The government has created a major political risk for itself given the sheer brilliance of its new Christchurch plan.
I try to strictly avoid writing here about anything I am working on in my day job but, like everything else that has happened in Christchurch these last 21 months, this is a once-in-a-lifetime exception.
The Christchurch plan is the result of two madcap ideas by sometimes uneasy bedfellows, Christchurch mayor Bob Parker and earthquake czar Gerry Brownlee.
Mr Parker led his council’s “Share an Idea” campaign where the people of Christchurch got to say what they wanted in their new city.
It wasn’t the typically stifling local government “consultation” exercise. Lawyers, formal submissions and correct spelling and grammar were not welcome. People just got to scribble down in their own words what they wanted.
Over 100,000 Cantabrians responded, more than a quarter of Christchurch’s population.
The campaign became the first community engagement programme outside Europe to win the international Co-Creation Association’s supreme award and it did so unanimously.
The lawyers and lobbyists who make it their business to get between the public and their elected officials were sidelined.
Brownlee’s dangerous idea
Mr Brownlee’s idea was even more dangerous to the status quo.
After the council released its concept for the new Christchurch, based on “Share an Idea,” Mr Brownlee ordered his bureaucrats to develop a final plan for the CBD within 100 days.
Such an ambitious timeline had never been attempted anywhere in the world and, to be picky about it, the bureaucrats actually failed because it took them 103 days to get the cabinet sign off.
The plan is radical and far more clean, green, politically-correct and urban-design-y than would be expected to be signed off by the sometimes gruff and usually conservative Mr Brownlee.
There are all sorts of parks and art and culture hubs and so forth. Christchurch will be the most beautiful city in the world.
But the plan is far more commercially astute than might be expected from the urban designers and creative types who prepared it.
It halves the size of the CBD, making land scarce to improve returns per square metre, creating competition among investors and developers for the best spaces. There is going to be a gold rush.
Perhaps inspired that their enormous 100-day gamble has paid off, Mr Brownlee, Mr Parker and the prime minister have again upped the ante.
John Key has ordered that the so-called “frame” of parks and other developments around the CBD be completed by the end of next year. Any rational assessment based on New Zealand’s historic ability to get major projects off the ground would suggest that is impossible.
Mr Brownlee has ordered that any investor, businessperson or developer who contacts his new Invest Christchurch service will have an investment facilitator, drawn from the private sector, assigned to them within 24 hours to help them navigate through the bureaucracy.
Decisions will be made on urban design resource consents within five working days, by a three-person committee representing the government, the city council and Ngai Tahu and they will not then need to be notified under the Resource Management Act.
Proposals will of course need to be pretty, clean and green and fit the plan but the tradeoff is that developers get a final answer in a week.
Mr Parker’s city council has then resolved to make final decisions on all other aspects of building consent applications within a fortnight.
Not to be outdone, Mr Brownlee has indicated that, if necessary, and for bold and beautiful projects, he will use his powers under the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act to force land amalgamations.
There is talk of cracking the whip on the Overseas Investment Office and the Immigration Service so that they give people answers, yes or no, far more quickly than current practice.
Rangitoto needs to erupt
The unspoken little truth about all this is that it should all have happened regardless of the earthquakes. The People’s Republic of Christchurch was a dying city before September 2010.
What Mr Parker, Mr Brownlee and Mr Key have achieved is nothing more than what they should have been doing anyway.
The political risk they have created is this: Why shouldn’t Aucklanders, Hamiltonians, Wellingtonians, Dunedinites and everyone else have the same opportunities as Cantabrians?
Do Aucklanders need to wait for Rangitoto to erupt before Len Brown will launch a community engagement programme about its spatial plan as good as Mr Parker’s “Share an Idea”?
Do Dunedites need to suffer some sort of biblical-type flood before their leaders will develop an innovative 100-day plan to deal with some of the same long-term economic challenges that were faced by Christchurch?
Do Wellingtonians need to suffer their major earthquake before they get access to 24-hour investment services, five-day resource consent decisions and two-week building consents?
Does the Waikato need to be devastated by mad cow disease before delays at the OIO and Immigration Service are sorted out?
For that matter, why on earth doesn’t the government roll out its bold, visionary Christchurch approach on a nationwide basis and just slash all the barriers to economic growth that still exist everywhere but Canterbury?
If he did so, Mr Key, in 100 days, would finally have established himself as the bold, visionary Lee Kuan Yew-type figure that so many of us so desperately want him to be, and still believe he could be.
Disclosure: Matthew Hooton is working on contract to the Christchurch Central Development Unit.
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