Government rules but Christchurch quakes

HIDESIGHT The heavy hand employed in the battered city's rebuild has produced planned chaos.


The National Party’s DNA is hardwired for “government knows best”. The party’s heart and soul is Sir Robert Muldoon, not Ruth Richardson.

That’s what makes the party so political successful – it’s not hung up about principle or divided by philosophy. An ideological battle is inconceivable within National. It’s hard to imagine the Labour Party doing much else.

National’s driving concern is winning. Labour’s driving concern is arcane policy difference.

National’s pragmatism keeps it in power and the New Zealand economy forever just muddling along.

The National-led government responded with characteristic instinct to the February 22, 2011, earthquake in Christchurch. A senior cabinet minister explained to me that my beloved free market couldn’t fix Christchurch. It would take the government to do that.

Accordingly, the government gave itself fascist powers over the city and has been spinning its wheels ever since. The result has been an abysmal failure.

The “free market” hasn’t stood about waiting for the government. People in Christchurch have got on with the business of living and producing.

Christchurch is functioning at its pre-quake levels without a CBD. The businesses and the buildings have shifted to the periphery while the government rushes about trying to produce a city plan and work out which inner-city property to pinch next.

The free market has delivered. The government has not. The result is a hollowed-out city centre that will remain hollowed out for years to come. The investment and business won’t come flooding back once government ready. It’s now up and working in the city periphery. Long-term leases are in place.

The government has missed the boat. Besides, investors have been burned off by the wanton exercise of compulsory acquisition powers. Who would invest when the government can take control of your property any time it likes, at a price it dictates?

Eight months of financial limbo

I have been contacted by one investor who put up a building just before the earthquake struck. Afterward, the government used its new powers to designate it. Officials said they would buy his building. The owner was happy with that but worried about the price.

The designation meant the property owner couldn’t rent or sell his building and could not service the mortgage. The designation put him under financial pressure and he was anxious to conclude a deal. 

Officials then started to equivocate about whether the government would even buy the building. The designation remained in force.

After eight months of financial limbo, officials decided the government wouldn’t buy the property. This has left the property owner desperately out of money. And that isn’t the end of it. 

Officials have told him he still needs government permission in writing for any change in use or any change he makes to the property. That’s just in case his changes conflict with whatever the government one day ultimately decides.

The heavy hand of government has produced planned chaos. I suspect Christchurch will end up with nice and expensive taxpayer-paid infrastructure in the CBD but not much business.

Cabinet ministers will gaze out on the hive of business activity at Victoria St, Lincoln Rd, Moorhouse Ave, Riccarton and Showplace and not wonder why they didn’t harness that energy and enthusiasm to rebuild the CBD.

They will instead be kicking themselves that they didn’t extend their power and control across the entire city and stop the move to the periphery.

That’s the power of political ideas. The facts always affirm your political view. The conclusion will be that the government didn’t take enough control of the city. Not that it took too much.

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