This week the Government released its substantial response to the draft Central City Plan. I would describe it as ‘cautiously supportive’ with a few questions thrown up and some veiled warnings. All in all it is an interesting read, particularly as it really shows what questions the Government wants answers to in the final Plan. This is what the Government response had to say about transport:
It is good that the Government is showing support for the consideration of all transport modes in the Plan, although the word ‘consideration’ has a ring of “oh its a nice idea, but…”. It seems to me, however, that the Government has ‘roads = access and we want to protect them’ blinkers on. I wonder if the changed form of some roads or the plan to discard the one-way system in favour of moving that traffic to the four avenues is under fire here. Phrases like “safe and efficient links through activity centres” and “the development and implementation of the draft Plan should be informed by an understanding of how the local transport network is integrated with wider regional and national networks (including Roads of National Significance), especially in relation to access to and from key industrial and commercial areas and the movement of freight” . The Council is going to have to prove that changes to roads, and the transport system in general, will ‘work’. Unfortunately ‘work’ in this case is in the context of how the Government thinks it should work. I just see such a danger that a message of “don’t mess with the roads too much” is being made here.
It is also clear that the Government is going to look at prioritising transport projects on whether they are crucial to the rebuild or simply “enhance” the city. This will be crucial when we start to talk funding, and further up in the response, there is a bit of comment about Central Government funding towards key transport projects:
It is clear that requests for Government funding will be highly scrutinised, and projects will be weighted according to whether they fall into a “repair category” or not. Those that do not will be subject to their own business case processes, which essentially means they will not be giving special status just because there was an earthquake. I don’t have too much of a problem with this, it seems pretty natural.
There seems to be a veiled warning that the Government expects some weighing up from the Council on what is essential and what is not, and what is affordable and what is not. It could be a kind of “forget about light rail or anything like that” warning, but regardless it seems to be saying that it thinks some aspects of the draft Plan are wishful thinking.
Clearly, the Council is going to have to work hard to ensure that light rail or any other such project (commuter rail?) stacks up with a very robust business case. When I say “stacks up”, I mean within the world of the Governments own business case analysis process, not necessarily in the real world. We have already seen Auckland’s Inner City Rail Link business case get hammered by the Government, so clearly the Council are going to have to tread very carefully. Fortunately, we can learn from Auckland’s recent experience and build those lessons into the business case for light rail (or whatever comes out in the final report) in Christchurch, although the danger remains and the warning signs from the Government are evident for all to see.
Below is another ominous sign that the Government expects priority in the sequencing of projects in the draft Plan. It will be one thing to get the Government on board for things like rail/light rail, but it will quite another to get an agreement on when it should be implemented. Things like the proposed light rail line or an introduction of commuter rail services have a lot of obvious wider benefits that will aid in the recovery of the CBD and wider city, and effectively help meet the goals of the draft Plan sooner and more effectively. However, the indirect nature of these benefits means they might go whistling by certain ears and I can well imagine the Prime Minister standing in front of a camera saying something along the lines of “we think it (light rail) is a great idea, but now is not the time to release funds for it”.
So, overall there is nothing too much to get worried about. Well, that nothing really surprises me in this response is probably a more accurate reflection on my feelings. Obviously, it is clear that the Government are being very cautious in their approach (it is, after all, a political hot potato). It is also clear that the final product is going to have to be tight as a drum. Key projects that are not a direct repair or rebuild, but are instead an enhancement upon what Christchurch had, is going to have to stack up on all angles. The Council is going to have to take much care when putting together business cases for things like light rail, and will have to pay a lot of attention to timing, and how projects fit in to the rebuild of the city. It seems clear to me that such projects will get shot down from out of the sky if one tiny thing does not add up. The lesson from Auckland is there to be learned. Ultimately, it will be most interesting to see the Council’s response to this, as it will to all other feedback, in the final product.