The tussle between central and local government (highlighted in the two previous posts in this series) is part of a fundamental struggle over Christchurch’s future form and role in the nation’s economy.
The outcome of that struggle will determine the extent to which Christchurch is abruptly cut adrift from its past and is reinvented from the top down in response to a neoliberal understanding of cities (and nations) or, alternatively, develops from the bottom up in response to the many and various values and needs of the population and in a way that coherently continues the story of the city.
At the heart of that reinvention are the government’s plans for the central city.
And perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the government’s plans for the city centre is its willingness – even enthusiasm – to exert the power of the state to an unprecedented degree (during peace-time) to achieve what it wants.
In the process, the government has not only turned its back on principles and ideals usually associated with the right of politics – the sanctity of private property rights, due process under the law, minimal role for governments, etc. – but it has also seemingly been happy to antagonise and, ultimately, ‘bulldoze’ people who would normally be seen as its core constituency (e.g., owners of commercial and residential property and small to medium sized businesses).
The approach has been extraordinary – but so has the strangely muted reaction and, perhaps related, the lack of information in the media and public arena about just what is going on.
Given how much attention has been paid recently to all the Council-related problems and issues its particularly perplexing just how hard you need to look to find out whether or not there are any similar ‘problems’ or ‘concerns’ over the process of acquiring land and establishing the (in)famous ‘anchor projects’ in the government’s Central City Blueprint.
But the cracks are just now opening up and brief flashes of light can be seen as information and comment about the ‘negotiations’ emerges.
When the Central City Blueprint was announced in late July, 2012, the Prime Minister, John Key, expressed his desire that ‘The Frame’ would be in place early this year:
Prime Minister John Key will not say how long the Government will negotiate with landowners before triggering compulsory acquisition in Christchurch, but today signalled he wanted to see The Frame in place by early 2013.
“In the fullness of time we will act if we have to, but our preference is to do it by negotiation. By the end of this year, early next year, we would like to be in a position to have The Frame in place.”
He said quite a lot of the property owners stood to benefit from what was happening.
The purchase and acquisition process, from the start, was considered to be expensive but,
Some of the initial cost would be offset when land within the “frame” was made available for sale under its new designation, he said.
The process hasn’t, however, been as swift as the Prime Minister hoped. And there have been predictable and foreseeable reasons for that.
Shortly after the Blueprint was announced, lawyers and landowners were warning over the difficulties associated with mortgages and loans once compulsory acquisition loomed. Compulsory acquisition could lead to the lapse of mortgages held by banks and property owners could be left with a loan that still required repayment (without incoming rents) while they sought compensation:
Residential red zone and normal public works purchases allow for mortgages to be paid off first, but emergency laws governing the blueprint buy-up have no such provision.
Lawyer Michael Wolfe said the situation would catch many lenders and owners unawares.
“This could be a problem for owners – they are going to come under unwelcome pressure from the bank. If a property owner isn’t able to provide alternative security, or isn’t able to continue with payments, the banks are going to start putting pressure on the owner.”
By mid-October last year, property owners in the Frame were also worried that they might lose insurance money for rebuilding buildings once the purchase or acquisition went through:
Central Christchurch landlords with sites earmarked for Government rebuild projects fear they will miss out on millions of dollars in insurance and be left unable to replace lost buildings.
Some have banked interim insurance payouts, to be topped up by insurers later when they rebuild. They fear their insurers will decline the extra cash once the land changes hands.
“There is a chance that the insurer is going to say, ‘Oh, you don’t have a site, so we are not going to pay out‘,” said David Wallace, the Christchurch representative of investor Devonia Holdings, which has close to $30 million worth of insurance claims for land designated for the green frame.
In November the Crown “was poised to spend tens of millions of dollars by early next year” and owners were being advised by Anthony Gough – the first landowner, and one of the largest, to reach a deal with the government – to cut their losses:
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”.
Anthony Gough’s reasoning is the clearest explanation of how unfair the process is in terms of ‘negotiations’. The Crown is in the position of being able effectively to coerce unwilling sellers to sell in the face of the threat of compulsory acquisition.
Gough no doubt had his own personal reasons for being first off the block and trying to persuade others not to expect good prices and settle quickly. Some of his most significant holdings (the old ‘Oxford Strip’ of bars) are in the designated retail precinct and, given the windfall profits and inflated land values on offer in that part of town, the sooner other property owners fold and the central city anchor projects go ahead the better for him financially.
But other, less well endowed, property owners have their reasons for being less than enthusiastic about the process (as has become obvious more recently – see below).
The purchase process slowed down as 2013 neared and then commenced. By late January only one percent of properties needed for the Frame had been bought:
The Government has reached agreements with owners on fewer than 5 per cent of properties needed for the redesign of central Christchurch and bought just 1 per cent, but believes it is making progress.
By the end of May the government claimed to have spent $231 million on land for the anchor projects, although only just under $75 million ($74,958,084) is accounted for in the ‘full list’ of purchases (downloadable from this link).
At the same time, one landowner and developer, Richard Peebles, described his experience ‘negotiating’ with the government as “soul-destroying” but his advice was to “take the money“:
He [Peebles] settled for $7.3m on a portfolio he believed was worth about $12m. The process had been “hard and soul-destroying“, he said.
“The other option was you sat back, they took it and you had to apply for compensation.”
The price offered for his eastern frame land especially was “very, very hard“.
Peebles said he battled for better value, but there was little wiggle room.
His approach and fate was not uncommon:
Some landowners had accepted a price more than 40 per cent less than the rateable value (RV) of their land, and many others settled under RV, as the Crown showed prudence with taxpayer dollars.
While landowners may have been feeling bruised, in the ‘world according to Gerry Brownlee’ “[l]and purchases were progressing ‘incredibly well‘ “.
To make matters even harder for the landowners in the Frame, land prices in other parts of the city were, paradoxically, being sold at higher rates than the land some have had to sell to the government. As Peebles pointed out:
“The stupid thing is I’ve had to sell my land for ranging between $700 and $1300 a square metre, but I’ve had to buy land to replace it at greater prices.”
Sought-after central-city land outside the blueprint area was now selling for more than $1500 a square metre, he said.
That’s no accident, of course. The whole point of the anchor projects (e.g., the North and East Frames, the Stadium, the Convention Centre, the Metro Sports Centre, etc.) was to take land out of supply in the central city so that the remaining land would leap in value.
So landowners in the Frame get hit twice: Once by selling under the spectre of compulsory acquisition; and again – if they wish to reinvest in the city – by increased land values elsewhere.
And there’s a further hammer-blow. It seems that not all purchases for anchor projects are equal:
Long-time Christchurch investor Angus McFarlane, who accepted $1.2m for a Colombo St property earmarked for the new convention centre, said he had little choice but to take the Crown offer.
“It’s a done deal. Whether we’re happy or unhappy about it, it doesn’t really matter.”
The value of blueprint land was site-specific, McFarlane said, with convention centre land fetching much more than elsewhere.
“[Owners] have got to be realistic. Take the money is my advice.”
So whether or not Angus McFarlance was “happy or unhappy about it” at least he could console himself that he was being ‘forced’ to sell in one of the anchor project sites that was “fetching much more than elsewhere“. That probably helps with this kind of ‘oh well, can’t complain‘ fatalistic philosophising and his advice to ‘take the money’ (that phrase has become quite popular – Gough, Peebles and now McFarlane).
An interactive map of who owns what in the Christchurch Central City reveals an interesting roll-call of owners of land covered by the proposed Convention Centre site. They include Angus McFarlane, Philip Carter (at least three properties), David Henderson (the now bancrupt property investor bailed out by the Christchurch City Council in 2009 – at least three properties), Anthony Gough (at least 1 property), various ‘multiple investor’ holdings and assorted other individuals, companies or trusts.
Matters have been less clear at another site – the proposed rugby stadium.
Just after the Blueprint was announced, one building on the stadium site became an overnight cause célèbre - the restored heritage Ng building that housed the Ng Gallery, home to a collection of artists. After mobilising popular support, the owners – Sharon Ng and Roland Logan – were told by the Central City Development Unit (CCDU) that it was possible that the building could be incorporated into the stadium design.
By March this year the fate of the building (and property) as well as that of the Cassells family’s adjoining building (and recently opened CBD bar) was still unknown but the respective owners seemed reasonably confident of the future for their buildings:
Cera said last year that plans to incorporate the building and the neighbouring CBD Bar building into the stadium design were being considered.
Ng said yesterday she was still hopeful the gallery could remain.
“We intend to stay and I think [the CCDU] intend for us to stay as well,” she said.
Not having a definitive decision was “good news“, Ng said.
“We’re not worried about it now. We’ll just carry on.”
The future of the CBD Bar site is not known because it is part of the Turners & Growers block.
Co-owner Zak Cassels said he was “99 per cent” confident that the bar would remain. “Everything I know leads me to believe that this lovely heritage building with a successful business in it will survive whatever it is [the CCDU] have cooked up for us,” he said.
By July, the owners’ were less up-beat about their prospects:
the futures of two affected businesses still hang in the balance and owners are bemoaning a lack of information about their fates.
Zak Cassels said the family were “in the dark” about whether the business would be allowed to remain as part of the stadium complex.
“A few months ago I was confident we could stay, but now I’m feeling like we could go but no decision has been made,” he said.
“The bar isn’t doing too well at the moment. It can be hard in the winter so if we knew our future then it would help us to make long-term decisions.”
Co-owner of heritage-listed NG Gallery Sharon Ng said she had not heard from the CCDU since Christmas.
“We really don’t know what’s going to happen and we still expect to be included in the stadium project.”
Ng said there was “no point” being frustrated by the lack of communication.
“We’re just carrying on as normal because that’s all we can do.”
It’s tempting to see CERA’s floating of the idea that the buildings could be incorporated into the stadium as an attempt to dampen down a ‘hot spot’, in terms of the public’s reaction. Ng and Logan, in particular, were quick to go to the national media and social media with their story.
While the CCDU initially downplayed the priority of the stadium on its ‘to do’ list, the scale, cost and siting of the proposed stadium has almost constantly been debated and is now heating up:
For a while, the debate had faded from sight because the CCDU said the stadium was the anchor project right at the back of the queue. No pressure to make any rushed choices.
But now it has become clear that the 2017 Lions tour is being seen as a stake in the ground, a target to aim for. And given a year to design and two years to construct, this means the stadium would have to be locked into the rebuild budget before the end of 2013.
The stadium is also the least popular anchor project for the city’s residents:
The Press Research First Poll found 46 per cent of people opposed the estimated $506 million stadium project, with 32 per cent in support.
The $481m central-city frame and the $251m metropolitan sports facility were the two most popular projects, with 52 per cent and 50 per cent support respectively.
Even the “most popular projects” only barely have support from half the residents, which itself is quite remarkable.
As has been made abundantly clear, however, the ‘anchor projects’ – especially the Frame and the Stadium – were not proposed primarily for their supposed amenity benefits. Their main raison d’être has always been as land soaks: the need to take central city land out of circulation:
The eastern and southern edges of the central city will be bordered by the “frame”. These are open spaces designed to reduce the size of the CBD, ridding it of the oversupply of commercial space it had pre-earthquakes. The frame will have a 10-year land-use designation.
While the Prime Minister had suggested that the anchor projects could be “scaled back“, one thing that will not be compromised is the ‘footprint’ of the projects – because reducing that would jeopardise their primary function.
As CERA made clear in August last year:
The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) yesterday indicated there was room for negotiation on the details of the anchor projects, even though the land allocated would not change.
With some anchor projects just what might happen to the current ownership and buildings remains unclear. In the ‘Innovation Precinct’, for example, one building owner and businessperson has been, literally, counting the days both since her business had to vacate the building (on 22 February, 2011) and, after the Central City Development Plan was announced, the length of time it is taking CERA and the CCDU to come to decisions about the fate of properties on High Street in the ‘Innovation Precinct’:
Locked out of undamaged factory for 835 days [as of 6 June] – (since Feb 2011)
Do we still own our building???? who knows – 309 days since designated “South frame”- only 4 +more years to go before we get told if we are going to be compulsorily acquired by CCDU
It is well worth reading all the entries on her blog.
Nicky Arts clearly feels the long – and continuing – waiting game has been a deliberate process of leaving her in the dark:
I was sent on the 18th of March 2013, by my sister in Auckland, 2 documents:
“Request for Expressions of Interest relating to the Christchurch Innovation Precinct.”
The second document “Request for Proposals relating to Supply of a Spatial Framework for the Christchurch Innovation Precinct”. Date: 14 March 2013.
I have a building in the innovation precinct, one of the few left standing and repaired, (nearly). Would you think that I would be sent a copy of said documents by CERA/CCDU/MBIE?
No, that would require someone to think. I was sent this document by a family member who fell upon it in the government tenders website by chance.
[In one document it mentioned that] MBIE will host a briefing for potential respondents at 5.00 – 7.00 pm on Monday 25 March 2013. This Presentation will be aimed at small and medium enterprises to encourage their participation and understand their needs. Please RSVP by the 20th March.
They really don’t want us in the Innovation precinct do they. We get it, we are not completely thick.
At the Convention Centre site, the contenders (some from overseas) have similarly been left hanging:
Contenders to design and build the Christchurch Convention Centre are “in the dark” about the stalled process, after being shortlisted six months ago.
One of the companies from outside Christchurch said yesterday nothing had happened since the shortlisting. The parties will only talk off the record.
The “disgraceful bickering” in Christchurch when there was so much to be done was “depressing”.
“This is a Christchurch-centred failure of procurement,” one said.
As the final – and greatest – irony, land values and rents for different parts of the central city are now heading in the opposite direction to their trajectories prior to the earthquakes.
The parts of the central city that were reinventing themselves, gaining both patronage and rentals were the parts of the city that are now to be literally or metaphorically bulldozed for the Frame and Stadium sites (and possibly Innovation Precinct – but who knows?).
By contrast, other parts of the city were said to be in need of “revitalisation” long before the earthquakes. A series of attempts were made to address this. In 2007 Council staff recommended ”a new urban design panel” and, in addition:
a new Urban Regeneration Agency to champion inner-city revitalisation projects, identifying, buying and cleaning up run-down or under-used areas and helping put deals together with the private sector
In 2009, according to Mayor Bob Parker, the tram extension through City Mall,
had injected new life into the heart of Christchurch and was part of many planned improvements to revitalise the city centre.
In the first half of 2010, after a ‘study tour’ by Bob Parker, Tony Marryatt and Mike Theelen (Strategy and Planning manager) to North America it was announced that:
A light-rail network for Christchurch will be investigated as part of a package of measures to revitalise the central city.
Just prior to the 22 February, 2011 earthquake, the Council’s new Central City Committee (Chaired by newbie councillor Jamie Gough) was investigating ‘Five ideas to revitalise the central city‘:
Financial hurdles that stifle development could be scrapped as a new committee looks at ways of revitalising central Christchurch.
Rating inner-city businesses to pay for promotions and extra free parking will also be investigated by the city council’s central-city committee, which met for the first time yesterday.
Five key recommendations have been made by a group of inner-city businesspeople invited by Mayor Bob Parker to submit ideas on ways to “re-stimulate” the central city.
After the September, 2010 earthquake it was, according to an October 2010 editorial in The Press, ’Time to Revitalise’ and for efforts to be redoubled:
Major urban design questions are inevitably controversial in Christchurch. But there can be no doubt that the pace of revitalisation in the central city must pick up and that the earthquake should be the catalyst for a coherent long- term plan to emerge.
In the same editorial, Richard Ballantyne’s desire to have a smaller Square with a slow road through it was canvassed, as was his wish that the size of the CBD be debated:
Ballantyne has called for debate over the optimum size of the CBD. One that is smaller and more compact could have merits in terms of it being more accessible and allowing more community housing within the four avenues, which would assist inner-city businesses.
Ballantyne not only now has his wish for a smaller CBD but, fortuitously, his own shop is within that smaller CBD, despite it being part of the central city that was declining – as opposed to other areas within the four avenues that were slowly enhancing but are now in the Frame, Stadium or Innovation Precinct sites.
Under the CCDU Central City Recovery plan, those previously struggling parts of the city just south of the Square and in the Cashel Street area (and the target of much of the Council-driven ‘revitalisation’ efforts prior to the earthquakes) are now showing rapid inflation courtesy of their designation as the ‘retail precinct’ and their proximity to the Convention Centre and arts and culture precinct.
In fact, competition for the minimal amounts of land in the retail precinct is already having its effect, with one major overseas investor pulling out of the CBD for an interesting reason:
“Speculative” land prices in central Christchurch had driven Goodman Property Group away from an interest in helping redevelop flattened areas.
The prime City Mall block is one site where land prices have gone above pre-earthquake prices to an illogical level, Goodman says.
At around Easter, Goodman had decided that Christchurch central and the City Mall project was no longer worth pursuing, given the “speculative” buying of land around that project.
“You’ve got sites trading in some cases at prices twice what they were before the earthquake . . . That’s illogical.”
“Until the economics sort themselves out, I don’t think you’re going to see a significant institutional investor.”
Meanwhile – and as already mentioned – property owners in The Frame and Stadium area are being offered much lower prices for their land.
And they’re getting angry, and lining up to voice their frustrations:
The Crown could have a legal fight on its hands if it acquires central-city land for its anchor projects by force.
Aggrieved eastern frame landowners are considering letting their land be compulsorily acquired, rather than sell willingly, so they can seek compensation through the courts.
Landowners say CCDU’s property group is making offers that are ”off the planet”.
An independent valuation of a Lichfield St site owned by KPI Rothschild Property Group, showed the land was worth about $850,000.
The CCDU valuation came back at about $275,000.
Denis Harwood, who owns a building on the corner of Manchester St and Bedford Row, has put the feelers out to members of CBD property owners’ group Core about launching a combined legal effort.
”The offers being made are significantly below what some peoples’ mortgages are and far below any realistic market value,” he said.
Gordon Chamberlain, who owns a now empty site on Gloucester St, said if owners willingly sold to the CCDU then it was ”totally final”.
”That’s why I’m going to let them take it, and then I will do what is necessary to get compensation.”
The CCDU was ”off the planet with their values”.
Lisle Hood, who owns several Lichfield Lanes precinct sites, said the Government was not treating landowners in ”good faith”.
”Compulsory acquisition [followed by a legal fight] is likely to have a far better outcome for us,” Hood said.
Ernest Duval, who fronts Core, had received ”huge” amounts of correspondence from unhappy landowners.
It was not about wanting more money. Rather, it was about getting the full benefits of their insurance policies or having the opportunity to table their own valuations.
Developer Richard Peebles has reached sales agreements for all but one of his 10 properties wanted by the Crown.
He was ”fairly sure” people would get better prices if they took their case to court, but the stress, time and legal costs meant it might not be worth it.
Dean Marshall, a Core member and co-director of KPI Rothschild Property Group, said those who chose to fight would have a ”pretty good chance” in court.
Only the ever-present Anthony Gough was “on the other side of the fence, urging land owners to be ‘more realistic‘.”
As was clear from the start, the main beneficiaries of the government intervention in the central city were always going to be the existing large and influential property owners. Promises of large overseas investors being part of the rebuild appear not to have risen to CERA’s expectations.
Perhaps things have improved since, but at the end of January this year investment was very much a case of a buy-up by the familiar old boys:
A popular rebuild blueprint, a marked decrease in seismic activity and an optimistic, forward-looking population means central Christchurch is ripe for investment.
But an expected cascade of overseas dollars into the city has not yet eventuated. Instead, an analysis of post-earthquake transactions reveals it is Christchurch investors, particularly the old guard, who are holding on to or snapping up the land inside the city’s four avenues.
And, in mid-June this year, an ‘off the record’ comment from a representative of an overseas company expressing interest in the Convention Centre project had this to say:
One of the companies from outside Christchurch said yesterday nothing had happened since the shortlisting. The parties will only talk off the record.
His impression was that deals were frequently done in Christchurch between friends and people they had known for years, which could deter investors from outside without contacts. Potential investors from afar needed to see tangible progress.
That, then, seems to be the state of play in the mostly hidden ‘negotiations’ between property owners and the government and between the government and prospective investors.
So what can be concluded from all of this?
As I’ve tried to show in these three posts, the ‘great game’ is revealed in the details of several stories that, at first glance, can seem separate.
There’s the continuing criticisms of, and crises involving, the Christchurch City Council (Post I in this series). All of that has clearly been part of a struggle between central and local government over who has most say in the rebuild. But, in Christchurch’s case, it’s also been a struggle to get rid of Bob Parker and Tony Marryatt who, in retrospect, were a messy ‘random’ element and so a threat to the larger plan.
That battle both to even the balance between central and local government and be rid of Parker and Marryatt has then played itself out in the lead up to the local body elections (Post II in this series). Unusual alliances and ‘marriages of convenience’ – as has happened in Christchurch over he past year – only occur in the face of a common enemy or enemies.
The problem with these marriages of convenience, however, is that local groups (political, social and economic) and individuals have markedly different interests in how the rebuild proceeds. With Parker’s departure from the race, those interests will assert themselves.
Finally, those ‘different interests‘ have also played themselves out most clearly in the central city rebuild and the still massively under-rated and under-reported process of land acquisition (Post III – this post – in this series).
And, in the final analysis, this ‘land grab’ is the nub of the post-earthquake conflicts and political upheavals. This is what it is all about and where it can be seen in its rawest form.
The motivation for the Central City Blueprint with its ‘alienation’ of large tracts of land for proposed ‘anchor projects’ such as the Frame, Stadium, Convention Centre and Innovation Precinct is clear and explicit. But what is staggering – and revealing – is the extent to which the government is so committed to a preconceived plan for Christchurch and Christchurch’s role in the national economy.
And it is this plan that is at the heart of all of the issues covered in these posts. It is why the Council had to be marginalised. It is why Parker and Marryatt had to go. It is why a National-led government needs to heavy members of its own constituency.
From the establishment of CERA, the sidelining of the Christchurch City Council and the takeover of the central city rebuild (through the CCDU) to the re-engineering of the CBD to become an artificial, concentrated, neoliberal hub dedicated to local, national and international wealth the ‘plan’ has always been a high-stakes gamble, in more ways than one.
It had to start with an almost literal ‘blank slate’ (hence the aggressive demolitions) and the investing of immense powers in the government’s hands. Most tellingly, it also had to sacrifice some political capital by riding roughshod over members of its own ‘natural’ constituency – small to medium-sized business people and property owners unfortunate enough to have their property in the way of the greater plan.
These particular people, from the start, were part of the political ‘cost-benefit’ equation for the government. Their removal from the public ‘framing’ – so to speak – of thje Christchurch rebuild is a way to minimise the political fall-out nationwide, while achieving the concentration of land values and wealth in ‘The Core’ of the new, compact CBD.
In consequence, those who, pre-earthquakes, dominated Christchurch’s property base have been gifted even more dominance. In simple economic terms, the government has engineered greater wealth concentration in Christchurch. Fewer hands now control more of the economic levers in the city and region. And – as a horse goes with a carriage and love supposedly goes with marriage – along with greater economic power goes greater political control over Christchurch’s destiny.
In this way, Christchurch’s role in ‘New Zealand Inc.’ – detailed in this fascinating, ‘must read’ analysis by John McCrone from September, 2012 – will be cemented in place:
There is a theory that governments use disasters as opportunities to shove through their political agendas. Big change can be rushed past a population still in shock.
So is this what is happening in Christchurch with the Government’s remarkably ambitious – and remarkably interventionist – plan for the rebuild of the central city?
Is the business-friendly Blueprint masterplan with its convention centres and covered rugby stadiums, formulated with great speed and secrecy, then launched with stage-managed fanfare by Prime Minister John Key live on the evening news, just a cunning strategy to get rid of the old “people’s republic of Christchurch” and create a new corporate-run town?
Listen carefully, say commentators like University of Otago politics lecturer Bryce Edwards, and the Government is speaking quite openly about applying an “NZ Inc” model of economic development – the country run like a business with the prime minister as its chief executive and the voters as stockholders looking for the best possible return from the national enterprise.
It is not an anti-market approach. Instead it recognises that neo-liberalism has indeed remade the world, removing the barriers to the flows of trade, capital and skills to create a globalised economy. So now, especially for a small country, it makes sense to play within this great marketplace as a tightly- organised business with a clear market strategy.
And if NZ Inc is a business, then ‘rationalisation’ of its ‘business units’ is required. That means Christchurch can be ‘rationalised’ (courtesy of the earthquakes) and, more pointedly, so can the ‘small players’ in its central city – sorry guys, but small to medium independent enterprises aren’t part of our business strategy.
So, the people who built up their businesses and landownings in the ‘neglected’ areas of the CBD, the people who actually began to bring people and businesses back to the High Streets, the Poplar Lanes and all those other ‘messy’ parts of town that were seen as the ‘problem’ are being tossed overboard – flotsam and jetsam from the scuppering of the old Christchurch.
Even locally, over the last six months all has been eerily quiet on the ‘eastern front’ while the land acquisition process for the anchor projects has slowly ‘progressed’. As I pointed out at the beginning of this series of posts, during this time there has been only the occasional flicker of light shed by the media on the process. Elsewhere in New Zealand I imagine there is a near total lack of awareness of what is going on, thus limiting the electoral impact of the measures the government is pursuing here.
Yet here in Christchurch are dozens, maybe hundreds, of smaller business and property owners being unceremoniously coraled and cornered into submission. The government’s determination to go through with its re-engineering of Christchurch is nowhere so evident as here – when it turns on its own.
As a thought experiment, it’s worth considering what reaction would have greeted a Labour-led government that attempted the same massive, centrally-planned intervention for the ‘greater good’.
[In fact, it's very hard to imagine since the recent variants of a Labour-led government have bent over backwards to appear 'business-friendly' and would - for purely political reasons - probably not have even dared to dream of such a stunningly brutish and overweening approach to the rebuild of the CBD.]
It’s also worth remembering that the ‘great plan’ – and Canterbury’s role in it – began prior to the earthquakes with the disestablishment of the regional council (ECAN) and the imposition of Commissioners. As the government argued at the time, Canterbury’s water resources were too valuable to leave in the hands of the people of Canterbury and their local, democratic decision making processes.
No doubt the same argument is seen by the government as being persuasive when it comes to Canterbury’s other natural resources – its gas, minerals and, who knows, its oil.
The fate of Canterbury and Christchurch, after all, is just a microcosm of the current fate of New Zealand as it is, likewise, being re-engineered for a perceived and, so far as the government is concerned, largely welcomed neo-liberal, global economy.
According to one Christchurch City Councillor, after being coerced and cajoled by the government into pursuing its neoliberal destiny Christchurch is only a ‘sneeze away’ from trouble:
Look at how Christchurch is now tied to servicing the cost of a largely commercial inner-city vision for the next 20 or 30 years, Johanson says. The council’s credit card has been well and truly maxed out.
The council’s debt levels are about to soar from 60 per cent of revenue to 247 per cent by 2017, just a few percent shy of its 250 per cent limit on total borrowings. They will start to taper down after that, but will still remain high for decades.
Johanson worries that this long-term level of indebtedness leaves Christchurch only a sneeze away from real trouble.
But there’s more than financial indebtedness looming for Christchurch – and for New Zealand.
Christchurch – in its re-engineered form – will no longer have control of its destiny.
For that reason alone, New Zealanders should shine a very bright spotlight on Christchurch.