer they can’t refuse].

It should have been obvious when the CCDU/CERA imposed a 7500 sq m minimum requirement for plans in the retail precinct that the big fish, courtesy of the Blueprint, were moving in for a veritable economic feast:

[Warwick] Isaacs [CEO of the CCDU] says the old CBD was cut up into hundreds of individually owned lots, with nearly every building having a different owner. To ensure the rebuild was coherent, it was decided that under the new district plan, any redevelopment proposals had to take the form of an Outline Development Plan (ODP) covering an area of at least 7500 square metres, or about half a city block.

This meant landowners had to come up with a joint scheme which included all their neighbours. They had to show how they would produce a cohesive design when it came to parking, frontages, laneways and even trading hours, even if they wanted to rebuild only their building.

That Peter Townsend is one really psychic guy – I want him to pick my lotto numbers. Who would have thought that Peter Townsend – who no doubt had no more influence over how things turned out than either you or I – could have foreseen so many months ahead just how things would turn out. Pretty impressive stuff.

Either that or here we have one clue that, far from being the product of a 100-day ‘brainstorming’ session blossoming atop the City Council’s Share an Idea community love-in, this ‘blueprint’ has been in train for far longer than most Christchurch residents realise. Its crucial, nuts-and-bolts structural form was pre-ordained.

In fact, as a solution to a ‘crisis’ that’s been around for over a decade, it even predates Townsend’s prescient musings on his ‘preferred scenario’.

Back in September, 2008 it was all so different – yet much the same.

In response to the article’s title (in the link) – ‘Where does the Christchurch City heart beat?‘ – Richard Ballantyne, owner of the renowned department store on the corner of Colombo and Cashel Streets and, now, one of the “wealthy locals” manouvering around the juicy plum that the retail precinct now is, replied:

Not in the Central Business District, at the moment anyway,” says Richard Ballantyne, Director and Managing Director of J Ballantyne and Co Ltd and [unsurprisingly] stalwart supporter of the central city.

Ballantynes has a vision for the central city: to be the cultural, social and commercial heart of the wider region, showcasing what is best about Canterbury to both local and visiting people.

“Imagine the centre of Christchurch, with a refurbished City Mall, if the property owners target their rentals at rates which attract new and different tenants. Entrepreneurial retailers, cafes and other service providers will say ‘this is the place for me – I have a business that is different from those represented in the malls, and I will have a chance to grow and be profitable here’.”

‘New’ and ‘different’ tenants? Sounds a little bit arty, a little bit rock-and-roll?

Wind the tape forward to late 2012 …

Today, the Blueprint – and the CCDU – is apparently approaching “crunch time” as it seeks to remodel the central city …

What has become apparent is that the true core of the blueprint is the four blocks of the retail precinct – the rectangle of land zoned for high-end shops and offices bounded by Hereford and Lichfield streets to the north and south, and the river and High St to the west and east.

As Hamish Doig enthuses as he explains:

Doig says the central city had a chicken-and-egg problem. It needed to offer a high-quality environment to bring in the high-paying tenants, but then the high- paying tenants had to be there for a high quality environment to get built. This was the conundrum the CCDU had to crack.

The blueprint does a brilliant job of that, Doig says. “Everyone thinks it’s sensational and wants to support it.” [I’ll leave open the question of which particular social circles – i.e., ‘everyone’ – Hamish Doig moves within.]

The civic anchor projects will also guarantee a big step-up in quality. But Doig says the retail precinct is the real juggling act.

To pay for quality, Doig says, buildings need a double life. The retail precinct developments will have to be like those found in Sydney or Singapore, where at the level, the buildings are taken up by high-end shops, bars, restaurants and arcades, then the floors above are used as office space for banks, legal practices, government departments, and other high- paying tenants.

This way, the shops have a critical mass of well-heeled customers right on their doorstep. “The challenge for the central city is to have very strong retail on the ground floor with a hell of a lot of people upstairs feeding into that retail so there’s a strong lunchtime trade.”

Doig says it all interlocks. The more people using the city, the more attractions it can afford to offer. “You’ll see the very high-end retailers, your Guccis, Louis Vuittons, Ted Bakers and Cartiers, that you can’t get at the malls. A whole range of specialist shops.

“The trouble in Christchurch is our mall offerings are too strong, so if there’s not a point of difference to the malls, it’s not going to work.”

So, Richard Ballantyne’s hoped-for ‘new’ and ‘different’ tenants, lured into the central city through targeted rental rates, are ‘out’ and “high-end shops and offices” with “well-heeled customers” are ‘in’.

This blatant redesign of the central city in the interests of elite wealth is bad enough. That it is being sold to the people of Christchurch as a central city for them is pretty galling. As Roger Sutton so gleefully put it,

What thrills me about the Recovery Plan is it’s creating a city for the people. The Frame, Avon River Precinct, an active Square and other green spaces throughout, will make this a place that people want to work in, live in, play in and come to visit.

So that’s what all those lawns are for – the masses of Christchurch residents who won’t be able to afford a single cuff-link, let alone a wardrobe in the shops occupied by the “very high-end retailers“.

And then there’s that phrase ‘high-end’.

High-end tenants aren’t usually tenants looking for “a chance to grow and be profitable” – as Ballantyne chirruped in 2008. Instead, they tend to be established, exclusive, brand-based merchants looking for another suitable ‘high-end’ site to nest in as part of a global chain of outlets.

Richard Ballantyne’s vision of 2008, then, seemed to have in mind a particular kind of drum to which the ‘heart’ of Christchurch should beat. That drum is quite different from the one now set to drive the down town beat.

The defibrillator being applied to the central city is set to jerk its ‘heart’ out of the lives of ordinary Christchurch residents forever.

That is so sad. Before the earthquakes and, more importantly, before CERA and the CCDU, the centre of Christchurch with all its so-called messiness (as Don Miskell so anally described it) was a place that all the people of Christchurch could claim some part of as their own – and, because of that, they could feel comfortable walking around its streets. Simply, it had a very human heart, despite years of developers getting more than their way.

No longer, it seems. The centre will be, more than ever, a designer – and designed and planned – gilded cage.

As a small business-owner, previously located in Victoria Street, wrote in a Letter to the Editor (The Press, Monday, 3 December);

“As for aiming for high-end international retailers to occupy the [Cashel Street/City] mall, the planners should remember that it was the revitalised High St, with New Zealand fashion designers, which was drawing customers from the shopping malls.

I am the owner of a business previously in Victoria St and now relocated on the outskirts of the central city. It will be impossible for businesses such as mine to afford the rents proposed for the central business district.

But, as I said above, it’s the structural arrangements that matter most – Ballantyne’s entrepreneurial ‘tenants’ were, I’m afraid, always just a means to an end. Times change – and so, therefore, have the means.

Maybe the only element in Ballantyne’s vision that has actually changed since 2008 is that need for ‘new’, ‘different’ and ‘entrepreneurial’ tenants looking for “a chance to grow and be profitable“. They are now no longer needed to gain what really matters.

Looking again at his 2008 words, it’s clear that, while such tenants have been ejected from the ‘vision’, many other elements of it – and his concerns at that time – have been incorporated into, and answered by, the Blueprint:

“We must recreate the strong heart of yesteryear in a well defined centre of Christchurch[The Frame, the well-defined ‘retail precinct’]– not just for our residents but to attract and keep the visitor and tourist here for a few additional days[The Convention Centre]. To achieve this we must provide features that are quite different from what they might find at the malls and other cities [Now understood as ‘high-end’ outlets that, whether ‘local’ or international, are, oddly, the homogeneous, undifferentiated trademark of so-called ‘global cities’]. We already have world class cultural attractions in the city – the Court Theatre, City Choir, Orchestra and Opera[The Performing Arts Precinct concentrates these] along with the Museum, Art Gallery, Art Centre, Botanic Gardens and Cathedrals. [Well, not so many cathedrals now – the Catholic Cathedral may have its walls memorialised and the fight over Christ Church Cathedral hangs in the balance]

Back then, for Ballantyne – and no doubt the other major players in the central city – the problems of the the central city were two-fold:

“Now we have a growing commercial presence at Ferrymead, Tower Junction, Northwood and Addington, a circle of suburban malls all competing with each other and the central city. Spread eagled pockets of business have developed within the four avenues – with precincts in Victoria Street, High Street, New Regent Street and Cathedral Junction just a little too far for walking from City Mall, and the exciting new SOL (South of Lichfield) and other Lichfield Lane developments. Our major entertainment and sports centres – QEII, AMI Stadium and Westpac Stadium are spread out, away from the Town Hall, Convention Centre and our central city hotels.

It hardly needs spelling out, but I’ll do it anyway.

What Ballantyne was voicing in 2008 was the view that the threat from the “circle of suburban malls” was exacerbated by the “[s]pread eagled pockets of business within the four avenues” and the correspondingly “spread out” nature of the sporting, recreational and entertainment, ‘all-of=Christchurch’ facilities.

From QEII in New Brighton to AMI Stadium outside the four avenues; from  the fact that, within the four avenues, “Victoria Street, High Street, New Regent Street and Cathedral Junction [are] just a little too far for walking from City Mall, and the exciting new SOL (South of Lichfield) and other Lichfield Lane developmentsthe problem is all about spread.

The problem with ‘spread’, of course, is that it dilutes ‘value’. Notice, for example, that Manhattan is an island. Notice, too, that The Frame creates a central city island in Christchurch.

Urban land value comes from density of amenities. Given the ‘fixed’, spread out nature of ‘all-of-Christchurch’ amenities, pre-September, 2010, the central city property owners had to hope for a more ‘entrepreneurial’, idiosyncratic and creative feel that comes best from the kind of small, start-up cafes, restaurants and service businesses that Ballantyne hoped to target back in 2008. That would provide a distinctiveness to the central city and, hopefully, draw people in.

But then the earthquakes provided an excuse for another solution to the same ‘value’ problem.

The quakes damaged many of those ‘all-of-Christchurch’ amenities – QEII, AMI Stadium, the Town Hall, the Convention Centre. They damaged many older (and newer) buildings within the four avenues and those ‘spread out’ business developments like High Street (now the target of arson), SOL Square and Poplar Lane (now demolished) that relied on them.

In effect, what the earthquakes provided was a reason to relocate the city’s amenities into a concentrated area – incidentally avoiding the need to lure into the city those ‘entrepreneurial’, ‘different’, ‘new’ tenants Richard Ballantyne was so well-disposed to four short years ago.

The Central City Blueprint is almost a word perfect rendition of what Ballantyne, and no doubt other major players, wanted for the central city – but couldn’t dare hope for.

Put simply, this plan did not come from the vision of Christchurch people, as a whole. It came from the ‘vision’ of major property owners within the four avenues.

And it’s a longstanding plan.

The Blueprint reflects the pre-earthquake desires and ambitions of this group of property-owners – while sold as a reflection of the ‘Share an Idea’ community consultation initiative.

Despite Peter Townsend’s repeated refrain – this is very much ‘business as usual’ for Christchurch, with its powerful property elite maintaining and enhancing their grip on the centre of Christchurch.

And at least one of them could barely conceal his glee at the prospect of putting those pesky small property owners in their place.

Antony Gough had this to say in praise of the 7500 sq m requirement – backed up by CERA’s compulsory purchase powers – for an Outline Development Plan (ODP):

Central city landowner Anthony Gough, whose family own about 7500 square metres of land in the precinct, welcomed the new rule.

“If you are a small land holder you will be worried as heck, but if you are a big land holder it doesn’t matter a hoot,” he said.

“People with small parcels will be worried as they can no longer hold people [which ‘people’ might that be?] to ransom. This is so important for Christchurch. To get the city up and running again we have to do something dramatic. It will bring smaller landholders to heel.”

Antony Gough deserves to be taken seriously. He speaks with a gravitas helped not only by his 7500 sq m holding in the central city but also by virtue of the business prominence of his close relations.

The Gough family have a reasonably widespread – and substantial – business portfolio:

The Gough Group of companies also includes Gough TWL, Gough Transpecs, Gough Palfinger, Gough Materials Handling, Gough Engineering, Gough Transport Solutions and Gough Finance. Gough Group employs 880 team members [‘staff’?] across New Zealand and Australia.

The Gough family holdings are estimated to be valued at about $300 million but could be more depending on how it is calculated and how many members’ interests are included.

Current city councillor, Jamie Gough, is Antony’s nephew and “helps his uncle manage his property empire, Hereford Holdings, and is into his second year as a director of Gough Gough & Hamer.

Philip Carter, too, seems unperturbed by the powers of CERA:

Some property developers have been critical of the land acquisition outlined in the blueprint, but Carter supported it.

“To implement the plan they [‘we’?] need to do it on that kind of scale, so I think what it proposed is reasonable, but the devil will be in the detail.”

The plan’s designers should be congratulated, he said.

If it isn’t already obvious enough, the tell-tale signs of the real purpose of the Blueprint for delivering on that longstanding complaint from major property-holders, emerge whenever challenges to that ‘vision’ emerge.

A previous challenge – by east-side residents – was met with the decision to abandon and demolish QEII Park and rebuild a Metro Sports Hub within the four avenues.

But the most obvious recent decision that provides a minor disruption to that vision was the unanimous vote of Christchurch City Council to restore and rebuild the Town Hall in toto. The Blueprint had this to say (p. 77) about the Performing Arts Precinct it incorporated:

The precinct designation will be sufficient to provide for a range of facilities in the event that the Town Hall cannot be repaired. It will be in close proximity to the Convention Centre, Papa o Ōtākaro/Avon River Precinct, hospitality providers and hotels.

The location of the Performing Arts Precinct recognises the restoration of the Isaac Theatre Royal in its existing location [Which, no doubt serendipitously, is close to the planned location of the new Convention Centre and tightly hugs to the immediate north of Cathedral Square].

At the time, it was assumed that the condition on the placement of the Performing Arts Precinct was whether or not the Town Hall would be repaired on its existing site.

Minister Brownlee, however, did not immediately laud the Council’s decision to rebuild the Town Hall. He appeared to have more scepticism than he had space to voice in a few short sentences:

“My understanding was it was a very compromised building left in a pretty disastrous state and the preliminary information was that the ground [it] was sitting on was in a pretty bad state as well,”

He said he was not ruling out the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority overriding the council’s decision.

“We’ll just talk to them over the next short while to get a better understanding of why they’ve made such a big commitment to such a damaged building.”

Brownlee also said he believed the councillors had made the decision without all the relevant geotechnical information.

And, almost as an afterthought,

The decision would also affect the future of the performing-arts hub outlined in the central city blueprint, he said.

The problem, it seems, with the current site of the Town Hall is that it provides an ‘anchor’ too far away from the supposed centrality of City Mall (aka Cashel Mall).

It is not that far from the proposed Convention Centre – just the other side of Victoria Square, but it would represent a ‘pull’ to the north of Cathedral Square, not the south, where City Mall – and the property land-holdings of the major and most wealthy property owners – is sited.

It is as if those devising the Blueprint had started with one primary ‘anchor’ – Ballantynes/City Mall. From that literal standpoint, everything else becomes either ‘central’ or ‘spread eagled’. Even the (grand, covered) rugby stadium and QEII (now the Metro Sports Hub) must be drawn as close as possible into that tight orbit.

As mentioned above, compulsory purchase of central city sites has been signalled for a while – and smaller landowners have been left in no doubt that the guillotine will fall if they aren’t ‘realistic’:

A landowner with a site smaller than the required lot size will have to submit a development plan for the surrounding 7500 square metre block to get permission to build on their land.

Subsequent applications from landowners in the block will have to amend or comply with the plan.

The rule is designed to encourage the creation of laneways through city blocks, more public spaces and streamlined delivery vehicle access to stores to improve pedestrian safety[Try to refrain from laughing – please remember that official justifications are to be taken very seriously.]

Some landowners fear the new rule could require complicated deals between multiple title holders and will have a negative effect on owners of smaller sites.

City centre landowner Miles Middleton, who owns three small sites in the retail precinct, fears he will not be able to develop a building on his own site independently.

“This creates a lot of uncertainty because if everyone can’t agree, Cera will step in.”

It is within this context that land purchases have begun in the central city. Fascinatingly, two of the three lots of land to be purchased are owned by none other than Antony Gough – an unlikely first volunteer to take a financial bath. Yet, here he is positively galloping along the plank:

Property developer Antony Gough became the first landowner to settle with the Crown when he signed over his Poplar Apartments site on Madras St for about half its registered valuation.

Cutting his losses early would save money over time, he said. “If I let it go through to compulsory acquisition, they’ll take my land, I’ll continue paying rates, we’ll argue the toss for two or three years, spend a lot of money on legal fees and still get the lower price,” Gough said.

He warned against banking on 2007 land valuations after being told by his valuer to “get a reality check”.

Such pragmatic nobility, no doubt being modelled solely for the benefit of all of those smaller landowners Antony Gough holds so dear, makes one pause and wonder. But, after wondering a bit, it becomes clear that ‘cutting your losses’ when an enormous pot of gold waits for you at your other central city holdings – once you consolidate your assets – might not be as pragmatically inspiring as it first seems.

Further, given the government’s central city blueprint and, we are told, its absolute importance for the economic recovery of Christchurch (despite the fact that, as noted, Peter Townsend is busy telling anyone who’ll listen that business and the economy is almost undisrupted and Steve Wakefield has already unfurled the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner), you might have thought that there is one ‘willing buyer’ for whom this land is almost priceless – the Government.

By that fact, the value of property in the central city must – according to the government’s own plans and estimates of the economic boom to eventuate – be immense. Why wouldn’t the Government therefore be willing to pay top dollar for such a sure and certain bumper harvest for the country’s economy?

More realistically, of course, the value of the land is deliberately being reduced by virtue of the fact that the government is holding the threat of compulsory purchase over landowners. Then it uses ‘recent sales’ (i.e., to people like Gough) to justify the value at which it will threaten to compulsorily purchase, should threats become necessary. In turn, that allows the wealthiest property-owners to leverage their advantage even further.

Antony Gough is simply re-organising his asset portfolio for massively greater future returns, as he knows he will be a major player in the new retail precinct and gain exceptional advantage in the market via that positioning.

Smaller property owners have no such strategic option. They will be squeezed out, to Gough’s (and others’) advantage.

And then there’s those businesses out in the areas infamously to become part of ‘The Frame’. One business-owner I’ve mentioned before is Richard Middleton, owner of The Bicycle Thief restaurant that used to lease a building that is now bulldozer fodder:

Middleton said he was at a loss to understand why the CCDU was determined to pull down a ”perfectly good ” building and destroy a strong business.

”I would challenge the [Earthquake Recovery] Minister or [Prime Minister] John Key to sit down and explain the economic rationale behind this decision,” Middleton said.

”To knock over a perfectly sound building which has a successful restaurant and bar and 100 beds for worker accommodation, how does that contribute to the rebuild of our city?

Given that many other buildings will remain standing in ‘The Frame’ it does seem mysterious – but remember that ‘state of the art’, ‘world class’ playground that Roger Sutton enthused over (see his little bit of effervescence in this brochure)?

Well, mystery solved:

Richard Middleton was looking forward to reopening his popular Christchurch restaurant, The Bicycle Thief. That was until he realised the building that housed his business sat smack bang in the middle of what will be a park.

“This site was a real hub for the area, whereas now it’s obviously going to be a tree and we’ll lose that hub role of the business and it’ll all be grassed over,” says Mr Middleton.

Similarly, Roland Logan in the Ng building is in the way of the stadium but, being the owner of the building, he’s digging his heels right in, with public support:

Owner of NG Gallery, Roland Logan, hasn’t received a letter yet, but his building sits near the proposed stadium and he has a clear message for the Government.

“We will not sell and I’ve told Greg Wilson that we will never sell,” says Mr Logan. “And we’ve got thousands of people who are supporting us with this building because we’re quite an iconic building now. It’s one of the only historic buildings left in the city. [Now, of course, there’s one fewer, what with the random choices of Christchurch’s arsonists in the ‘recovery’ mix.]

Some, like the writer of a recent editorial in The Press, appear to think that all that squeezing out will be worth it, on the unsupported and weak claim that:

Some of that destruction [of buildings in The Frame and other designated sites] is unfortunate, but since the outcome will be the dynamic, vibrant, attractive city the blueprint envisages, it will be worth it.

The outcome, it seems, is beyond doubt and, therefore, pushing some unwilling sellers to sell is all for the greater good. To be frank, this is either naivety or complicity, and it doesn’t matter much which it is. Such an attitude of lame acceptance of draconian measures is undignified in the extreme.

The central city is being refashioned for the few – the rest of us, apparently, have our designated roles as awestruck onlookers, ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ at all the good things being done for us. The only problem appears to be that some of us, like naughty children, just won’t keep quiet and stop fidgeting while the adults do what needs to be done.

Sadly, and despite Peter Townsend’s urgings to the contrary, all of what is going down in the central city – and that includes all the buildings and many of the small landowners, business operators and low-end tenants – represents, in the most cynical rendering of the term, ‘business as usual’ in Christchurch.


Recently, we’ve had confirmation that the decision to extend the reign of the Commissioners at ECAN was not about sorting out any supposed inadequacies of the, then, Council – and even less about the recovery from the earthquakes.

John Key’s government has ‘shown us the money’, alright – money for agribusiness that, no doubt, will trickle, tantalisingly, drop by squeezed drop, into the parched mouths of ordinary New Zealanders adrift in the brackish waters of current economic policy:

“Water, water, every where,

And all the boards [Councils] did shrink;

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner

None to drink, but plenty to grow grass with:

The Government suspended democracy and restricted legal action in Canterbury to protect an agriculture boom potentially worth more than $5 billion to the national economy, documents reveal. It feared the economic boom promised by Canterbury irrigation could be in jeopardy unless Environment Canterbury (ECan) was “stable, effective and efficient”, says a Government report on August 27.

According to the August report, the value of production in Canterbury is predicted to increase from $1000 to $7000 a hectare once irrigation plans are implemented. The plan aims to almost double the 450,000ha irrigated in Canterbury, creating a $5 billion economic boom.

A separate Government document, disclosed to The Press under the Official Information Act, says the protection of Canterbury’s economic contribution and its future growth were a “key consideration” for suspending democracy.

I suppose when Fonterra has invested $200m in a plant at Darfield in Canterbury and will open a second plant that will “triple Darfield’s capacity” who in their right mind would leave decisions over water to Cantabrians?

And when, almost on cue, the Fonterra Shareholders Fund is launched on the NZX you wouldn’t want democracy to subdue the “frenzy of buying, as investors scrambled to get a slice of earnings from New Zealand’s biggest company“, let alone interfere with the instant profits after the units “debuted at $6.66 a unit, about 22 per cent higher than the offer price of $5.50“.

Imagine what a wet blanket elected ECAN councillors would be to the economy’s party-central – like having an elderly aunt gatecrash your 21st just as the party pills start being downed. Or something.

Then again, isn’t it about time people started to matter again in Christchurch, in Canterbury and in this country?

On the most favourable reading of the elbowing aside of democracy the Government, and those gaining from its selective interventions, display a remarkable arrogance and condescension.

As an editorial in The Press put it after the paper received documents from its Official Information Act requests about the decision to extend the rule of the ECAN Commissioners,

This is another example of a post-quake arrogance that has crept into the way some of our Cabinet ministers are operating. The public of Canterbury should not have to go through Official Information Act channels to get Adams and Carter to tell them what is going on in their own region.

It seems that they think they know that we want boom times more than control over our local resources and destiny.

They think they know that all we need to keep us passive are hand-waving pronouncements about all the future jobs that will be sprayed our way like spatters of milk flying from a baby’s Tommee Tippee.

They think they know that no matter how much a few of us might ‘moan’ and ‘whinge’ about what’s happening, within a year or two most of us will have forgotten all about it and have adjusted to the ‘new normal’.

They think they know.

Time to show them they don’t.

Time to show them we’ve noticed that all the draconian powers of CERA and of government have not been wielded in the interests of ordinary people.

CERA and the Government have not brought insurers to heel; they have not provided warm, safe and secure accommodation for those who need it; they have not threatened compulsory acquisition of land to provide that accommodation; they have not over-ridden property rights (e.g., rent controls) for the sake of alleviating human suffering.

No, that’s not what those exceptional powers have been used for.

Instead, CERA and the Government have brought ordinary Cantabrians to heel whenever necessary; they have provided a warm and safe business environment for the largest and wealthiest property owners; they have threatened compulsory acquisition of land to provide that warm and safe business environment; they have over-ridden property rights for the sake of advancing the interests of those who suffer least.

CERA and the Government have operated on the principle that ordinary people will either simply have to look after themselves or, if they are in the way of grander plans, they’ll have to be forcibly pushed aside, disenfranchised, brought into line or simply be abused (‘carpers and moaners’, ‘buggerising around on facebook all day’).

Is that too unfair or vitriolic a sentiment for me to express?

Well, let the last word belong to the Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery. In an opinion piece in The Press, Lianne Dalziel, MP for Christchurch East highlighted a remarkable speech, given in Japan, by the Minister:

When he [Minister Brownlee] went to Japan recently, he spoke of “unbending leadership“. He talked about community groups coming together.

“They will often be loud and dissenting voices. They will often be contradictory of each other. They will seldom recognise the complexity of the problems being dealt with by authorities, but they are extremely important because they become the outlet for the frustrations that naturally occur for people in these situations, but they must never ever get in the road of a constant stream of decisions all focused on recovery.”

I said at the beginning of this (very long!) post that the ‘recovery’ was strangely mis-named. Brownlee’s speech explains why.

This ‘recovery’ is not the recovery of the people of Christchurch and Canterbury. It is the recovery of something else entirely.

It is the ‘recovery’ of power and dominance over people. In other words, business as usual.

I guess that’s why the CER Act and all the documents that have flowed from it stress a phrase that now has an ominous, inhuman sound:

For the purposes of this Strategy, “recovery” does not mean returning greater Christchurch to how it was on 3 September 2010.

Heaven forbid.

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12 Responses to And to the victors, the spoils – ‘business as usual’ in Christchurch

  1. Richard middleton says:

    Great article, and accurately sums up what’s
    Happening in our city…
    Richard middleton

    • Puddleglum says:

      Thanks Richard. I very much appreciate you taking the time to comment given what you’ve been putting up with.

      I’m happy to help in any way I can.


  2. Al Campbell-Tie says:

    Praise the lord(?) there are still a few people with common sense values, morals and dignity.Puddleglum has an insight that Im sure most normal people of Christchurch can relate to. I applaud your “balls” to speak your mind and put context into the meanderings of Government, Brownlee and the rich “locals”. I thought I was the only person that vehemently opposed this CERA bullshit. A friend of mine works for th PR side of CERA and unfortunately he now believes the hype and deceit ladled out by his bosses. I can’t get over how blatant it all is and people just trust its for their own good. Baaaaa said all the sheep!

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Al,

      Thanks for the supportive comments.

      There are actually a reasonable number of ‘sceptics’ in Christchurch at the moment, I think. Maybe it’s the circles I’m in but in my experience many people – even if they support various aspects of the ‘recovery’ process – can see that there’s a reasonable amount of selectivity in what CERA and the Government seem to prioritise. If the structure of the Central City Plan is so objective it’s a remarkable fact that it systematically advantages those with existing wealth and power. There’s no reason to think that such a plan should do that.

      To be honest though, I’m less concerned about supposed ‘good intentions’ – or ‘bad intentions’ – than about the practical consequences of what is being done. Some people involved in the decision making may well have convinced themselves that they are doing it all completely objectively and for the greater good. But, irrespective of their self-beliefs, I think it’s clear that their decisions are being structured by other priorities and assumptions than the most pressing needs of the bulk of the affected populations of Christchurch and Canterbury.

      I don’t really think I’m suggesting anything that should be particularly controversial to anyone who considers similar situations elsewhere or in the past. As the saying goes, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely – that applies to the best of people and the best of intentions,let alone those who are accustomed to strategising and exerting influence.

      Thanks for dropping by!


  3. bruce says:

    An High Court class action mounted by some of the smaller CBD property-owners is not very far off, I feel

    If that doesn’t happen, then we are forced to the unfortunate conclusion that any interest by the majority of kiwis in the preservation of democracy has faded

    • Brian Walker says:

      Great insight and summary of the chch community being steam-rolled for “the greater good.”
      We talk about democracy and disenfranchisement.
      The politicians do need to realise that it will not take much more than a couple of CHCH electorates to express their feelings re that CHCH situation, ECAN and Asset Sales etc and there WILL be a new Government.
      BUT with what mandate? What alternatives?
      We need a new breed of leadership, not this lapdog stuff, to emerge to give us an alternative. ( What happened to Sutton?)
      Have we all been shaken into submission?

  4. Nick Taylor says:

    Well said, well worded and well constructed. But ultimately a saddening and concerning article, and to see the Bike Thief go is a sad indicator of the mentality of powers that be.

  5. bruce says:

    In an unusual move, for them, the Press have finally condescended to publishing a link to this story, in the comments attached to one of their own superficial attempts at journalism.

    Till now, they have always ignored attempts at submitting your link

    Probably it will vanish on Monday (when a senior journalist more aligned with the wishes of CERA comes back to his desk), but for now, it’s here:

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi bruce,

      Thanks for noting the link in the comments on that article.

      Perhaps the moderator is wary that it might be me linking to my own blog? I understand that that is frowned upon. (Btw, I’ve never done that on a mainstream media site.)

      The dots are always there to be joined in this ground zero ‘rebuild’. Here’s a perspective piece from David Killick that mentions, in passing,

      and in Oxford Tce we met the ebullient Antony Gough, brimming with enthusiasm over plans for a new entertainment zone.

      Now, I wonder if that ‘entertainment zone’ is anywhere near that bit of the old strip that Gough owns?

      More generally, there was also that SFO statement about how, on international evidence, there’s likely to be about $4.55bn of fraud during the rebuild and recovery process. And, you can bet that most of that is not people claiming on the insurance for two broken bottles of wine rather than one …

      If people don’t realise by now what’s happening they never will.

      Thanks again for pointing out the link to this post in the comments.


  6. bruce says:

    The purpose of the acquisition process had been to “shore up property values in the CBD”, Brownlee said.


    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi bruce,

      Yes, it was always about that.

      The unfairness is that it was, of course, only the property values of some property owners in the CBD that were ‘shored up’. Imagine if the ‘plan’ had just happened to have a ‘green centre’ that took in certain other properties rather than those in the east and south.


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