Christchurch At The Transport Crossroads In 2020 [1]

Whilst we may not be planning to blog as much this year, there are still things that need to be said from time to time. We have spent a few weeks thinking about this post, and just feel it is important to write it. It is partially a different way of writing about some of the issues we were going to put into a different planned article series in late December (which has been dropped due to our change in focus for this year).

Christchurch is a really badly planned city for public transport, and nothing much is going to change as long as the Government passes the buck on it. Whilst Labour did make an election promise for $100 million to establish a commuter service from Rolleston, like other Labour public transport initiatives around the country, this has fallen flat due to general political incompetence. Largely, this is due to the slavish political obeisance of the Minister of Transport to Christchurch City Council politicians. The way the power structures work in the City, these politicians have absolutely nothing to gain from any type of transport system that is not road-based. The Minister has spent far too much time listening to the lobbying of the Christchurch Mayor and not enough on actually understanding all of the issues at stake and the benefits that come from designing a public transport system that works across the whole Greater Christchurch area. It comes about because even though both central and local governance in Christchurch City is nominally Labour affiliated, the city council politicians only follow this in word and not in deed. The ideological focus of the “People’s Choice” political bandwagon in local Christchurch governance is, in practice, nearly indistinguishable from Independent Citizens or other National-affiliated right wing groupings.

So the only actual action on public transport reform we have seen from central government is to pass a law allowing the transfer of management of public transport systems between regional and territorial councils. This issue is largely irrelevant to the way these systems operate, and is unlikely to produce any real improvement in the way public transport systems are operated in Greater Christchurch at present. In fact, it is likely to work against improved systems of public transport being introduced in future, and we believe in fact this is a political calculation by the powers that be. We also note that the Mayor of Christchurch has been one of the chief cheerleaders for this legislative initiative, but we wouldn’t be prepared to put money on her being able to serve her full term at present due to questions being asked about her electoral finance returns at the last two elections. To put it another way, we have to ask what pressing issue the Mayor is trying to solve by campaigning to take over the operation of our bus services. We think it is becoming increasingly clear that it is essentially a political power game being played by Christchurch City against the regional council and territorial authorities further out, and is actually against the public interest.

So what are the political calculations involved? Firstly, let us conclude this first instalment of this two-part article by looking at how a local politician’s mind works when their territory is part of a larger urban area that is governed by multiple councils. This fact in places like Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch has been addressed to a large extent by the local government reforms of 1989, which created regional councils to govern public transport systems over multi-territory metropolitan areas. In Auckland, of course, there has since been the further amalgamation of local areas to form the Auckland Council. Prior to that, in the early 2000s the Auckland Regional Transport Authority (ARTA) was created to separate public transport management from the other roles of Auckland Regional Council (ARC). Auckland Transport is the successor of ARTA but with increased powers and responsibilities, for example management of Auckland roads. In Wellington, some smaller councils were amalgamated into the larger territories of Kapiti, Lower Hutt, Upper Hutt, Porirua and Wellington City, but there is no present political impetus for a “Wellington Council” type of amalgamation. Wellington, however, did have bus services operated by Wellington City Transport (WCT) which was controlled by Wellington City Council. Christchurch, since the inception of public transport well over 100 years ago, has always had these services regionally managed; CCC has never been in control of them. This function was originally performed by the Christchurch Transport Board (CTB) (Christchurch Tramway Board in earlier years) and their function was handed over to Ecan (Canterbury Regional Council) in 1989.

Prior to the various local government reforms that have occurred, public transport was in some areas regionally managed from an early stage (Christchurch was the first area out of the three mentioned above to have this type of organisation) and in Auckland this system was introduced in the 1960s. In both Auckland and Wellington, the all important commuter passenger services were always managed in a regional fashion, firstly through the district offices of NZ Railways and latterly through the respective regional councils. This however has never been popular with the mayors of the largest territories. In such a politician’s small mind, they are seeking to maximise their political power by concentrating as much of the population of the larger metropolitan area as possible within their territory. They also want to make it more difficult for people to live outside their territory and commute to work within it. Therefore it is in a local politician’s interest to have control over all of the transport systems in their area. A regional transport system such as commuter trains that makes it easy for people to live north and south of Christchurch and commute quickly and rapidly into the city to work has long been despised by Christchurch mayors because these residents are not paying rates into the City coffers. These simple political facts go a long way to explaining part of the reason why Christchurch City Council does not have any interest in furthering the development of commuter rail services in the region. We will look into another key part of that reason in our second article.

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