All posts by Barnaby Bennett

Things fall apart

It’s easy to be relentlessly negative in the face of complex things. The difficult is easy to caste as the fault of incompetence, and in reality sometimes things are just really really hard.  Yet, this same thought is too often used as a mask for poor process, poor decision making, and poor consultation.  I’m going to tell two stories today, one positive, the other negative, and in my view the key hinge that makes one story hopeful and one depressing is the amount of openness there is to the processes.  We’ve had long enough in Christchurch to learn some lessons about how to do things here, and two years on from a disaster we are stupid if we don’t learn from the inevitable failures and mistakes.

Firstly, the good news. Congratulations to all the teams behind the two competitions in the Christchurch CBD: the Council and CERA lead breathe competition, and the community-led Peterborough Village competition.  The results from these competitions can be seen here and here.  It’s hard to summarise such a diversity of entries, but I can say looking across the entries it is for me the first time I’ve felt some real excitement and hope about the type of city that might emerge in the future here. We see in these entries a real willingness to learn from the planning and building mistakes of the past 5o years with project full of exciting ideas that are environmentally progressive, affordable, and liveable.   Importantly the entries are diverse and come from around the world.   Critical to the outpouring of good work in these projects is the process of competition, a tradition long practiced in Europe for public projects.   Competitions work: firstly, because information about the projects has to be made public, this creates an openness and transparency about the schemes, land use is known, budgets are known, so that both the public, and the relevant experts (and the critical overlap of both) are able to  mull over ideas, critique them, and get used to how things might change.  The second important point is that there is not just competition between firms, but competition of ideas.  Alternatives can be compared, contrasted, weighed up and considered, again by both experts (as judges) and the community.   All this constitutes a recovery of not just the built environment but a sense of participation and involvement with the people that live in these places.   I’ve been harsh on some of the retro-modernism that is been planned for the city and the lack of talent in some of the big design firms in Christchurch. But here in these competitions we see the importance and designers and their role in formulating new ideas into built form, and crystallising peoples wishes into space and form.

The light shining from these competitions could not contrast more with the dark shadows falling over the secretive government-led inner-city planning being led by the CCDU, and CERA; which is essentially planning by cabinet and treasury.   Now, this next passage is written with the pre-condition that most of the comment about CERA is based on 2nd hand reports. But when you have a secretive government agency that won’t do any public engagement then rumours is all you’ve got to work with, and its a small place, rumours tend to be accurate here.  The idea what we can’t make public conversation because they don’t want it is to fall hook line and sinker for the political management running the program.

The points being though that we have some MAJOR projects being proposed in Christchurch. It is now two years after the major event, and nine months since the launch of the large government led-blue print and essentially the public has been told nothing of these projects, and has had no input into them.    The arts precinct, the convention centre, the stadium, and the frame are huge projects in which the business cases have not been made public yet, the design process has no public involvement. The word from behind the iron curtain is that there is a huge fight happening amongst the major property owners about the retail section that will replace the container mall, with one major owner refusing to show their schemes to CERA and proceeding directly with the council, and others are breaking up promised land sharing deals.   All this while smaller land owners with schemes ready to go are being told to give up on their land. Apparently the convention centre remains unknown as to whether it makes any financial sense, and the british team designing the Avon Otakaro scheme is struggling to work in a foreign city with extraordinary time pressures and no ability for public consultation.

Over two years on now 80% of the city is flat and empty, they are still months away from re-opening the centre of the city.  Does it tell you anything that the only significant rebuilding happening so far is in the areas the government has the least to do with?   And this is from an agency that set itself up with a authoritarian mandate, and with a planning logic that was dominant in the 1950s that wildly out of kilter with global best practice today, that was aiming to get things done quickly.   I really think CERA are their own worst enemies. The fortress mentality is ruining their relationship with the people they are supposed to be working for.  The Avon Otakaro scheme is a perfect example.  What is to lose from  making a public a sketch design and getting feedback on it?  Asking the public for specific information and feedback, with a couple of public workshops and some online tools with the council and CERA and other s are getting quite good at you could easily get some really useful feedback on how people use the area, what they want, and what they like and don’t like about a scheme.  This could be done in a couple of weeks relatively cheaply, seems reasonable for a public space $100 million project.  It’s certainly normal, and would give the designers much needed feedback on their design.  I just don’t get it.

I think it’s time for the government to have a cup of tea with the people of Christchurch, and re-think the way they are running this whole thing.  I just talked to someone from CERA today who was claiming that everything they do is for the people of Christchurch.  And hence lies the problem, they should be working WITH the people of Christchurch, not FOR us.   It’s pretty simple and with the amazing online tools these days its actually quite easy to do.   Oh and more competitions!

Expressions of interest open for FR7: Something about ‘the commons’

Submissions are open for Freerange Vol.7.
Submissions Due 1 April 2013

Working Title: ‘The Commons’

Freerange Vol.7 is being edited by Jessie Moss, Joe Cederwall and Tim Gregory.

This edition will aim to explore the issue of “The Commons” from many different angles, perspectives, disciplines and media. The concept of ‘the commons’ has particular relevance in light of the multiple crises we face for the environmental, financial and social future of our planet. We want this edition to be an exploration of how the commons are actually being utilised and engaged by communities in reality in today’s transforming society. We want to get down to the nitty gritty of the concept and look at workable commons models both past and future. It will be a celebration and exploration of this transformative vision as applied in practice all around us.

A succinct definition of ‘the commons’ is elusive, but the following is as good an attempt as any by commons academic David Bollier:

‘The commons is….

  • A social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and community identity.
  • A self-organized system by which communities manage resources (both depletable and and replenishable) with minimal or no reliance on the Market or State.
  • The wealth that we inherit or create together and must pass on, undiminished or enhanced, to our children.  Our collective wealth includes the gifts of nature, civic infrastructure, cultural works and traditions, and knowledge.
  • A sector of the economy (and life!) that generates value in ways that are often taken for granted – and often jeopardized by the Market-State.’

Full article

The concept is very broad and has relevance to topics as diverse as Architecture and design / Art and culture / Intellectual property / The open internet / Community control / Sustainability and environment / Resilience / Politics / Gender / History / Town planning / History / Architecture / Anthropology / Sociology & Psychology / Intellectual property / Indigenous culture / The local food movement / Academia / Science.

We are happy to work with contributors to find or refine a topic to suit the overall blend.
Please email Expression of Interest in submissions by Monday 1st of April

Expressions of Interest should be max. one A4 page with an explanation of what you’d like to write about, and any relevant experience writing or working in the topic before.

Please email: commons@projectfreerange.com

Further suggested reading for inspiration:

Minister Brownlee, that’s not right and you know it…

I am part of a group of people working to convince the Christchurch City Council, and other relevant authorities, that it is essential to keep the Christchurch Town Hall.   This group includes Architectural Historians Ian Lochhead, Jessical Halliday, and Architects Maurice Mahoney, and Sir Miles Warren.

This post does not necessarily represent their views.  But it does represent mine.

The Christchurch Town Hall  is one of a small handful of great buildings that this country has, it has  world-class acoustic qualities, and is widely loved by both the Christchurch public, and expert users.  It was damaged in the 22nd Feb earthquake, however the damage is repairable, and the CCC had voted for the full retention of the Town Hall in their city plan earlier this year, and as owners of the building had taken responsibility to pay for the repair and upgrades.  Since then the large government led CCDU plan has been put into full force of law. This plan had a large empty space on the site where the town hall presently is, with words to the effect that the future of this site and surrounding activities depended on the CCC final decision on the Town Hall.   The Executive Director of the CCDU responded to an email some months ago saying that the final decision for the Town Hall rests with the Council.   The culture and heritage committee voted unanimously 2 weeks ago to recommend to the council for the full retention of the Town Hall.  A small but significant victory.  The full council meeting is on the 22nd of November.

We have up till now being confident that the decision for the Town Hall rests with the CCC, and the CCDU document, and the comments by Warwick Isaacs would support this. It is then dismaying to hear, Minister Brownlee refusing to rule out that he may over-ride the council decision.  A letter we received from him a few day ago had the ominous sentence.  “I await the Council’s final decision with interest.” 

The Minister was interviewed by Mike Yardley on newstalkZB yesterday (the bit about the Town Hall is near the end) and features a number of remarkably misleading comments from the Minister which I will detail here.

Minister: “I get frankly annoyed by some of the characterisation of the damage to the Town Hall, and when I hear people saying ‘it’s got the best acoustics in the world’ I’ve got to say it used to but when you’ve got the floor so badly disrupted, when you’ve got walls that are out of line etc  and other damage to that, they are not the same as they used to be.” 

Mr Brownlee, this is why the council has budgeted to repair the building.  It is called a repair because we understand that things need to happen to the building to make it perform again.  As it turns out the original acoustic engineers have done a preliminary study of the auditorium and stated “The good news is that, on the basis of todays brief visit at least, there is no visible damage to the auditoriums acoustic fabric”.  So Mr Brownlee, you are either being misleading or you are talking about something from a position of authority when you haven’t read the reports about it.

Minister: “So I’d say this to the councillors, why not have an open day? Why not open the doors and say to people that you can come in here have a look around and make an assessment for yourself.”

Um, what?  Is the Minister in charge of  reconstruction really suggesting that public should have open access to a building inside the redzone?  This is the redzone that has been controlled by the army that has shut down the cbd for two years for the purpose of public safety.  Is the Minister really suggesting that the public should be doing structural assessments of large and complex buildings?  The Minister has a lot of faith in the public’s structural knowledge, considering this is the same minister who is overseeing a decade long multi billion dollar city rebuild with no public engagement or consultation processes.   The same question could be asked of the CERA and CCDU’s offices, if there is nothing to hide, why not let the public come in and do an assessment of the work they are doing, let them see the sketch plans, business cases, and a detailed account of all the meetings that are happening with no public knowledge.

Minister: ” It’s not a nice prospect, but it is a very badly damaged building” 

There have been extensive engineering reports done on this building, and all support the idea that it is repairable. The Council has already approved the funding for the full retention of the building earlier this year, and is meeting at the end of this month re-consider this.  If the Minister has information the public or the council doesn’t have he should pass it on, if not then he should stop mis-leading people with amateur hour engineering descriptions.

Interviewer: “Can I come back to my initial question, if the full Council ratifies the committees decision to go ahead with the full repair on November 22 at the next meeting will CERA respect that decision, or will they over-ride it?” 

Minister: “Well, in the end, its not part of the CBD plan, its a site that had a question over the top of it, so then what we would need to do is say that the Council has said they can contribute about $800 million to anchor projects over a period of years. Clearly a massive chunk of that money will go on the Town Hall, so soemthing else goes.”

The current estimates for the Town Hall suggest it will cost around $120 million to repair, and that the insurance money will cover around $80 million of that money.   As the $800 million is over several years, so the Town Hall repair could be staged.   $40 million of $800 million is 5% of that total amount. 5% does not seem like massive chunk of that to me.  Remembering that this in the context of a city that is planning a $450 million dollar stadium, that spent $30 million dollars on a temporary sports facility.  $40 million seems pretty reasonable to me if it means the Town Hall is around for another 100 years.

Minister: “So you are unpicking what I think has been a very well put together plan that 106,000 residents of this city put their ideas on.” 

Can we please stop the false and mis-leading suggestion that the public were involved in the creation of the CCDU plan.  They were not.  The public provided a large, visionary and quite vague set of ideas to the Christchurch City Council  around 15 months ago as part of their Share an Idea campaign.  The council plan that emerged from this quick fire participatory process had one draft with public feedback and then was submitted to the Minister for review.  The  minister rejected most of the council plan and created a new task force that had 100 days to draw a new plan.  This 100 days did not involve any participation with the public, the 100 days since the announcement of the plan did not involve any participation with the public.  At a public meeting I asked Don Miskell, now the head designer of the plan, if there was any intention to have consultation processes in the huge multi-billion dollar scheme and replied no.  I asked the same question about whether there would be any international peer review and the same answer was no.   People within CERA understand that there was no consultation. So please stop condescending the public by saying there has been.   The public consultation by the council about the Town Hall is quite the opposite from your version of the story.  The public submissions around the about the the Town Hall were overwhelmingly in favour of the full retention.  This notion that the CCDU plan has any sort of moral authority over this city is delusional. It has legal authority because it is in place because of an act of parliament, but not moral authority.

This case is just one of a series of examples in Christchurch where the structure of governance has become confused to the point where us as members of the public, and as relevant experts in our fields that are relevant to this building, are unable to participate meaninfully in this discussions around it.  The fact that the Minister in  charge of the reconstruction, who has extraordinary powers, is been either misleading, or is ignorant about important information he publicly discussing, is dismaying.  It illustrates quite clearly why this much power should never be hidden so entirely from the public spotlight.

 

Songs for Christchurch Artist Prints

The amazing artist John Baker has produced the following drawings to raise funds for the Songs For Christchurch project we are working on.

We are offering one-off prints of these drawings, signed by the artists, and lovingly drawn and donated by John.

For sale, only for the next 5 days.

Please have a look at them here, then head to the pledgeme page to buy any of them: https://www.pledgeme.co.nz/429

The prints are a4 sized, signed by the Artist John Baker and the featured Musician.

1. Amanda Palmer. $200.

2.  Tim Finn $200.

3.  Mara TK (Electric Wire Hustle) $150

4.  Flight of the Conchords: $500

5. Ladi6: $200

6. Dallas (Fat Freddys Drop) $200

7. Adam McGrath (The Eastern): $100

8. James Coyle (Nudge) $100

9. Tim Prebble (Spartacus R) $100

10. Lisa Tomlins (Fly My Pretties) $150

11. Paul Hoskin (The Yoots) $100

The Art of War – An Introduction to Austere Governance.

The article below is a very indepth response to a freerange post from last year, written by Beale Stainton on his site The Bealian.   Beale has kindly given us permission to re-post his article here.     To quickly summarise: I wrote an article about  the philosophical/economic difference between the ‘left’ and ‘right’ where the left sees full employment and its consequences as the desirable goal, and the right sees low inflation and its consequences as the desirable goal.   I suggest that the right accepts that a certain amount of unemployment is good for the country, in that it keeps inflation down, but then it becomes nasty when it attacks the unemployed for being lazy, a drain on the country, etc, when in fact they are, in this model, making a sacrifice that we all gain from.    Beale has responded with a very informative description of the economic demands on government and what they are and aren’t able to control, suggesting that employment is largely outside of the scope of the government to control.

START

The following analysis is in response to an article published by the good folk over at Project Freerange entitled “The nastiness of the mainstream right politics”, which you can read by clicking on the link here.

http://www.projectfreerange.com/the-nastiness-of-the-mainstream-right-politics/

This article argues that there is a fundamental difference between economic policy of the left and that of the right in New Zealand politics.  A press release of Michael Cullen’s policy back in 2002 aimed at, among other things, the creation of full employment.  The 2008 press release given by Bill English on the other hand does not make a mention to employment at all.  This is a very salient observation that has been made.  The Freerange article goes on to then link the employment negligent economic policy of the right with inflation.  It is argued that right wing policy aims to keep unemployment high for the purposes of controlling inflation.  Now we all know that Government policy is conducted with the purposes of engineering some greater master plan.  The question that this raises is how far would a particular government be willing to go in order to control inflation?  Would they purposefully keep employment rates down?

Now, I have written this article for two reasons.  The first reason is, because I wanted to return a constructive and critical response to Barnaby at Freerange.  The second reason is to show the world what the insides of a governments books look like.  In regard to the first reason I will attempt to build upon Barnaby’s valiant attempt at an economic argument.  It does indeed appear as if employment levels could be engineered in order to control inflation.

The current National Government has been, for the most part, conducting itself in a fashion, which it can be argued, goes completely against the unwritten rules of civilized public relations.  They have, through their overly assertive reforms, taken very few prisoners, if any.  They have, time and again, come up against mass public opposition to their policies.  They have expressed a certain culture of authoritarian disregard so to speak, perhaps an arrogance even.  In the opinion of many in our country they have quite simply been rubbing people up the wrong way.  They perhaps have contributed to further backlash by the mere fact that their leader gained the nick name “Smiling Assassin” while employed as head of foreign exchange dealings at international banking powerhouse Merrill Lynch.  He earned this nick name, because he continued to smile while making some hundreds of redundancies in the wake of the 1998 Russian Financial Crisis.  It is no wonder that there is a certain air of mistrust and disillusionment coming from various parts of New Zealand society.

For this reason I hope I can lay down a few reasons as to why such policy has been implemented.  I would like to start off by saying that, in my opinion, this is not so much a matter of left or right wing.  For example, the former Minister of Finance under the Helen Clark Government, Michael Cullen has a past life and so does Helen Clark herself for that matter.  If you go back in history to the Labour Government of 1984-1990.  You will find an up and coming Cullen in the position of Associate Finance Minister plotting away in the shadow of Roger Douglas, the prophet of the New Right.  So it can be argued that Michael Cullen himself contributed to the genesis of the policies of the New Right in this country.  In my opinion Government policy is, for the most part, reactive rather than proactive.  Muldoon’s National Government was forced into extreme national protectionism and regulation by way of reaction.  Lange’s Labour Government was then forced to go extremely open and in pursuit of the free market by way of reaction.  Helen Clark’s Labour Government, post 2001, was the lucky one, because it got to react to good economic times.  It was lucky, because as a result of the success generated on the international free market it was able to oversee a speculative rise in property, financing and construction, which like Spain and Ireland brought a lot of money and jobs into the economy.  2001 was also the defining year for New Zealand in that China joined the WTO and Fonterra was established.  If you want to get a grip on why things are so in New Zealand at the moment then we only need to take a look at Spain, Ireland and many other parts of the world that too heavily depended on property, finance and construction to fuel their economies.

Anyway let’s move on.

The next point I would like to make is that there is not much a Government can do to keep unemployment low.  It can, to a certain degree, in the case where a Government employs a lot of people.  The Government would only need to lay off a required number of civil servants in order to meet a certain measure for the purpose of meeting a particular target percentage of unemployment.  The National Government has in deed been doing this, however this has been done for other reasons, which I will get to later.  In the private sector, demand for labour is unregulated.  When the private sector needs labour it simply takes it.  This is what happens when an economy is picking up.  When it is slower then the private sector doesn’t so much demand labour and so unemployment increases.  As I’ve stated.  This is an unregulated market Government cannot interfere with.

Another point of criticism I would like to make is in regard to the correlation between employment and inflation.  The man who officially argued the connection was the New Zealand born economist William Phillips.  He has, as a result, left to the world the “Phillips curve”, which states that when unemployment is high then inflation is low and vice versa.  This is evidently so, because as unemployment increases the supply of money decreases and therefore producers will be forced to put their prices down.  However Phillips argument was based only on research done in the United Kingdom between 1861-1957.  It has been apparently disproved by the many economies which have both high inflation and high employment.  However I would only take the rebuttal theories with a grain of salt, simply because they are argued first and foremost by Milton Friedman.  I’ve looked at Friedman’sstagflation theory and to be honest with you all, it stinks.  It stinks of the modern financial system and perspective engineering.

Friedman’s stagnation theory argues that when unemployment lowers this triggers a rise in wages and a rise in wages eventually means that unemployment will return to its previously higher level, so far correct, but then he goes onto say that inflation will remain high.  This is how the Phillips curve was disproved and forced to give way to Friedman’s theory ofstagflation.  Philips argued that inflation would eventually reduce too.  Now in pure theory, I’m going to go with Philips on this one, because in a self-regulating market, producers would bring their prices down to match the reduced supply of money in a high unemployment economy.  However we no longer live in a self-regulating market.  We now live in a market regulated by financial systems and the domination of credit.  If cross border credit didn’t exist then the pure theory of Phillips would prevail, but in a world where cross border credit is the main regulating force behind an economy then it is sadly Friedman’s version of events that will prevail.  What I have just discovered is actually quite brilliant and deserves to be written into a doctorate.  Anyway, I’ll come back to that in my own time.  We need to move on.

So there we have it Barnaby and others.  I have successfully altered the direction I was sending this article.  Friedman, being the worshiped economist that he is, was meant to be right and then I was going to proceed to make my final points.  However I’ve just proven him wrong and as a consequence, my further points wrong.  Or have I?  Perhaps I am still on the right track.

Let me just state that the reason unemployment is high at the moment is not so much due to a political engineering campaign by the National Government to keep inflation steady.  Employment is high, because there is a whole bunch of debt to pay off.  This situation has in effect squeezed the life blood out of the economy.  The situation is complicated, but I will try my best to explain it.

Government is not something that renews itself every three years.  It is an ongoing entity.  All that changes is the party or the leadership voted in to manage and direct it.  Debts and surpluses incurred by one government will be inherited by the next and so on.  In the same way, long term debts incurred now, let’s say in the form of a 10 or 30-year bond issuance, will be paid off by future tax payers in 10 or 30 years time and not the current ones.  The current taxpayers reap the benefits, so to speak, for what their children will be forced to pay off.

Now let’s look closer at Government.  It is such a beautiful monstrosity.  Government has revenues and costs just like any enterprise, whether that be yourself, the corner dairy, Telecom or whatever.  As such, just like most other enterprises, it needs to prepare a number of statements and plans.  Let’s start with the statements.  The first statement is the “Statement of Financial Performance”.  This statement records its revenue against its expenses.  The next statement is the “Statement of Financial Position”.  This one records what it owns against what it owes.  The third is the “Cash Flow Statement”.  Now this one is fairly self evident.  Now the important thing to note is that what appears in these statements, generally becomes the basis for preparing the next very important document.  That next document is the “Budget”.

It is likely that bad news in the 3 above statements over a period of previous years will most likely contribute to the publication of a bad news “Budget” for subsequent years.  The “Budget” then gets translated into policy and policy gets translated into execution, which is the responsibility of the party in power.  So hopefully the chain is now obvious.  Bad news in the statements, will lead to bad news in the budget and subsequent bad news in policy and as a result, in execution.

Now, as a result of the sudden contraction in the global economy, the private sector took one hell of a hit.  Let’s not go into too much detail.  It was a bust.  A bust is a cataclysmic event and everyone gets hurt.  Even Berkshire Hathaway stocks went from $150,000 a pop down to $60,000.  A raging private sector is fueled by a need for two things.  It needs labour and capital, the two main inputs of business.  The banks provide the capital and the people the labour.  As such, capital and debt markets boom and unemployment drops.  As a result Governments will receive more taxes and spend less and Reserve Banks will lift interest rates to keep inflation steady.  Up until 2008 the NZ Reserve Bank had the OCR, the primary interest rate of the economy, set at above 8%.  At the moment it is down at 2.5%.

When the private sector is booming there is money left, right and centre, which means prices will go up causing inflation.  Reserve Banks react by lifting interest rates so that people get enticed by the returns to be made simply by putting their money into Government securities.  This takes money out of the economy and keeps inflation steady. When economies are stagnant like now then Reserve Banks react by lowering interest rates making it cheaper to borrow and thus causing an inflationary effect of sorts.  However this gets countered by the lack of economic activity and therefore money.  What I want to describe to you in the boom picture, which lasted from 2001-2008 is how easy the Labour Government had it for that time period.  There was absolutely no need for austere measures.  Their Reserve Bank needed to do the opposite and reduce the amount of money. They were lucky the private sector was booming, takes the weight off their shoulders.

Since 2008 and the arrival of National, Government experienced a reversal.  Their revenues decreased and their expenses increased.  This was a direct result of the bust, not the arrival of National in and of itself.  Remember this is the same Government as always, just under new management.  Not only did tax revenue fall, but the taxpayer had to bail out the broken economy putting further pressure on spending.  As a result the weight got put on the shoulders of Government.  In the performance statement of 2009 there was a surplus between revenue and expenditure, but an overall decrease from 2008.  In the performance statement of 2010 there was a deficit of 2.1%, by 2011 a deficit of 3.3% and this year a deficit of 8.4%.  The large deficit recorded this year was mostly a result of an increase in the “insurance expense” column between 2010 and 2011 of some $8 billion.  It’s all recorded in the books.

Now what these widening deficits do is they force Governments to draw up budgets and policies which will cause a good deal of pain and frustration when they are executed.  Think about it.  If you record a 2.1% deficit this means that the budget for next year is going to come down to either one or two options.  The first is to adjust income or expenses.  The second is to put down a bond issuance and borrow in order to cover your costs for the next year.  The second move means that you need to borrow now, but as a result, future tax payers will be hit with the bill.  Not only that but your credit rating could be effected, which means that the cost of borrowing money next year will go up.  This means that you will hit the pockets of future tax payers even more.  Borrowing more also means that you are creating more expenses.  These expenses get recorded in the books as “interest expenses”.  The more debt you take on the higher this expense column climbs.  This will likely increase your deficit even more.  As a result it is best to resort to the first option than to resort to the second one.  There is a third option.  You can sell some assets, but we go into that.

So the first option is what governments will resort to.  They can increase revenue by hiking tax rates.  However this move is further bad news for the economy.  What they should do is increase taxes on mega profits, however this move causes big business to kick up a fuss and threaten the government with relocation to another part of the world or some other form of rebellion.  This eventuates into further bad news for the economy.  What the current government is doing is they are looking at other sources of national income such as the taxes and royalties generated by mining operations and other economic operations in the long run.  On the other side there needs to be a reduction in spending.  This is evident by the reduction in staff in the public services, a lowering of the teacher to student ratio and a tightening up of welfare services.  For the record, social security and welfare currently costs the Government $2 billion a month.  Education and Healthcare both come in at $1 billion a month, only half that of welfare, but in times like this the welfare is needed.  These three cost centres out shadow all others.  It’s all there in the books.

So I hope I have explained how increasing deficits and spiraling debt forces reactive governance.  It is usually the Finance Minister, who is also the automatic Treasurer, who holds the purse strings.  It is their responsibility, in their role, to create a long term plan, in this case a three year or five year one, to get the books back into surplus.  In order to do this the Treasurer needs to sit in his office, study the statements and a whole host of other reported information from his departments and as a result draw up, to begin with, a budget. The budget will most likely be produced, in a time of deficit, so as to reduce expenses and suggest increases in revenue sources, without needing to borrow too much.  The budget is then communicated through to ministers.  They will be told that they need to cut spending by such an amount.  The minister will then set about turning the expenditure reductions into policy.  The policy will be communicated to the public and, in a time of forced fiscal austerity, they will not react too kindly to it.  The appropriate ministries will then set about executing policy.

Budgets are limited, but relatively precise in that they only look upon the next financial year.  The next level of planning is what is known as the strategy.  Strategies look over periods of three to five to ten years.  They cannot be as precise in their financial estimations and therefore provide only rough projections of future Government revenues and expenditures over, let’s say, a five or ten year period.  They provide direction more than anything.  For example, the Petroleum Action Strategy of 2009 estimated that the mining of New Zealand’s minerals reserves could turn a $3 billion per annum industry into a $30 billion per annum industry by the year 2025.  As such Government would be set to earn from both taxes and royalties and the economy will be boosted.  Now we know that these figures are such an extreme estimation, but they at least provide guidelines to get the ball rolling, develop policy and debate the costs.

The sale of state assets is also set out in a strategy as opposed to budget.  The financial return on the assets will be estimated from, for the most part, an uncertain future.  The estimated return for example might come to $10 billion over four years.  This $10 billion will then be calculated into an estimated budget and performance scenario of Government four years into the future.  The Treasurer will then make a rough estimation and let’s say he concludes that Government will be back in surplus in four years time provided all policies and strategies have been successfully executed.  He will no doubt in include margins of risk to strengthen the estimations.  If the figures add up then Government will go about putting plans into action and when the chain is a result of bad news inputs, like they are at the moment, then there will be bad news outputs.

So there we go everyone.  This is how austere governance works.  Perhaps, after writing this, I now feel quite austere myself.  My main argument is that austere measurements, just like liberal ones are a result of reaction to a given economic environment.  It does not matter if you have a Labour or National party in power.  The boom of 2001-2008 allowed Labour to be liberal, but the dire economic situation of 1984 forced the then Labour Government to be austere and same with Muldoon.  My other argument is that keeping unemployment low is not so much a tool Governments use to control inflation.  If the private sector needs labour then there is nothing Government can do to stop this.  Labour is controlled by the market.  High unemployment usually means that the private sector is not demanding so much or that Government itself is forced to cut back on spending to reduce its deficits.  On the other hand there is a correlation between unemployment and inflation, which Friedman denied, but as I showed you guys I suspect Friedman’s theory of being subject to a regulating factor and that is cross border credit.  Therefore his theory of stagflation should not qualify as pure economics and the Phillips curve should be given its rightful position at the top again.  My final argument is that austere and unpopular policies and executive consequence are the result of bad finances caused by external economic conditions.  This is evident by the way continuing deficits, as a result of a bust, causes certain reactive policies to bring the books back into the black without having to borrow too much.

That is where I will finish.  Barnaby I certainly enjoyed reading your article and, as has been obviously displayed, it did make me think a great deal in order to give you a response you can seriously consider, warts and all, not the pretty picture anyone wants.  Monetary and fiscal policy, when the going gets tough, is not a place for the faint of heart.  However I will leave with a final thought.  What I have given you is my honest description as a result of my education and research.  Austere governance is austere governance.  There are no two ways about that.  It has its place and its time.  The power and influence of fiat money or credit creation on the other hand is a whole completely different set of bad news.  This system likes to pretend that it acts in the interests of deregulating economies, but the truth of the matter is that it has itself and is fast becoming, the ultimate and central power of regulation.  In this sense it is now the state being regulated.  There has been a fundamental shift in power and dominance.  Think about that for a second and the consequences it spells for the future of economy and government.  They will both be locked into cycles of boom, fueled by credit creation and cycles of bust, fueled by credit crunches, which Governments will be forced into taking the rap for.  It is the simple system of credit, which is what we need to look out for.  This is a game John Key and the rest of us are all pawns in.  It is a system people like Friedman have argued into the academic literature as being the way it is.  This is something I can’t quite grasp without speculating and making up conspiracy theories.  So for the moment it is best we keep silent about it and only think on it.

Freerange Cooperative?

Dear Freerangers!

Things have been looking up and up for Freerange. We have now released 4 journals (with two more to come this year!), around 6 books, and have a functional and awesome website with 2 new articles a week appearing on it.

We have around 2000 people on our contact list, and around 2000 people a month visit the website.

We don’t really make any money, but do cover our costs and are about to give $2000 to Architecture for Humanity to do a project in Christchurch from the sales of Chur Chur: Stories from the Christchurch earthquake.   We do have enough funds in stock to continue printing future copies of our Journal as they come out (and hopefully pay myself back soon for the original investment.)

The increased participation and consolidation of Freerange has been massively helped by the ongoing support of folk like Shakey Mo, and Gina Moss and more recently by Nick Sargent, Byron Kinnaird and Jacqui Moyes.   Plus heaps of others that help edit, write, produce, consume the online and printed content.

All this makes me think it might be time to formalise the organisation of Freerange.  So far it has legally just being me operating as a sole trader, and with the informal notion that this is a cooperative.  I’d like to look into setting freerange up as a proper legal cooperative, which would share the ownership and the gains of ownership between us in some way.  There are a number of different types of Cooperative, and it’d be great if any of you were interested in participating in working through how we might do it.

http://www.nz.coop/understanding-cooperatives/ is good, or just google around.

The one that jumps out initially is a kind of producer coop where we are join as creative producers (of text, images, design etc) and Freerange is a vehicle for us to spread, sell and disseminate our work to producers (and each other). i don’t think this would significantly change they way we operate now apart from:

  • Making the whole thing more inclusive and transparent,
  • Setting us up as a proper company (we can be a not-for-profit if we want)
  • We could use it to increase the subscription rates if we wanted by making that a mandatory act of being in the cooperative so we pay to join, but all get copies of the journal for that cost.
  • If we do this we can buy a .coop web address.  How funny would freerange.coop be?  Like a chicken coop!

So what does everyone think? any thoughts?

 

Another New City Plan for Christchurch

Between the anti-government reflex to hate everything they produce, and the pro-Christchurch desire to support any sense of progress and vision is a more constructive critique of the announcements of the new city plan. This is an attempt to make such a critique, quickly.

[information_box] The CCDU documents can be downloaded from here.
[/information_box]

In short, it doesn’t seem like enough information to justify 100 days of hard work by a large team of international and national designers and planners. If we accept that everyone was working really hard to achieve this vision, then we have two options, either I’m underestimating what it takes to get to this level of details, or there is a lot of decision making that has taken place that is not in this plan. I’ve seen small teams of architecture or design students produce as much as this in 100 days before, so I’m led to believe the gritty detail in this has been left out on purpose. I’m also inclined to belief that some big and controversial decisions have been made and not announced today to protect the good news of the delivery. The absence of any announcement on the town hall is characteristic of this. It doesn’t appear in the plan, and rumour suggests that a decision has been made for it to be demolished, yet it makes only some vague comment about it, with no information about land quality, cost, or decision making criteria.

The announcement today was always as much about how well it was delivered as it was about the content. I don’t mean this to dismiss the huge importance of the contents of the plan for shaping the future of Christchurch, but the dominant processes that constitute the rebuild are controlled by CERA via Gerry Brownlee and cabinet and must always be read first and foremost as political decisions. As such, today was the governments bold attempt to regain control of the rebuild narrative in Christchurch and shatter the unsettling sense of crisis establishing itself here. A good delivery would create a sense of vision and progress that would both appease the increasingly restless population, and bring certainty to investors and businesses. A bad delivery would see the crisis evolve and spread, something this government can’t afford on a national level. How funny as it that the Waitangi tribunal decision on water rights came out at the perfect moment to disturb the attempt at relentless good news of the the New Christchurch Plan. The government knew the delivery of this plan is everything which is why we saw the three salesmen, Gerry Brownlee, John Key, and Bob Parker out in force today.

For me the plan largely produces a sense of relieve in that it broadly follows the logic of the council plan released late last year, but with a a more aggressive approach to key sites. It announces nine key precincts where government or council money will lead building. Look at the plan here for details of these but they include large areas for sports, cultural, arts, justice precincts.

Like much of the todays announcement these seem like a good idea in principle, but don’t give enough information to verify whether they have been thought through thoroughly. There is no population metrics to test the scale of these versus the need. There is no budget or business case to show if the income generated matches the cost. There is also no clear sense of who might design and build the large areas, or how a process might work to decide this. It is the same firms who did the master plan? Will there be international competitions? Will it be split into smaller jobs? Will it be by design build entities? Is it going to be PPPs or more conventional modes of procurement? Jessica Halliday has noticed the frightening news that the previously announced urban design review panel has being reduced and will now have one representative from the Christchurch City Council, CERA, and Ngai Tahu. Which is just plain strange. This is a city blue print designed with out any urban designers, and an urban design panel with no specific architecture or design expertise.

We have some sense of a master plan for the city now. We do not have:

– Any detail at about existing buildings. Which current buildings get to stay? who decides this? through what process?
– Any costings at all. Sure a stadium is a nice idea, but how much does it cost? How much will it earn each year? etc.
– No real timeline. This plan is at best a ten year plan, and probably closer to twenty, and yet there is little or no indication of which project happen first, which ones are financial priorities?
– Any real sense of the architectural values of the buildings. They have thankfully kept the 7 story limit in most of the city, but we have no sense of scale or material with the projects. The precincts are far too huge, and are likely to become large deadzone for much of the time in the city.
– Any mixed use in the planning. The plan cites best precedent but seems to have dismissed the importance of mixed use in the huge precincts.

I don’t mean this to come across entirely negatively as the basic decisions seem sensible. But this is the barest possible amount of information to produce a vision for the city. I wrote a letter few months ago that criticised this government and its approach to Christchurch for a lack of shared vision and a complete lack of transparency. The announcement today goes someway to establishing a shared vision but does almost nothing to address the astoundingly small amount of information about why and how decisions are being made.

I think the plan contains the seed for a great new city, but it needs install a process to assure that these projects and the plan is able to catch the mistakes that are inevitably made, and to enable the people of this city to gain ownership of it again. While it would be nicer not to read this whole process as a series of political acts, the lack of real information forces us to critique what we can. The increasing sense of crisis across the city has probably been just diverted by the announcements today, but at the same time it enables the focusing of a larger number of smaller acute crisis to develop. This is an good step for the city.

There are many varied battles to continue in Christchurch, the most pressing of which is to get the housing crises moving and to take some responsibility to get people out of the terrible housing conditions at the moment. The plan needs to address a number of other things such as:

-The need to establish a heritage policy for what is left of the CBD.

– It needs to reintroduce the mixed use principles that were in the last city plan, and

– Reconsider the huge scale of the precincts.

– Most importantly CERA needs to establish some proper modes of consultation and communication with the city.

Um, I suppose I should conclude with something.

Of course, my favourite Voltiare quote.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Its ok to make mistakes, lets make sure there are processes in place to catch small mistakes before they become huge ones.

 

Ducks (and Architecture) in Christchurch

[medium_button_center type=”red” link=”http://www.nzia.co.nz/competitions.aspx” text=”The Christchurch branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects is running a competition to design a temporary relocatable pavilion in Christchurch with $30,000 that the Auckland branch generously fundraised. Click here for details. “]

It closes soon but I encourage anyone with interesting ideas and the time to enter.

It is a peculiar brief that demands some radical creativity to transcend it.    Three of the five goals of the brief are about the promotion of: architecture, architects, the local branch, and the New Zealand Institutes of Architects.  One is for it to be relocatable, and the last for it to be usable by other groups.  Incongruously, the brief asks that the project provide weatherproof and secure space for exhibitions, and that the exhibitions be able to be viewed by the public after hours and without anyone resident.  This is a great design challenge.

In light of the enormously generous projects that have popped up around Christchurch that provide physical and cultural amenity for the city such as neighbourhood water fountains, dance spaces, free cinemas, petanque courts and a new cross-city mini golf course, it seems extraordinary that the primary goal of this building is to promote architecture and NZIA.   We might as well install a giant sign saying THIS IS ARCHITECTURE.

Although, perhaps this is an enlightened challenge to the architects and designers of our times. What is architecture about architecture? Is this possible? Is it is an oxymoron?  What is the function of a building that primary purpose is to promote architecture?

We all know that this city is in desperate need of good architecture, and to develop a culture that promotes and understands the role that design can play in making this an even more beautiful and liveable city.    But I’m not sure if we need architecture that is about architecture.   It reaks of the eighties.    One of the great post-modern texts on architecture called Learning From Las Vegas says there are two types of building.  The first, Decorated Sheds are generic buildings with expensive and expressive signage that communicate its function; think service stations, the warehouse, and even the new gallery in Christchurch. The later is The Duck, which raises the symbolism of what it is to the architecture, at its most literal a duck is building that sells ducks, a giant hot dog that sells hot dogs, a building with a steeple that reaches to the sky is obviously a church, you get the idea.

Should the pavilion be a duck or a decorated shed?  Well to answer that we need to understand its function. What is this building for?  To promote architecture with exhibitions about architecture by architects.  Its all spirals into self-referentiality;  I can’t help but think the first exhibition will just have pictures of the building inside it, will those pictures have little pictures of the pictures that are in the building in the pictures?

Perhaps we should just build a giant duck that acts as a building, and it can sell little bath-sized-duck-buildings.  This surely is what the brief is asking for, this giant duck will once and for all convince the public on the need for good quality architecture.

Has the NZIA  demonstrated an extraordinary inability to connect with reality. Look at all the suffering, people living in garages, extraordinary high flu rates, destroyed heritage buildings, angry red zoned people, a council that has lost its democratic powers, a broke and broken university, a bully with dictatorship powers ruling the city, inefficient and non-communicating layers of government control; eqc, sera, council, and the strange sense that its the Insurance Companies with their $20 billion mountain of cash that is making the calls in this process.  All this and the architects of the country think the most important way to spend $30,000 is to design architecture about architecture.  Its like the organisation that represents architects like to think that architecture isn’t political.

Now, I would enter this competition. You think I’d be the sort of person they’d want to enter this competition.  I’ve been involved in the design and fabrication of complex contemporary pavilions in both Melbourne and Sydney, won design awards in NZ, Australia, and Europe,  worked on the design of temporary builds for the Rio Olympics, and now I’m doing a PHD looking at the emergence of temporary architecture in post-earthquake Christchurch.  But the rules of this competition state you either need to be a member of the local branch of the NZIA or team up with one.  So not only is it an architecture about architecture by the institute of architecture; only people associated with the institute of architecture can enter the competition.  Which is funny given how few of the amazing projects that have arisen since the earthquakes have any architects involved with them.

This is either a remarkably self-serving display by the NZIA, or a move of critical genius designed to facilitate much needed discussion about the role of architecture in the rebuild.  The latter seems unlikely, but then the former is too depressing to contemplate. I don’t know what to believe.

The only thing I have any confidence is that we can, on occasions, do brilliant design, and that there will be some people much less cynical than me who will push their way through this peculiar brief and propose a building that contributes meaningfully to what is happening to Christchurch at the moment.

I also have confidence that the judges will know what this is when they see it.

Dear Gerry and Roger pt I

[This is an open letter sent to The Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Reconstruction, Gerry Brownlee, and the Cera CEO, Roger Sutton]

Dear Gerry and Roger,

Re: Red Zone Decisions.

I am writing to express deep concerns about critical aspects of decision-making in Christchurch since the September 2010 earthquake. There are two areas in which your governance is failing. They are both difficult, but history and international precedent tell us they are critical to good governance. The two areas are transparency and vision.

Transparency is critical to the healthy functioning of democracy; it enables people to see why decisions are being made. In one of the most successful and well governed cities in the world, Vancouver, all council and planning meetings are held in public, filmed and archived. Deals between land-owners, councils, and governments are made in public, and are subsequently made in favour of public good.

I accept that decisions like red-zoning properties are not taken lightly, and that the motivation to protect residents in these areas is a noble one.  I also appreciate the incredible amount of detailed engineering expertise that is constantly contributing to our understanding of this very complex situation.

The people who work at Cera are, in my experience, very hard working and act with the utmost care and respect. I can only imagine the emotional toll it must take to announce night after night to communities that their homes and neighbourhoods are going to be destroyed.

This is, however a political issue, and the processes which have been created to work through these issues are, in my opinion, deeply troubling. There are much more complex and difficult situations in developing countries where the informal residents, who don’t own land, are accorded more respect and greater legal rights than the residents in the Christchurch’s red zones at the moment.

In its decisions to remove entire neighborhoods, the government has followed a course that has involved no real public or community engagement. Information is not shared with communities until a final decision has been made. For some residents, this vast chasm in communication has extended over a year now.

The decision to red-zone land is a complex one that necessarily draws on knowledge about geotechnical information, land use, property prices, and re-insurability. While there is undeniably a technical aspect to this work, the complete absence of community engagement in the decision-making process is paternal in nature and suggests a deep fear of or disrespect for the citizens who live in these places.

While it is obvious that there are complicated issues surrounding the liability of EQC and private insurers, the government should not permit this complexity to obscure the accountability of its own processes. Indeed, this complexity should encourage transparency of process. The “offer” to buy out houses cannot be presented as such if its refusal entails the withdrawal of both services and insurance. What is really on offer here is a forced removal from the land. The government knows well that the latter would call for  consultation, transparency, and for rights, such as the option of first refusal (if the land is resold at a future date) to be extended to residents. In its present terms, the government is offering a Claytons choice that illustrates cowardice in the face of the incredible bravery shown by the people here in Christchurch over the past 18 months.

We ask that you start to engage with residents before decisions are made. Tell them what is going on. They have lived through the past 18 months, why is there a need to keep information secret from the public? This invites rumours and gossip. There are two types of information at play here; that which is not of the government’s making: the land condition, the engineering reports, people’s insurance contracts etc. We understand that the current government is not to blame for the immense difficulties with these issues. Then there is another type of information which the government is responsible for: the communication, the decisions since the earthquake, the amount of money currently at stake. Acknowledge that people are mature enough to make the distinction between these. Let the sunlight in.

Please consider extending the offer on red-zone land. Five years seems a more appropriate timeframe. If you want to leave now then great take the offer, start afresh in a new house. If however the residents want to know what is happening to the area, if they think there might be a review process, if they are worried their land is going to be a park or a condo, then give people 4 or 5 years to work this out. There is a housing shortage in the city. Why force people out of perfectly good houses for no immediate reason? Time and some sense of stability are the fresh air that people need in Christchurch right now. It is your job to give them this. Not to pressure them into decisions without full knowledge of their situation and in order to conform to timelines that have no apparent logic.

At the TEDx conference in May 2011 one of the speakers talked about Christchurch becoming the place that people in the rest of the world will refer to as exemplary: “let’s do what they did in Christchurch”. Coming only a few months after February, this was a generous comment that recognized the city’s potential to pave a way for others.

Gerry and Roger, you are failing us in this vision. Your relationship with the community is paternal rather than constructive, your timelines are slow and opaque, and your power structures are vague and unarticulated. The unseemly haste to demolish the heritage of the city is at odds with the long political delays in decision making in the red zones, planning, and other areas. The people of Christchurch understand the need to make decisions based on economics and supply of capital. You need to understand that while the heritage of the city does not have a direct financial value, it does have an immense social and cultural worth. It is the government’s role to protect this worth, not expedite its destruction with false excuses of haste and cost.   There are dozens of examples both residential and urban, such as the Avon loop neighbourhood and the Anglican cathedral respectably, where there is no need to make decisions yet, time can be used in our favour.

Slow decision-making is fine and often better if the decisions are careful and people are made aware of the processes and information as to why it is taking time and what may happen. The ponderous decision-making currently emerging from Cera is unacceptable because critical decisions, like housing support for those still homeless one year after the event, are late and ineffective. The country continues to embrace the idea that no one should be left ruined or damaged by the events of the past 18 months. The hundreds of families living in cold garages, the elderly living in housing unfit for humans, the people who are soon to be forced out of perfectly good houses, and the lack of appeal or review process all illustrate your lack of ability, or will, to accomplish this.

Gerry and Roger, you are failing to give people a vision for the future, and by doing so you are extending their suffering and sense of powerlessness.  You made the peculiar decision to separate the planning of the CBD from the rest of the city, asking the City Council to create a plan for this central area, but not the rest of the city/  Through the dark times of last year they created a remarkable process and a visionary plan, that was not without problems, but that did give vision to peoples voices and much needed hope to this city.   You then sat on this plan for endless months, only to finally accept to the vision but reject the process, as if the ends can be separated from the means to achieve it.  Once again transparency was removed and powerful decisions were made behind closed doors with out any sense of logic or honest agenda.  They appointment of professional teams to work on the city offers some hope, but again there is no communication about how they were appointed, what they are doing, how they hope to achieve it, and by what criteria their success will be judged.

Soon after the February 22nd quake extraordinary legislation was passed that gave you power to do what was needed to assure that people were protected in this city. At the time, many legal experts were worried at the scope and breadth of these powers. Dean Knight of Victoria University expressed concern that the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act 2010, “gives ministers vast and untrammelled power to change laws in the name of earthquake recovery – without adequate checks and balances and that this legislation violates basic principles within our constitution and upsets our democratic infrastructure.” His concerns were echoed by others in the legal community. These are concerns which still need to be voiced.

In an abstracted sense the earthquake legislation was concerning and dangerous, but we held our noses and let the extraordinary legislation pass as a response to the extraordinary times in Christchurch. Now, 12 months later, the practical impact of poorly considered legislation is playing out in Canterbury. The last remaining traces of democracy are being folded into Cera’s reach, as if the problems and delays were being caused by a lack of centralized power. Gerry and Roger, you of all people must understand that with power comes responsibility. You cannot demotivate, disempower, and demolish communities without taking on the responsibility to care for these people. Saying that “there is no problem” or that “the market will sort it out” or that we “are being hysterical’ or that you “can’t do anything about it” is simply an abdication of your power. The best that can be said of the Cera legislation is that is sets the conditions for a benevolent dictatorship. The key part of this contract between the government and the people of NZ is a benevolence that is lacking with frequent references the people must continue to suffer until the market responds to their needs.

Gerry and Roger, you have remarkable power in your hands. Please show some humility and change this short-sighted, opaque and ill-timed decision-making. Please engage with the people of Christchurch. If you are not capable of reflection and change, and if you are not capable of articulating, or even enabling a vision for this city, then perhaps it is time to open up space for those who can.

Yours Sincerely

Barnaby Bennett

 

Freerange Vol.4: Almost Home

In this issue, our contributors explore home – as a place and a sense –  by literally climbing their local landmarks, by poking around the concept of shelter as a human right, by questioning our cultural interpretations, and more. Some of these enquiries seem timeless, stretching back to before humans were even humans, others are very much topical, predicaments of the 21st Century.

Ultimately home is the whole planet, the universe and beyond. We share our home with billions of other humans, and billions upon billions of other species. As we “make ourselves at home” here, let’s not forget we’re not the only ones. Maybe it is best for everyone if we remain always and evermore “almost home.”

Freerange Vol.4: Almost Home main page.