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