A whole bunch of local politics

Posted on January 27, 2012 by

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Should we sack the Christchurch City Council? Some people think so, but is it the ethical thing to do? What about democracy? The Canterbury Regional Council (ECan) has already been sacked (over something as trivial as water) and most of the power of the city currently resides in the all-powerful, answer to nobody, appointed government department in CERA. Is getting rid of the last vestige of democracy in Christchurch really a positive move forward? Further, what kind of precedent would such a move set? Local government exists for a reason, how can any local authority in future be expected to do its job properly in the future if it has the constant humming of being fired in its ear? Furthermore, how is that democratic? Regional, City and District Council’s are elected, is it really the Government’s place to interfere with that process directly and fire elected officials, just because they do a “bad job”? Should we expect the UN to fire all our MP’s and appoint 121 commissioners if the current government performs poorly in the management of our economy?

I believe strongly that the current woes with the Council need to be sorted out. It is beneficial for the city to have a united and democratic City Council going forward, not one that is made up of appointed commissioners. While there have been some truly woeful moments from the Council of late, there have been a lot of good things too. Don’t forget the draft Central City Plan. When I read through that, I marvel at the short timeframe they turned that out in, as well as the high-quality of the document. It is a really good blueprint for the rebuilding and recovery of the city, and it was a very open, reflective, and transparent  process that it came out of. There is simply no guarantee that those type of things would continue under a Council that is made up of appointed commissioners.

That may sound fine to some people. Simply “get on with it”, is the call I hear being made by many. The problem is that the decisions that are being made now are going to have huge ramifications down the line. These are decisions that are being made that require careful thinking, analysis and planning, and rushing too much could well be the difference between Christchurch becoming a Hamilton and a Melbourne (many apologies to Hamiltonians). We are looking at long-term gains here as well as short-term ones. A quick buck or saving is not going to cut it if we want this place to prosper in the future.

Today the Council is holding a crisis meeting with Local Government Minister Nick Smith. The intention of this meeting is to get some harmony around the Council table, and to set some “ground rules”. This is a positive move, and it is good to see that the government are offering assistance rather than pulling the plug on democracy in Christchurch completely. However, I can’t help but ask where we go from here? We know that elections are supposed to be held for ECan again in 2013. I was never ECan’s biggest fan, but felt that the way the councillors were dismissed was simply wrong. Nevertheless, I think it would be a shame to simply reinstate things to the way they were without taking the opportunity to look at local government reform. For a start, I think it would be good to look at what scope there is for council amalgamation and the possibility of a unitary authority. I have my own ideas about how that might possibly look, but for now I just want to say that it should be looked into, particularly with the growing urban satellite areas in mind.

There are other things I think could be looked into as well, in addition to and in lieu of amalgamation. This includes looking into an independent transport authority. It is painful when you start to look at how things work and what has to happen to get certain public transport projects rolling along. ECan, the CCC and Waimakariri and Selwyn District Councils are all involved and hold influence over certain areas. I have always felt that there needed to be an independent Canterbury transport agency, with a close association with the CCC and District Councils. ECan’s role running public transport has never cut it with me, especially with the large rural focus and mandate it has. Public transport policy, planning and implementation should be in the charge of an urban focused and mandated agency. It would be much easier to implement such an agency if there is a kind of “Greater Christchurch Council” in existence, but in lieu of that I think that a more formalised greater Christchurch relationship between the key authorities needs to be established, perhaps at the same time as an independent transport authority being set up.

Today the PM warned that the Government would use its powers to remove any stumbling blocks to the rebuild of Christchurch. A veiled warning perhaps? I feel that the Government will only be so drastic as to replace City Councillors with commissioners should it be deemed a political advantage. At the moment, I think they know that there will simply be too much opposition to the concept, and it will be cannon fodder to Labour who will be keen to take advantage of any big issue to swing support in Christchurch back to red. Nevertheless, the Council have been doing a pretty good job of making such a move more popular among the electorate, so the outcome of today’s meeting will be of much importance.

“The challenge now is for local authorities to use these powers to free up new land. The residential red zone settlement process is progressing well.” – John Key

Other little tidbits in the PM’s announcement that rebuilding Christchurch is at the top of his priority include what seems to be a warning to local government to allow more development of greenfield land. We have seen this in Auckland as well, so there are no surprises there. Nevertheless, it is a worry as I simply do not think that the Government has the background and skill set to know how to develop and plan a city. The PM says this could potentially release 45,000 new homes. Sounds great, right? But in addition to what? The big question for me is how much could such a move compromise existing and desired long-term plans, and how much do we actually need to compromise those plans to accommodate people moving from redzones and a larger than expected influx of migrants associated with the rebuild? We seem to be jumping to one answer here, one that sounds good and gets all the “get on with it” types waving their flags, but could compromise a lot of long-term goals and positive outcomes. Like I said, the decisions that are being made now are going to have huge ramifications down the line and we must not rush all decisions, but balance pace with a careful and well thought out approach. 

The meeting between the Council members and the Local Government Minister is due to start at around 2.30pm, with a joint press conference between Bob Parker and Nick Smith to be held afterwards.

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