Devils, details, dark arts and Trojan horses

A Cassandra moment

Allow me a Cassandra moment.

Like the Trojans in the midst of a decades long war, living in Christchurch is, for many people, an experience with precious little long-term hope.

Many people have, however, invested a good deal of hope in the Central City Plan as a sign that a positive post-quake future is possible, much as the Trojans wanted to think that that nice wooden horse out on the plains was a sign of peace in our time.

When CERA was established, the Christchurch City Council was given responsibility to develop the ‘Draft Recovery Plan’ for the central city and deliver that plan to the Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery.

After having the plan in his possession for four months, Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister, Gerry Brownlee, now appears to have endorsed the plan.

Certainly, the shoppers interviewed by Charley Mann are told, categorically, by Mann, that the government has accepted the Central City Plan.

But, as John Hartevelt correctly notes, if you read the full transcript of the Minister’s speech,

Half of it [the plan] has been set aside and chunks of the other half also put on hold.


The job of implementing the bits the Government has accepted rests squarely now with – wait for it – the Government.

My ‘Cassandra moment’?

Well, you don’t get a full, pungent ‘whiff’ of it until you look more closely.

The Central City Plan – or, more correctly, the process by which the Christchurch City Council was given the job of developing the Central City Plan – has been the Trojan Horse for full government control of the renewal of Christchurch’s Central Business District.

That government control is being imposed to ensure that – despite rhetoric to the contrary – the ‘vision’ in the Central City Plan will take a back seat to so-called ‘market forces’.

Note the different terms I used in the paragraph above – ‘Central City‘ versus ‘Central Business District‘. That difference explains why the CCC had to be given the initial job of consultatively developing a plan that Christchurch residents would support and, then, why the government had to take charge. It was a classic ‘bait and switch‘.

Which explains why business leaders in the city are so happy:

Christchurch business leaders are applauding the Government’s move to set up a new unit to lead the development of the central city.


Canterbury Business Leaders Group chairman Don Elder said the announcement was “a very positive step forward” for the central city and “an opportunity to be bold”. … ”everything is up for discussion”, he said. … ”As we have said many times, the successful recovery of the city will rely on a number of organisations working together and may include options such as public-private partnerships [PPPs],” he said.

”Were very pleased to hear that everything is up for discussion and that the new unit will ensure these options are investigated and considered.”

Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce chief executive Peter Townsend was equally enthusiastic:

Peter Townsend said it was a good sign for the future of the recovery.

”It’s reassuring to know that there will be clarity around anchor projects such as the convention centre,” he said.

”We have one opportunity to create an iconic city and we now have a way to do this. The business community is committed to playing its role and working in partnership with the unit,” Townsend said.

The plaudits from business keep on coming, largely because, as this article makes clear, the establishment of the Central City Development Unit involves giving business what it wanted and emphasising “market forces”.

In lay terms, that is a polite way of saying that Volume 2 of the Central City Plan has been, as the Minister states, “put aside for a period“.

Volume 2 outlines all of those ‘boring’ rule and regulation changes that would have allowed the City Council to enact the vision in Volume 1 (Green City, Transition City, etc.) through imposing height restrictions, building design requirements and car parking regulations. Now it’s going to be a free for all.

No wonder business leaders are over the moon. They’ve got what they wanted. Way back when the initial draft of the Central City Plan came out the one loud dissenting voice came from business who were complaining about the restrictions which, they said, would discourage investment.

It was also business ‘leaders’ who called for the Council to be replaced by commissioners last year:

Independent Fisheries director Mike Dormer, who leads a largely anonymous group of business leaders opposed to Marryatt’s reappointment, said he had sent a letter to Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee and Prime Minister John Key asking them to appoint three independent commissioners at the council.

Dormer said the commissioners could co- ordinate work among the council, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority and the business community as they planned the city’s rebuild.

In return for their complaining they were given a ‘Central City Plan – Business Overview‘ which updated the restrictive nature of the regulations. (Have a read of the six ‘top issues’ and the compromises made for property owners and businesspeople from the original draft – four years to rebuild a building of the same height; higher hotels near the convention centre; relaxing car parking regulations, etc..).

But, obviously, that wasn’t enough. The government’s announcement of the CCDU now gives them real ‘confidence’. Mike Dormer now has his wish.

Good luck with that ‘low rise’, ‘green’, ‘safe’, ‘sustainable’ city Christchurch. It’s now only going to happen to the extent that ‘market forces’ – heavily backed by a no-opposition-brooked, central government bulldozer – determine it will.

Yes, we’re allowed our little dreamtime in the soma of artists’ impressions and inspirational future-talk of Volume 1. But, by the time we wake up from our dreamy sojourn we’ll find that the CCDU – acting on behalf of business and the government’s national agenda for the economy – will have established all the literal ‘facts on the ground’ required to make sure those artists’ impressions become little more than chip paper.

Yet surely I’m being too cynical? What about all the Minister’s fine words? Here they are:

I’d like to take this opportunity to recognise Bob’s work leading the council through the massive consultation phase and development of the draft plan.

He deserves great credit for so swiftly engaging in such an extensive and democratic exercise, which has produced a very good result.

I also want to acknowledge the thousands of Canterbury people who gave their time, ideas and commitment to the plan.

That plan is the basis for the way forward because it has such widespread community support.

When you have a good idea, which the draft plan is, you need a vehicle that can deliver the required result in the most cohesive and efficient manner.

But Hartevelt and Vernon Small have at least looked beyond the fine words to the political reality that the Minister was actually communicating.

The praise for Bob Parker was, for Hartevelt, hiding a “less charitable interpretation” that would have “Parker now officially cast as town jester – an amiable knave useful for relating with the plebs but without much of a clue or any real power“.

Small said the praise “borders on the condescending“. More fully,

Mayor Bob Parker comes in for his share of praise, but in a way that borders on condescending. Yes, he is a fine ambassador for the city. But Brownlee suggests the mayor would be best deployed selling the sizzle while the new unit, headed by Cera operations manager Warwick Isaacs, gets on with cooking the sausage.

One of the saddest sights in this is to see the Mayor of New Zealand’s second largest city being publicly humiliated in such an obvious way while maintaining he’s all for what has been announced.

And what’s this the Minister mentions in his speech about a “redevelopment blueprint within 100 days“? Have another look at the Final Draft Central City Plan – from page 135 on where ‘Implementation’ is explicitly discussed – and notice what ‘blueprint’ it indicates:

The Central City Plan will be achieved through partnerships, both existing and those yet to be formed. International experience, such as the terrorist bombings in Manchester in 1996 and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco, has shown it is critical to have a shared vision, shared commitment and shared ownership of a plan such as the Central City Plan. This requires a high level of communication and information sharing. The Council can help to make this happen in the Central City. The Central City Plan is a blueprint for what we all need to do.

Hartevelt picks up on this in his concluding paragraph:

But as Brownlee plainly realises, the council, despite its failings, is closer to the people of Christchurch than central government could ever hope to be. It cranked through an impressive and genuine consultation process before emerging with a popular blue-print for the CBD. Today’s announcement risks taking the recovery effort too far away from that.

Now, we apparently need a new blueprint – written, this time, by Warwick Isaacs in 100 days.

There is, of course, talk of ‘collaboration’ between the Council and the CCDU but, once again as Hartevelt points out, the ‘collaboration’ amounts to cherry picking council staff with the needed expertise and having the Mayor as a ‘marketeer’, “an amiable knave useful for relating with the plebs“.

If that’s ‘collaboration’ then I suppose the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are also in a ‘collaborative’ relationship with the Israeli government.

The Minister’s announcement – despite the soothing rhetoric – amounts to a proclamation of one deeply political and ideological point: It is too risky to leave the wrong people with the decision making power.

For the government, we – the people of Christchurch – are the wrong people.

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12 Responses to Devils, details, dark arts and Trojan horses

  1. Douglas says:

    The height limit was a key tenet of the “popular blue-print for the CBD”, and it’s gone.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Douglas,

      Agreed. It’s certainly part of what most people assumed would be characteristic of the new central city.

      As you can tell, I’m finding it hard to be positive about the Central City Plan ‘implementation’, but, then again, some people do have good ideas – and values – to give us a city we can be proud of, and enjoy, in the future.

  2. Y’know, PG, I listened to this on the radio this morning and wondered how I would have felt if it had been a Minister from a Labour/Greens government announcing the same thing. My gut reaction was that I’d have accepted it, begrudgingly, on the basis that CCC (the whole organisation, not just the political wing) is overwhelmed and needs support. Over the course of the day, three things have modified my opinion:
    First, Gerry Brownlee was being interviewed and was asked or his opinion on comments made by Yani Johanson. His response was shocking. First he asked “where does he [Yani Johanson] fit in?”. When informed, he replied “oh is he, oh?”. As the Earthquake Recovery Minister, he should know all the CCC councillors personally.
    Secondly, it occurred to me that a Labour/Green government would approach the recovery quite differently, and my objections to collaboration would be both fewer in number and lesser in extent.
    Thirdly, I should object because the methods employed by the government are wrong. I’ve hinted at what is to happen over at my blog, but there is only so much that can be said without causing unceasing trouble.
    A couple of other points.
    1. I work in a single storey building, and I feel quite safe. I have no desire to work in a multi-storey building. Many of my colleagues feel the same way. From that perspective, a relaxation of height restrictions will have very little impact.
    2. He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata! He tangata! He tangata! A decent government is an election away, and then they have a mighty task undoing the mess made since 2008. The best hope is that the people in the CCDU are good people.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Armchair critic,

      The problem I have in giving the benefit of the doubt to all of this is that I’ve learnt to see patterns over time and I’ve therefore also learnt to be extremely sceptical of what people who have power say.

      I’m afraid that I don’t start with a benign assumption about how power and influence are exerted in these situations – I just presume they are being exerted and, so, the words that people say I see as primarily veils to hide things rather than channels of communication, explanation or ‘truth’ about intentions.

      I know, that sounds so cynical. But the scientist in me has noted that my predictions based on those cynical assumptions have an uncannily high ‘hit rate’.

      To put it bluntly, what was proposed yesterday has nothing to do with ‘collaboration’. That’s just rhetorical cover.

      If you really want to know what’s happening look at the structures that have been established.

      Structures are set up for quite particular reasons and usually a lot of care is taken over them. The same applies to processes, of course. The structures and processes around CERA and the allocation of responsibilities were simply not set up to implement any collective ‘vision’ the people of Christchurch came up with. Just look at them (the structures and processes) – they speak volumes about intent and what the real concern was (same with the buyout options in the red-zone btw).

      If they really wanted to enact our vision then they should have set up structures and processes that would ensure that would happen by binding bodies and agencies to that vision. They haven’t. Ergo, they don’t intend to be constrained in any way by that ‘vision’.

      Remember that only a small minority of people in Christchurch had major concerns over the initial draft of the Plan – business leaders. Everyone else was inspired and even excited by it. At the very least, most of us thought it came about through a good consultative process and so were happy to go with the outcomes.

      But look who got their voice heard, in the final shakedown. Look who’s really happy now.

      As I put it in the post, we (ordinary citizens) are the wrong people to have power. Why? Because we can’t be trusted to put the number one priority on property and land values and we can’t be trusted to enact the government’s economic agenda for the city and region. Hence, we can’t be allowed to get in the way of what matters. Simple logic really once you put yourself into ‘their’ shoes.

      As soon as Brownlee announced that the CCC would only have responsibility for developing the central city plan I knew it was irrelevant what happened to be put into the plan. Any similarity between the plan and what eventuates will be at no greater frequency than random chance, if that.

      And I think I’m right. Sadly.

      As for good people in the CCDU – to be honest I think that’s neither here nor there in the long run.

      Good people often find themselves doing things they wish they didn’t have to do, when they are in structures that prevent any other kind of decisions being made. Good people just get stomach ulcers and have to live with feeling bad about some of the things they do.

      The only way that individual character can make a difference is the extent to which it is directed at altering the way things are. It doesn’t matter what your character is like if your intent, ultimately, is simply to do your job, or play your part in a process. What matters then – in terms of how people act – is not each individual’s character but, instead, how the job is organised and situated in a structure.

      Thanks for your comment, btw. As you can see, your comments always make me think hard about fundamental questions.

      • I’m with you on the patterns thing – I’d not be where I am today without a thorough understanding of patterns and outcomes. As a cause for cynicism? Perhaps, but I think that if either of us were sufficiently cynical to believe that what we see is inevitable, we would not blog about it.
        I read John Raulston Saul on structure and process about ten years ago, and that influenced my thinking profoundly. Here’s the bit where I try to convince you that people do matter.
        What came through for me is that structure and process do not exist without people because (a) they are created by people and (b) they are used by people to deliver things. In may cases the people who design them are not the people who implement them.
        For example, Parliament makes laws, the Judiciary interprets the laws.
        The CCDU, which I will try hard to not defend, is similar, though unlike the Judiciary it is not independent. I have to acknowledge, too, that the structure of CERA and the CCDU are extremely unlikely to can not deliver the best result for Christchurch or the Christchurch that you, or many of the other residents, would like to see. Your criticism of the structure is quite valid in these terms, and good outcomes will be delivered in spite of the structure, rather than due to it.
        But my point is that the good outcomes will be delivered by people within CERA and CCDU fighting for what they believe in; it is the people that matter. And until the two organisations are restructured, good people will be the only thing that has any effect.
        That is, of course, in lieu of some form of revolution. As per your latest post, an inspiring new mayor and a united council might be a good place to start.

        • Puddleglum says:

          That’s a good point about people, and I shouldn’t forget it.

          It’s a bit like how people use new technologies in ways that their inventors never anticipated – unintended consequences in the technology field. If we think of CERA and the CCDU as ‘technologies’ or technical systems then it may well be possible for the people doing the implementing to ameliorate, if not subvert, the process.

          But I guess that’s why the CCDU and CERA have been hierarchically structured so that, ultimately, there is a tight ‘oversight’ – with veto power – from the top.

          According to Warwick Isaacs:

          But the council was under no illusions about who held the balance of power, he says.

          “At the end of the day, the plan was always going to be the minister’s. They understand the role now for the minister is to decide what he likes and what he doesn’t.”

          He does say ““The fundamentals of what’s in volume one, [Note: not volume 2] people can be assured they will be adhered to as much as possible. Humans need a human city.“, but, as I implied with the bolding, a lot can slip between ‘intent’ and what is ‘possible’.

          As for blogging about these things, I largely do it in the spirit of Vaclav Havel’s famous quote about hope:

          Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

          And I’m not really trying to change people – like Brownlee’s – minds. I’m not even sure I’m aiming at changing anyone’s mind.

          I just have this sense that there’s this really big, complex mix of cross-cutting forces and actions happening and I throw my words – and actions – into that mix with, I guess, the faith that that is what is right for me to do. Once again, doing so while being pretty unsure of the outcome.

          That is, I suppose rather than ‘cynical’ I should have just said “sounds pessimistic”.

          I chose the handle ‘Puddleglum’, btw, partly because he was profoundly ‘pessimistic’ but also because he’s the character in Lewis’ “Silver Chair” book (in The Chronicles of Narnia) who does what he sees as right even though it might seem hopeless or foolish – or whatever – to others.

          In other words, he had hope – in the Havel sense. (I might right a brief blog – or page – on ‘Puddleglum’, now I think of it.)

          Thanks again, Armchair critic, for another thoughtful comment.

          • Your blog will, in its own way, change people’s minds. The complexity, thoroughness and considered manner provide a nice foil to more popular sites with higher numbers of posts and comments.
            The Silver Chair is my second equal favourite of the seven books. The atmosphere of the book seems to suit these times. A post on it would be interesting.

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