Spotlight on Christchurch – Part I: Manufacturing crises and consents


Illuminating the darkness in Christchurch

[Prologue: The bulk of this was written before I heard the news that Bob Parker was not going to contest the upcoming local body elections as a mayoral candidate. The same is true for the second part of this three-part post, which is on the elections. I thought it would still be useful to complete these posts despite the effect Parker’s announcement might have on how they are interpreted – Puddleglum.]

After the earthquakes in Canterbury, a central city searchlight was installed to probe the night sky and symbolically demonstrate that the city’s heart was not completely dead.

Similarly, there’s a sense in which the media – in swaying, stroboscopic fashion – briefly illuminates one or other corner of the otherwise dark hole of what is going on in the city.

Time for another – three part – impressionistic snapshot of what’s going on in Christchurch. And a lot has been happening.

First, there’s the cornucopia of crises (Part I); then there’s the upcoming local body elections that should come with a ‘Please do not adjust your set‘ warning (Part II); and, almost forgotten and rarely illuminated, there’s that still-darkened heart that is slowly being framed by ‘The Frame’ (Part III).

There’s been a flurry of seemingly disconnected stories about Christchurch crises and controversies over the past few weeks. Many of these have passed almost unnoticed in the national media and only fleetingly through local media. But look hard and a pattern emerges – and an interesting part of that pattern is what has not been emerging.

There’s a long-running context that explains part of what’s happening at present, a context that also helps in understanding  both the upcoming local – and national – elections and the revealing process of re-engineering the central city.

So, let’s cast our minds back …

Time to Remember

Five years ago – which, given the earthquakes, sounds like a long time, but isn’t – the one thing that was the same as today is that the Christchurch City Council, the Mayor (Bob Parker) and the Council Chief Executive (Tony Marryatt) were engulfed in controversy.

Since then, the relationship between local government in Christchurch and central government has been a complicated one – like a roller-coaster but with carriages running on multiple tracks – sometimes towards each other on the same track – and with lots of unpredictable points-shifting.

Way back in 2008, and just off the back of the controversial proposal to raise social housing tenants’ rents by 24%, the Council decided to purchase five properties from financially beleaguered property developer Dave Henderson. What was remarkable about this controversial decision was the criticism it received from across the political spectrum. As Jim Anderton then argued:

“This purchase puts government relief for social housing in jeopardy. It is much harder to ask for money to help the council out when it apparently has $17m available for a property developer,” he said.

“How can the council find $17m to bail out a property developer when it could not find money to help the most vulnerable residents in council-owned social housing and rushed through a rent increase of 24%?”

Politicians from across the board have poured scorn on the purchase. In a rare display of political unity, National, Labour and the Progressives have all branded the deal a public bail-out for Henderson.

[Brendon] Burns and Anderton join a growing list of vocal critics of the purchase, including National MP Gerry Brownlee and local councillors.

Brownlee said the deal was an “utter disgrace” and reduced the council to a “banking service for Mr Henderson”.

The business community were not impressed either:

The Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce takes the council to task for poor communication, inadequate city planning, bad practice in valuing the five sites and taking risks with public money in a final verdict published in The Press today.

Just over two years later The Press‘ ‘year in review‘ of local government in 2010 highlighted the ructions leading up to and following the dismissal of ECan councillors. This time, the Mayor and Government seemed to be operating hand-in-hand:

The region’s 10 mayors, led by Parker, were complicit in the autumn coup. There is still some confusion about the exact sequence of events, but it appears Smith and Hide invited them to write with their views of ECan’s performance, which they duly did, despite not having mandate from their councils for doing so.

But, it also noted the ECan Commissioners’ own receipt of “schadenfreude” in relation to the “bus services debacle” in late 2010:

There was also an element of schadenfreude, as commissioners struggled to handle a public-relations disaster. The bus services debacle was brought on by the late delivery of new buses, a gross contracting system, congestion and detours in the central city, and unsafe replacement buses.

Commissioner Rex Williams declined to take any responsibility for the mess, saying it was a management rather than governance issue, but eventually he shouldered some of the blame as the appointee responsible for public transport.

By the end of the year, it was revealed ECan had handed down more than $1 million in penalties to bus companies for failing to meet contract obligations.

Hot on the heels of the “bus debacle” was Tony Marryatt’s $70,000 pay rise, and the highly vocal opposition to it from Christchurch residents. [In what seems like some kind of historical harmonics vibrating through the years, there’s been recent concerns over a possible Tony Marryatt pay rise for one of his other jobs.]

But, despite these upsets, controversies and conflicts, eighteen months later, at the brief pinnacle of rebuild optimism, relations between the government, local business community and the Mayor seemed much improved.

In the middle of last year when the Central City Blueprint was being ceremonially unveiled to the delighted cheers of an invited audience, it was all smiles between Bob Parker, Gerry Brownlee and John Key.

Animated fly-overs of ‘Shining Camelot’ seemed to lubricate any remaining frictions, with the Mayor doing the voice-over for this central government-controlled plan.

But the mutual joy soon turned, once again, to acrimony and tears.

Having been himself politically bruised by accusations that the Government was ignoring a housing and rental crisis in Christchurch in 2012 and continuing calls (and here) in 2013 for government intervention in housing, Gerry Brownlee hit back at the Christchurch City Council in February this year. He targeted the slowness of repairs to Council social housing stock:

Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee has attacked the Christchurch City Council for its failure to fix quake-damaged social housing units in the city despite a multimillion-dollar payout from the Earthquake Commission (EQC).

The council – the second-biggest landlord in the country – received a $21 million interim payout from the commission last April so it could begin repairing damage to its housing units, but so far it has repaired only five units.

As ever, the other side of that particular story received little attention:

Many of the damaged units were in complexes that were not worth repairing because of their age and condition, so rather than spend money repairing them, the council was looking at building new units.

“There is no point repairing something that is old and cold. We have to accelerate our rebuild programme and that, of course, is a much bigger job,” Parker said.

Council community services general manager Michael Aitken said that before the council could begin repair work on damaged units it had to reach agreement with its insurers and the EQC on the scope of works.

It faced the same obstacles to getting repairs done as homeowners but it was operating on a much larger scale.

And on and on the swirl of controversies has gone. Meanwhile, Canterbury and Christchurch residents have struggled with their own personal and community hardships.

That complicated roller-coaster ride has continued leading to the most recent serial run of controversies and accusations of supposed ‘crises’ in the Council’s operation.

Crises? What crises?

A succession of recent front page stories in The Press have reignited criticisms of the operation and effectiveness of the Christchurch City Council, often with the government in the critics’ vanguard.

First, on 7 June the lead story in the print edition of The Press was headlined “Red flag ‘unfair’ in green zone”. Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee,

is calling for red stickers on green-zoned Port Hills properties to be removed, saying the Christchurch City Council has got it “terribly wrong“.

Up to 51 landowners have, because of rock fall or land stability risk, been barred from their homes – some for nearly 2 1/2 years – by city council-issued section 124 notices, also known as red stickers

This is despite the land being zoned green by the Government, meaning it considered the risks acceptable.

Mayor Bob Parker insisted that the Section 124 notices must stay:

Parker yesterday backed the council’s stance despite Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee saying the decisions were “terribly wrong” and that section 124s should be removed.

Government zoning “didn’t change the reality” of hazards on those properties, Parker said, so the notices would stay, unless Brownlee intervened.

“If the minister want [sic] to find some way to indemnify the ratepayers, that could be one way forward,” he said.

The properties had “very real, specific dangers“, even if rockfall or landslip were not apparent, he said.

The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority’s (Cera) computer-modelling study was a “generic area-wide process“, whereas the section 124 process had identified localised risks to individual properties.

“Believe me, if [you] could just, by the minister and his staff zoning an area green, remove all the 124s, that would have been an ideal situation, but in fact you cannot do that,” he said.

“It’s not imaginary… it’s not that there’s a mistake we have made.”

In the article, Parker was backed by two landowners; Brownlee by one:

Chip Felton said removing the red sticker from his Mt Pleasant home would be “absolutely insane“.

Phil Elmey, whose Sumner home was red-stickered and red-zoned, supported the council despite no rocks having fallen on his property during the quakes.

“It’s not the council that has got it wrong, it’s Brownlee. What he’s essentially saying is the [council] engineers don’t know what they’re doing and he knows better,” he said.

However, green-zoned Charteris Bay landowner [on the south side of Lyttelton Harbour, opposite Lyttelton] Tony Koller believed his section 124 should be removed because the risk was low.

Dealing with the “risk-averse” council had caused “enormous frustration”.

Second, on 8 June a massive and imposing photo of Dame Margaret Bazely loomed inb the front page of The Press beside a story headlined “Council dam(n)ed by ECan“.

Dame Margaret, head of Environment Canterbury (ECan), wrote to Mayor Bob Parker about a twice-missed deadline for the construction of a bus ‘superstop’ in Northlands Mall, in the north of Christchurch, at the start of the Main North Road. [Parker wrote back to Dame Margaret, apologising for the “unacceptable performance“.]

Environment Canterbury boss Dame Margaret Bazley has launched a blistering attack on the Christchurch City Council, slamming “staff who tell lies and… a totally incompetent organisation”

But, later in the article, that selective quotation was put into fuller context:

“I have monitored the performance of the Christchurch City Council on the provision of these facilities… and have built up a picture of staff who tell lies, and of a totally incompetent organisation,” she wrote to Parker on April 16.

Third – and still continuing – was the sudden arrival of an accreditation ‘crisis’ in the processing of building consents as the tsunami of rebuild applications rolls in.  It was reported on 13 June that a letter had been received by the Council on 30 May from ‘International Accreditation New Zealand (IANZ)‘ “which said it had until June 28 to improve its processes or it would be stripped of its accreditation as a building consent authority.”

To top it off “Councillors were unaware of the letter.” Inevitably, this dragged Council CEO Tony Marryatt back into the now familiar spotlight.

[Here is the latest building consent accreditation certificate issued by IANZ on 18 March, 2013 – a matter of weeks prior to sending the Council a letter threatening withdrawal of accreditation.]

Curiously, it was once again Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee who went to the media with this story, sending what Bob Parker described as a “media missile” the Council’s way.

Even the Prime Minister gave the hoop a quick hit with his stick as it rolled on by:

Prime Minister John Key said this morning the Christchurch City Council was slowing the rebuild by moving too slowly with building consents.

And he added his own idiosyncratic twist to the tale:

Key told Newstalk the person in charge of consenting was sent the letter and failed to pass it on to the council’s chief executive Tony Marryatt, which led to Mayor Bob Parker claiming the letter was a “media missile”.

So Marryatt was not to blame for the Mayor’s and councillors’ ignorance of the letter, according to our Prime Minister? That would be true – if it were true; but, according to Tony Marryatt, it isn’t:

The first major concession of the week came yesterday, when Marryatt acknowledged that planning committee chairwoman Cr Sue Wells should have been informed of the letter and that Parker and other councillors were kept in the dark because he [Tony Marryatt] was confident staff were addressing issues raised by IANZ, and that the June 28 deadline would be met.

Press reporter Lois Cairns did her best to join a few of these dysfunctional dots, asking,

But why did Brownlee choose to raise the issue in such a public manner? If he had concerns, why didn’t he raise them directly with the council?

Is this part of an ongoing offensive aimed at weakening the council in the public’s perception?

As she noted,

In recent months, Brownlee has attacked the council over its slowness in rebuilding its damaged social housing stock and its decision to keep section 124 notices (red stickers) on dozens of Port Hills homes that the Government had green-zoned.

Some of the criticism was justified, but the fast and furious nature of the attacks suggests there is a bigger political agenda at play, particularly as the council and the Government are currently locked in negotiations over who will pay for the anchor projects in Christchurch’s new central business district.

The controversies – both new and recurring – continued to roll-out, almost daily.

Earlier the week before last, Minister Brownlee wrote a ‘Perspective’ piece in The Press in which he argued for the demolition of the Town Hall and the building of a brand new facility:

A new report on the viability of saving the town hall is due to go to council by the end of the month.

However, in today’s Perspective piece in The Press, Brownlee appears to pre-empt the report, saying restoration of the “badly torn apart” facility would be an “expensive challenge”.

“We have a clear choice: try and recapture the magic of the past and patch up the town hall, as some want to do; or deliver modern facilities that could again have Christchurch leading the world for quality performing arts spaces.”

Under Canterbury Earthquake Rebuild Authority (Cera) legislation, Brownlee has the power to overturn decisions made by the council relating to land in the central business district.

By now, it’s almost predictable that the Council sat on the opposite side of that debate:

The stance on the “broken and unusable” facility will come as another source of animosity between Brownlee and Christchurch City councillors, who want the Sir Miles Warren-designed complex saved.

Councillors voted unanimously last November to restore the Kilmore St town hall to 100 per cent of new building standards.

And, the weekend before last, the council notched another front page story in The Weekend Press to its credit. Supposedly, $11m of taxpayer money has been forfeited because of a “clerical error” in the insurance process for a Bromley composting plant. (It’s worth reading the details of the article and, in the Comments section, the response by Paul Anderson, General Manager Corporate Services.)

Most recently, of course, we now know that the Council will lose its accreditation (on 8 July) for issuing building consents by failing to satisfy International Accreditation New Zealand (IANZ) by the 28 June deadline that it had everything in place and under control.

And, on 3 July, the Council has required the CEO, Tony Marryatt to take indefinite leave and announced that it would request the government to install a Crown manager to take control of the consenting process. The day after, the request was officially made by Council and it was announced that a Crown Manager would take up an appointment to oversee the consent process and be in position until at least December, 2014 (which would be beyond next year’s general election).

A large part of the claimed problem with the Council’s consenting process was its supposed slowness. It seems that everyone from the Prime Minister down is, and has been, alarmed about how the  consents process was slowing down the rebuild:

“We do need to resolve this situation,” Key said.

“It’s critically important the rebuild the process is speeded up.

Key said he visited Christchurch last week and it was clear consenting was a major issue.

“If we can’t speed up consenting, we can’t speed up the rebuild,” he said.

“We cannot afford the rebuild to go off the rails.”

Brownlee said in a statement that consenting was “vitally important” to maintaining the pace and confidence of the city’s recovery.

“We want to develop a longer term solution that ensures the Christchurch City Council delivers timely, quality consents, and that they are again IANZ accredited,” he said.

After the letter from IANZ had become public knowledge through Gerry Brownlee’s media comments, the discussion – as made clear here – was all about slowness. As well as Brownlee emphasising the point, Building Minister Maurice Williamson chimed in:

But Building and Construction Minister Maurice Williamson today said Parker’s claims that the council was approving 80 per cent of consents on time were not true.

“However, from issues identified by International Accreditation New Zealand‘s assessment on recording and monitoring time frames, it actually appears likely the council is meeting processing deadlines in less than 75 per cent of applications.”

In this interview on Checkpoint, John Key repeats the claim that the consent process has been too slow and has therefore frustrated developers, residents and potential investors.

But, as pointed out in the same audio clip, IANZ had more concerns over technical competency than over speed of processing.

That was reiterated in this Checkpoint interview with Mayor Bob Parker. Additionally, Parker also noted that this was an accreditation ‘tick’ that is being revoked and not the licence to grant building consents.

That’s an important difference since speed of providing a consent can often conflict with showing – through paperwork (aka ‘red tape’) – that the granting of consents meets accreditation criteria.

Christchurch knows to its detriment that the CTV building, when built, involved the over-riding of a Council engineer by his superior after the latter was complained to by the developer.

In fact, despite claims that developers and property owners are being frustrated by slowness of building consent granting the comments from developers and owners themselves is a lot more nuanced.

In the following interview (at about 2min30s), developer Richard Driver points out that, through better preparation of the applications, he is finding that consents are being granted more quickly. That is, he pre-empts delays by doing better, more complete applications in line with regulatory requirements.

And, preceding Driver’s comments are those of Mark McGuinness (owner of the Belgian Beer Bar) who spoke in detail (at about 1min40s) about his delays in getting a consent (He also made clear his concerns to The Press). He emphasised that the people actually doing the work were applying “the letter of the law“, which was slowing the process down. This sounds like people being cautious very much in relation to the kinds of ‘technical competency’ issues of which IANZ claims it found insufficient evidence. Perhaps IANZ should have spoken to McGuinness and others?

(A host of surprisingly supportive comments from builders and developers of the Council’s consenting process can be found in ‘print’.)

Despite its name, International Accreditation New Zealand is not some local branch of an international accreditation agency. It is an independent ‘agency’ of the government. Much of its work involves certifying laboratories and the like. It is part of the Testing Laboratory Registration Council, set up in 1972 as a Crown entity (The about the Council is downloadable from the previous link).

The ‘International’ part relates primarily to trade – something in which local Councils are not normally involved:

IANZ is active in the global and regional networks of accreditation authorities. It plays a major role at all levels to support New Zealand trade.

Reports from IANZ accredited laboratories and inspection bodies are recognised throughout the world by regulators in countries where accreditation authorities are signatories to the ILAC or APLAC Mutual Recognition Arrangements (MRA). Accreditation authorities in over 65 countries currently participate in the Arrangement. The Arrangement ensures test, calibration and/or inspection reports from IANZ accredited organisations meet the required international standards and avoids the need for expensive re-testing and re-certification. In turn, accredited reports from these other countries are recognised in New Zealand.

IANZ do not audit per se, but inspect documentation and processes in relation to accreditation criteria. Nevertheless, in November 2012 the results of its investigations (here called and ‘audit’) clearly show that ‘slowness’ was not the issue:

Among the problems the audit identified were:

Consents being granted [!] where the scope of work was unclear, decisions being made about compliance were not well-recorded and systems and processes were not being applied consistently by the BCA’s processing teams.

❏ The council was failing to assess or review the competency of its BCA staff at least annually.

❏ The IT system provided to the BCA did not allow it to perform its building control functions in an appropriate manner.

Statutory forms used by the BCA did not always meet the required standards.

If the council loses its accreditation, it will be unable to issue any building consents, one of its key functions and an essential source of income [This has been subsequently found to be incorrect, as all seem to agree.].

The recent shift in the form of criticism from a focus on speed of consenting to the possibility of consents issued inappropriately (with associated risk) immediately followed clarification from IANZ that speed was not the issue.

And, in fact the actual issuing of ‘unsafe’ consents was not established, nor claimed by IANZ to have been established. Instead – being solely an accreditation agency concerned with process – it was the lack of evidence of a formal self-audit process that could demonstrate compliance with the Code and Act that was at issue:

”A core responsibility of a BCAs (Building Consent Authorities) is to ensure a sound audit process is in place and to provide Ianz with records of such technical reviews. Without such evidence, Ianz could not continue accreditation,” Richards said.

”A lot of publicity is given to the statutory deadline for issuing consents. Ianz uses this information as only one of the indicators of adequate resourcing.

An improvement in the rate of consents issued still requires an assurance they comply with the Code and Act requirements.

IANZ had found in 18 of 20 cases sampled that some processes (presumably related to the concerns above) had not been followed or that there had been technical problems with forms being inappropriately completed.

And on it goes.

Yes, there’s a pattern here and, when there’s a pattern that repeatedly involves the same protagonists Cairns is right – there’s almost always an agenda at work. But, is that agenda ‘just’ who pays the cost of the anchor projects, as Cairns implies (costs which have now been sorted)?

I think that’s part of the story, but even those costs are part of a bigger struggle that has been going on in Christchurch since the earthquakes. The near continuous series of ‘crises’, criticisms and counter-criticisms are evidence, primarily, of that struggle and that central conflict.

A natural disaster of course will challenge any person or organisation. But what is often overlooked is that natural disasters are also excellent opportunities to further agendas and ‘settle’ conflicts with others. Everyone, after all, is likely to be overwhelmed after a disaster and, therefore, everyone becomes politically vulnerable if their failures are highlighted most.

The battle, therefore, is to ensure that – in Bob Parker’s phrase – you, or your organisation, do not become “a whipping boy“:

“Sometimes it can feel like we [The CCC] are no more than a whipping boy for every damn agency in the city.”

These crises – and their fallout politically – has more to do with overall control of the city and, importantly, control of its re-engineering (in more ways than one) according to government imperatives. And it’s not just about control of the recovery. It’s control of the city into the future that is at issue.

But just what might those government imperatives be – beyond the motherhood and apple pie explanations about building a better and brighter 21st century Christchurch?

In fact, citizens of Christchurch don’t need to look very far from the ‘heart’ of their city for a pivotal – and incredibly telling – example of what’s really going on, how the government views the opportunities provided by the post-earthquake ‘recovery’ and the lengths to which it is seemingly happy to go to grasp them.

Yet, this is one place that the media spotlight has failed to linger for much more than occasional, fleeting moments over the last six months. In particular, little has been heard about the great tussle over property where ‘The Frame’ and other anchor projects are to be sited.

But, before we look again at progress in the ‘rebuild’ of the central city, there are the important political events called elections – local, most immediately, but also at the national level next year – that are just around the corner. Positioning around them tells another part of the  story of Christchurch since the earthquakes tossed an all-smothering political dust cloud into the air.

[Epilogue: Now, of course, that election positioning will require some rapid political footwork, given Bob Parker’s announcement that he will not contest the mayoralty in the upcoming elections.]

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3 Responses to Spotlight on Christchurch – Part I: Manufacturing crises and consents

  1. Brilliant research and very pertinent questions regarding our political climate at present. Thank you.

  2. Kumbel says:

    Another splendid piece of work, PG.

    It is eye-opening to draw together all the crises and sniping that has been going on. You would certainly wonder why that has been more important than getting people back into proper housing as we plow through our third post-earthquake winter.

    Politically the biggest prize is who comes out smelling of roses. For anyone worried about their place in history it’s all up for grabs as to who will end up looking good in posterity, the “father/mother” of New Christchurch. But if you look into the political short-term then it’s completely lop-sided. The Nats have everything to lose – not only the coming election but probably the 2-3 following. With ACT, Maori and United Future almost certainly dog tucker the Nats have to plan to win alone and pray for a miracle. I think it is clear by now the miracle won’t happen naturally in Christchurch. Not unless Christchurch voters decide that all the problems in the city are the fault of the Council and that the government has toiled tirelessly to fix the problems caused by the Council. It certainly looks to me that this government are highly motivated to paint as black a picture as possible of CCC.

    And they will get away with it because CCC can’t really fight back. Apart from the problem of biting the hand that feeds there is also a constitutional barrier. Obviously the staff are out of the picture. And at the political level no-one can officially take on the government. Unlike government ministers who have executive power and some autonomy, mayors can only speak on council matters where there has been a policy decision made in council or some other committee. In practice most mayors breach this convention at some stage but in really serious matters such as these a mayor would want some council resolution in place before going into attack mode.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Kumbel,

      Some really good insights, there, especially into just how critical a council can get about the central government given the structural and power relationships between the two.

      So far as I can work out, the National Party’s election strategy in Christchurch is to keep the focus on the quantum of money they are putting in and the big ‘anchor projects’ – almost literally ‘bread’ and ‘circuses’.

      As you say, the minutiae of the difficulties with EQC, insurance, consents, haggles over zoning, compulsory acquisition processes, etc. they seem to want to deflect onto other bodies (council, EQC, etc.). Even CERA and the CCDU are not really being identified with the Government in some cases, which is odd.

      Even odder, the dislike of Brownlee is also not necessarily reflecting back onto central government, per se (or Key). By personalising the problems to Brownlee, paradoxically, that may let the National Party government distance itself from the details of what’s happening here.

      Thanks again for the thoughtful comment.


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