Letter from Christchurch – Local Government Frustration

Local government seems to be rising up the ladder of issues people are taking an interest in.

Patrick posted earlier in the week about the Shape the Future group in Wellington.

Aucklanders got briefly interested in how their city’s governed over the last couple of years, but it seemed like a passing fad – and sadly far too few Aucklanders engaged, or continue to be engaged, with what were and are extremely important issues. A pity – the Royal Commission papers and report were fascinating.

Local government has certainly occupied the minds of many residents, ratepayers and citizens here in Christchurch for a number of years, and it’s been a large part of our frustration (still growing btw) with how things have been managed since the earthquakes began. (For those keeping count we just passed 10,000 quakes since September 2010 – here’s the map)

The last local government elections were hotly contested in Christchurch and, up until the 4 September quake which started this whole sorry story off, Hon Jim Anderton was walking away with the mayoralty in a landslide of epic proportions (the polling results were showing numbers seasoned campaigners only dream of for their candidate.) People were generally upset by a track record of poor decisions coupled with a near addictive attitude towards secrecy.

And then the quake hit, Bob Parker did what he does best – he fronted at every opportunity he had, and did a good job of clearly communicating with the city about what they needed to do. The polls flipped completely and the rest we know.

What’s been frustrating for everyone in the city since is that this change of character seems to have been temporary. Lots of good things happened in Christchurch during what we now refer to as the ‘Response’ period. Bob and the Council (both elected members and staff) were good at ‘response’, so were all the rescue teams, the NZDF and everyone else. Things worked well.

But now we’ve moved on from Response to ‘Recovery’…

Now I’m a huge fan of the Central City Recovery Strategy – I know many of the people who helped write it, and it’s an excellent blueprint for the recovery of the most important part of the city.

But it’s only a small part of the overall picture – and while I like the strategy, I have enormous doubts about the Council’s ability to actually implement the thing.

The recovery strategy has been well managed. So have other parts of Council operations – many of the operational units of Council have done stellar jobs just getting on and doing what needs to be done. But overall, the Council has reverted to type – they’ve shut up shop, stopped talking clearly and have left large numbers of people frustrated by a failure to be seen to do what’s needed.

Take it from me there’s only so many times you can drive down Christchurch’s roads before you start getting really angry. As of last week the total estimated cost of infrastructure rebuild work (that’s roading and the three waters – Drinking, Stormwater and Sewer) was approximately $2 billion (roads are not insured by the way). Currently the rate of spend is only $20m a month. We’ll be done in eight and a half years?!

Except we won’t. I’ve watched the road over my back fence get fully re-laid (dug out, re-graded and sealed) three times so far since September and it needs doing again. I wonder how much of the current $20m a month is basically money down the drains (the metaphorical ones still work it seems). So we’re not actually spending at $20m a month, meanwhile the target is to get it all done in five years (and we’re one year down for those who can’t count).

Anger at the Council arises, I’d argue, because of its perceived and actual failure to communicate with people and tell us regularly what on earth is going on. The Council continues to fight petty fights (everyone should read Joe Bennett), conduct itself behind closed doors, and fails to grapple with the task of getting things done.

Of course it’s not remotely all their fault.

The three most reviled letters in the alphabet in this part of the country are: EQC. If Labour had campaigned against EQC rather than asset sales it may not have done well elsewhere in the country (although it could hardly have done worse), but it would have swept Christchurch.

We’ve got hope. We all continue to pray that the Lion From Orion will deliver for us all, and most people’s insurance companies are doing a good job (from what I can tell, and when they can get sense out of EQC).

But between the bafflingly incompetant EQC and the secrecy-bound inertia of the CCC people in Christchurch are fed up.

I for one don’t think it’s right to attack Tony Marryatt for his pay rise, blame the employer, not the employee. I can come up with plenty of real criticisms of Tony. But I certainly think it’s right to attack the Council: for approving the pay rise; for their apparent inability to read the assessment of their CEOs performance; for their desire to give a pay rise of mega proportions while the rest of the staff receive little or nothing; for their desire to hide the fact of the pay rise (approved in September 2011, but not publicly notified until the week before Christmas); and for their general incompetence.

So, there’s frustration and anger at our local government. It seems as though the rest of the country might have begun to notice. The real question that needs answering is what to do about it.

That I’ll address in my next letter.

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