A few questions, a few answers – from the CERA boss

Posted on February 23, 2012 by


Yesterday there was a piece on the Herald website which had some questions and answers with CERA boss Roger Sutton. I thought it gave some pretty transparent answers to some of the more important and fundamental questions, and thought I would pop a few on here. Of course, there is always going to be an element of “oh but he would say that wouldn’t he” as it is his job to be optimistic about the future. Nevertheless, I think we are a ludicrously pessimistic bunch, prone to believing and spreading whatever the latest hyped up theory or idea is. So I think there needs to be a little balance. Anyway, here are some of the questions and answers I found most intriguing.

Jane: Are you where you thought you would be in the rebuild process one year on?

Roger Sutton: A year ago it was difficult to appreciate what the extent of the damage was. And those continuing aftershocks that we really didn’t want also make a difference to the level of progress. But overall we as a city are doing really well. In the CBD almost 1000 buildings have been taken down and that is making way for new construction, which is already underway. It will be a long process, but as my colleague Warwick Isaacs puts it, we have come through the autumn into spring and new life is popping up all over the city. The first year was probably always going to be the hardest with the emotional toll. The Feb 22 anniversary is a good time to take a deep breath and move forward.

So, essentially we have to realise we are only one year down the track from one of the biggest natural disasters to ever befall a major New Zealand city, so we just need to be a bit understanding about the delays and length of time it will take to do things. It simply isn’t going to be straight forward. To be honest, I am amazed at how far things have come. Sometimes it is the little things, like bars, cafes, restaurants and shops that have popped up. It is also the big-ticket stuff, like the city plan which was completed to such a high standard in such a small amount of time. I mean, we have a solid blueprint established less than 12 months out from the disaster. That is pretty good going. Also, it pays not to forget that despite the cries of “when will the rebuild start” it actually has. Yes, it is slow, but the facts are that a number of new commercial buildings are underway, even in the CBD.

Diane: How innovative is the rebuild process and are the developers being encouraged to invest in infrastructure for the city’s future?

Roger Sutton: Absolutely. The City Council’s city plan is full of innovative and exciting ideas, and perhaps the Mayor would be a good person to talk about that. As for developers, we are certainly keen to talk with them about their ongoing commitment to the city and we have a team devoted to the Economic Recovery which is tapped into the various city networks to discuss how that recovery will be shaped.

Good support for the City Plan from the CERA boss then, which is very promising. Also, while there may be new rules and restrictions imposed upon developers in the CBD, the authorities are clearly responsive to the need for economic recovery and no doubt will be keen to engage and accommodate as appropriate. There seems to be a prevailing sense that the Council is hell-bent on implementing a “wishy-washy pipe dream” plan for change that will kill the city and its economy. The plan though is about long-term gain, establishing a solid and innovative foundation from which a new Christchurch can grow. If you look at the nay-sayers, they are mainly investors who seem more keen on making a quick buck. We all know what wasn’t working before, so why continue with that line of thinking?

Joshua: What assurance do you have that the slushy earth underneath Christchurch is stable enough to warrant a “rebuild”?

Roger Sutton: We contracted a company, Tonkin and Taylor, to do extensive tests on the land under the CBD and late last year that report was released. They have the knowledge and expertise to make those decisions and we are happy to accept their professional assessments.

Unfortunately, there are quite a few Joshuas out there. The “slushy” earth, cries of “move the city 30km to the west” and so on. There are just some people out there that are convinced the ground under the CBD, and even most of the city, is to be avoided at all costs, which is probably due to a combination of ignorance and simply being scared. None of this is grounded in reality, and is really just scaremongering. I liken it to some of the moral panics that have gripped humanity over the years. In the end, I trust the experts and good old basic common sense. In any case, if you moved the city (the logistics of which boggle the mind and are quite simply in the realms of fantasy), it would do even more harm and simply kill it.

Chris asks: How will building owners be encouraged to actually spend all this money constructing new – eco-friendly commercial buildings in the Christchurch CBD? The rents they previously enjoyed from multi-storied buildings will be nothing like what they will be able to earn from low-rise commercial buildings. With the increased costs of construction in Christchurch surely they will be more likely to invest elsewhere in NZ or overseas?

Roger Sutton: There is a lot of discussion within our Economic Recovery team about a range of ideas, including making sure developers are happy to rebuild here. This is a big issue that the city council and Chamber of Commerce are also actively involved in. What we know so far is that around 60 percent of the property investors already in Christchurch say they intend to stay, and the other 40 percent are a mix of people deciding to move out of the market and those who are as yet undecided. So there is an excellent base to start from of people ready and willing to rebuild here, no matter what.

While you could look at this and say “gee, 40 percent of investors are either getting out or are considering it – that’s a HUGE amount” – and you would be right – the fact is that 60 percent have indicated willingess to stay, and that is a start (and a majority), especially when you consider the scale of what has happened here. When you consider the money that is to be invested to get that 60 percent back up and running, and the implementation of a bold and innovative city plan, that is a heck of a foundation to build upon and it won’t be long before investors, old and new, start to come back. We just have to make sure we create an exciting and dynamic place that people will want to invest in.

Anne: So many people have left Christchurch – how do you propose to entice them back?

Roger Sutton: People’s choice to leave a city that has been through so much is theirs alone. Many people have very genuine reasons for not wanting to live here with ongoing earthquakes, so really not anyone’s business to try to pressure anyone to come back when they are frightened or have lost their homes and/or their business.
But as for attracting people to Christchurch in the future, the rebuild will need a workforce of 30,000 – we anticipate many of those will decide to stay and enjoy what an exciting and vibrant new city we are creating. Many already have – including CERA staff. Our GM Operations, Warwick Isaacs, is one of many who have relocated his family here.
And in time we know the quake risk will have reduced and former Christchurch people will want to return to their city. We look forward to having them back.

While the media constantly quotes 9000 people as having left Christchurch, the real figure is probably a bit less than that. The reason being that places like Rangiora, Woodend, Pegasus, Rolleston, and Lincoln are not included in the urban area population of Christchurch by Statistics NZ (which the “9000” figure comes from), and that is where many displaced people have moved to. While people do keep leaving, the number doing so is dropping according to Statistics.

It seems that the 30,000 people that will be needed for the rebuild is workforce only – i.e. it is anticipated that they will bring family too (which Sutton hints at with his Warwick Taylor example). So we could be realistically looking at an additional 50,000 or so people coming to Christchurch in the not too distant future, which would not only begin to cancel out the losses but could even make some significant gains over the mid-term. That will be a huge economic injection for the greater city. On one hand it will mean new business opportunities (shops etc), plus further work opportunities as we simultaneously develop the infrastructure for this influx over the next wee while. On the other, that means we must plan not just for a recovery but also for this influx – and we must plan to encourage them to stay and settle down. That is why it is so important to get things like the city plan right.  

So as you can see, Sutton’s answers made for some good food for thought. The theme I constantly get out of all this is that we need to really think outside the box in the recovery. We can’t just “recover”, we now have this opportunity to actually come out with something much much better, that people will want to be a  part of in an array of capacities. It’s about saying “okay so we can get back to where we were, or we can take the opportunity to look ahead and leap-frog to the next level altogether”. That is why I am more passionate than ever about future transport solutions for the city. As part of the recovery, lets not just get the old bus system back up and running, lets look to the future and see what transport solutions we need for the world-class city we want Christchurch to be.