Questions Over Recent Actions by Christchurch Eastern Ward Councillors [1]

Two of Christchurch City Council’s elected councillors in eastern wards have recently found themselves in trouble with the Council itself over unauthorised stormwater drainage work they allegedly carried out in the residential red zone. The key issues are that the councillors have overstepped their governance role and become involved in operational matters, and that the councillors did not follow the correct process for raising issues through the community boards they oversee. The view of this blog is that the councillors exhibited poor leadership in their high level roles with the council and may have encouraged other disgruntled parties to interfere with ratepayer funded assets without permission in future.

Although many people have attacked the Council over the actions taken, we are stating here in this blog that we are backing the Council 100% over the issue. Readers of this blog will know it is unusual for us to agree with CCC on anything much. However, we are not wedded to any political cause, and we can see that this is a very strong problem of endless buck passing by all manner of politicians that is never ending in Christchurch and in which council staff are left as the whipping boys whilst politicians hide behind every convenient lamp post when the heat comes on.

Key Contributing Issues Leading To Situation

  • Underfunding of earthquake damage repairs.
  • Divide between CBD, wealthy suburbs and poor suburbs.
  • Dirty political games between local and central government.

Underfunding of earthquake damage repairs

Christchurch was woefully ill prepared for the quakes and one of the biggest scandals was the degree to which local body assets in the city were underinsured. But added into that, CCC’s application of land hazard expectations in the Buildings Act occurred in a way that did not recognise that some land in the East was very liquefaction prone and that housing should not have been allowed without special foundations or area treatments. This led to speculation in the news media of the time (sorry we can’t find the link to the article now) that residential insurance companies considered suing CCC due to the large resulting financial liability they were exposed to. The net result of these issues was that central government stepped in and (a) funded the “Residential Red Zone” property buyout scheme, (b) funded the development of anchor projects in the CBD, and (c) underwrote part of the cost of the SCIRT infrastructure repair programme across the city. However, government funding has necessarily been capped at a certain level and ratepayers have been left to pick up a considerable amount of cost, this is still ongoing at the present time and it will continue to be an issue for many years into the future. Thus, people are becoming disgruntled over the slow progress in repairs to earthquake damaged infrastructure. As the Eastern part of the city was hardest hit, and as large chunks of that area have been red-zoned (cleared of housing), the continued impacts of this damage are much greater there than anywhere else in the City. This has led to growing frustration from residents in the area. We are very familiar with the Red Zone issues, having resided in the East of the city from 2003 until July 2011, and having revisited on numerous occasions since.

Divides between CBD / Suburbs and Wealthy Suburbs / Poor Suburbs

The second issue is the divide between the CBD and suburbs, and between wealthy and poorer suburbs. Christchurch almost from the beginning was developed as a series of local boroughs, each with, in effect, its own CBD or nucleus. The Christchurch City Council originally encompassed the central part of the city. Examples being Sydenham Borough Council headquartered in the suburb of that name, Riccarton Borough Council based in Riccarton Road and Waimairi District Council centred in Fendalton. The final amalgamation occurred as a result of Government reorganisation in 1989 when CCC became the sole territorial authority for all of Christchurch. As a result, the focus shifted to one central CBD within what is generally known as the “Four Avenues”. Most major retail and office developments historically were created in the CBD. However in the 1980s New Brighton Mall was allowed to become a special retail zone able to open on weekends, which was not possible in any other part of the City at that time. From that time, suburban malls were subsequently able to be developed and operated on a 7 day basis elsewhere in the city, offering free parking onsite and paying lower rentals than the old boys’ property cartel was charging in the CBD. Consequently there was a large exodus of commercial businesses and retail premises from the CBD into the suburbs and many less desirable older buildings became vacant or were adapted for residential use. A notable example of the issue is the significant number of central city high rise office blocks that were converted into hotels and apartments by the time of the 2011 earthquakes.

Since the quakes, CBD property owners have fought hard to convince both central and local government that the city should be reorganised on the basis that the central city is again dominant, and because the people championing this the most are wealthy property owners and developers, they have achieved considerable success, aided by the current Mayor of the city who has decided she can always get a few more votes out of supporting the pro CBD cause. This has however set these people against people from the suburbs who see that the CBD has been given endless financial largesse both at central and local level (note that all the government-funded anchor projects have been developed within the CBD and it has been left to ratepayers to pay for the suburban projects).

In addition to the CBD vs suburbs debate, there is also a divide between wealthy and poor suburbs within the City. Both of these divides have serious implications for the democratic character of the political process in the City. In summary, elected members tend to favour the viewpoints of wealthy suburbs and their residents with much greater predominance than for poorer areas of the City. This is largely due to the ability of wealthier residents to fund more effective politically focused campaigns specifically targeted at councillors and boards, as well as legal threats and challenges to specific council decisions. In brief, the residents of wealthier areas of the city are able to exert greater influence over the decisions and processes of elected members, primarily with the object of favouring development in their neighbourhoods that helps to make these areas more desirable to live in and in turn, driving property values continually higher. The economic system for the City Council perpetuates this by charging rates and levies to property owners rather than individual residents, thus insulating residents who are not property owners from direct economic connection with, and therefore influence over, the financial aspects of the City’s operations and processes that directly impact on rates charged and funds expended.

Dirty political games between local and central government

In New Zealand, public governance is divided between a single central government for the whole country, and two levels of local governance: territorial councils covering urban and rural areas such as cities and towns, and regional councils covering a number of territorial areas. Central government has much greater powers than local governance, but routinely delegates authority to local governance. There is much debate about the extent of this delegation and concerns about a perceived lack of will from central government to properly fund the impacts of these delegations. The biggest and most reasonable concern about the delegations of authority are that governments employ them as a political shield in order to divert the blame for unpopular decisions to the local level. There is considerable evidence of a concerted strategy in the case of certain political movements to pass central government laws that are intended to be able to be nullified by local government under the guise of “democracy”. Since as we have highlighted in the previous paragraph that local government democracy perpetuates considerable inequality in producing more favourable outcomes for wealthier suburbs, the aim of such policies is largely focused on supporting the capture of political power and influence from any and every quarter rather by the central party’s local representatives, rather than on ensuring the successful implementation of the central government party’s manifesto promises at local level. In order to illustrate this, here are some examples:

  1. In the year 2000, the Clark Labour Government passed legislation putting the administration of the public hospital system under the control of “democratically elected and governed” District Health Boards. In practice, some members of the boards are elected in local government elections, but a significant number are appointed by the central government, which also appoints the chairperson and deputy chairperson. Central government retains firm control over the board through choosing the senior leadership and through muzzling all members except for the chairperson from publicly commenting on Board processes and decisions. This has led (accurately we believe) to the perception that the primary achievement of District Health Boards has been to help Government shut down debate about the effectiveness of the public health system by deflecting blame from Government to the DHBs.
  2. During its term of office, the Clark Labour government passed new clean-air legislation, giving regional councils the power to implement clean air plans within their regions. Subsequent to this, the Canterbury Regional Council proposed a new plan for the City of Christchurch, which brought in a requirement for much lower emission solid fuel appliances within territorial limits to eliminate longstanding concerns over the level of smog produced in the city by solid fuel fireplaces. We were astounded to discover that the local Labour Party response in Canterbury from all of its city-based MPs was to lobby the Regional Council to defer the implementation of the plan on the basis that existing use rights could be used to establish precedence. There was also implicit Parliamentary party support for local Labour members calling for the responsibilities for the implementation of clean air plans to be transferred from the regional council to territorial councils; either proposition would have allowed any such plan to be sidelined or scrapped outright regardless of environmental considerations.
  3. In the lead up to the 2017 election campaign, Labour promised that $100 million would be made available for the development of commuter rail in the Greater Christchurch region. This appeared to be a clear cut response to numerous proposals and investigations into suburban rail services in Canterbury, the most recent of these being conducted three years previously and having concluded that sufficient passenger traffic would be carried to make a service viable. To enable the proposal to be implemented, it would be clear from the Auckland rail development carried out by the previous Labour government that control of public transport would need to be placed solely within the jurisdiction of a special purpose regional transport authority. Upon election, the Labour led government failed to make these changes and instead favoured alternative proposals by its own members occupying elected roles in the Christchurch City Council to favour the predominance of the City’s interests over all of Greater Christchurch. Legislation was passed several years ago to facilitate CCC’s longstanding desire to control the City’s bus system, and the $100 million offered for rail has been sidelined as the Ministry of Transport conducts additional unnecessary business case investigations into proposals that directly and deliberately sideline heavy rail from consideration because of CCC opposition to it.
  4. A growing concern around New Zealand, which has a major coastline and many significant areas of population located in close proximity to it, is the impacts of climate change upon the coastal environment, specifically in the area of sea level rise. So far a few territorial councils, Christchurch City among them, have attempted to implement programmes such as managed retreat to deal with the impacts of encroachment on coastal suburbs and infrastructure. This has led directly to a high degree of confrontation between elected representatives in Eastern wards and Council, with the former clearly demanding that CCC programmes be sidelined or downplayed due to the impact upon property values in the area. It appears to be a strong point of contention by New Brighton / Southshore residents and their supporters that difficulty in getting flood protection works constructed within Eastern coastal zones is due to the intention of CCC to press ahead with implementation of managed retreat or other coastal hazard processes and this controversy led to a confrontation with a previous Eastern Ward councillor and community board members and has contributed to the long standing tensions between the Eastern communities and the rest of the City. There is also, we believe, an accurate perception that Central government has effectively passed the buck for many years on coastal erosion, refusing to address or acknowledge it in substantive form.

Why We Support The City Council

As we stated at the beginning of this post, we fully support the stance taken by CCC staff in confronting the issue of elected members ignoring the due processes of the Council, which the general public are expected to follow, and taking what has been alleged to be “vigilante action” to resolve a local flooding problem in residential red zoned land. The reasons for our stance are as follows:

  • CCC has clear processes to be followed when dealing with public concerns over Council decisions and services. These processes are intended to ensure that matters of concern are dealt with fairly and openly.
  • CCC staff are expected to follow all of the laws of New Zealand in implementing these processes.
  • Staff who do not follow the legal requirements would leave themselves open to risk of legal or other action against either themselves or the Council and disciplinary action being taken against them by Council management. These are all reasonable norms for the actions of staff within a large public organisation like the Council
  • Council staff working on this case have cited numerous issues relating to property ownership, damage and public safety risks created by the work that was allegedly carried out. Laws passed by central government makes it incumbent upon them to ensure that these issues are properly handled in accordance with the legislative expectations, in the interests of respecting the legislative authority of Parliament and the general expectations of our legal and justice system.
  • Elected members are subject to the same laws and should not be inciting contempt for them.
  • Criticism of CCC processes in reprimanding the elected members concerned were criticised by the National Party MP for the Ilam electorate, who also happens to be the former Minister of Earthquake Recovery. However, the council does not have the option of abrogating these processes just because the land is in the residential red zone. The real problem is that it is simply and wholly inappropriate to incite a lawless approach to the utilisation of ratepayer funded assets, when proper accountability demands that these assets are managed for the benefit of all ratepayers and with clear expectations that property owners or occupiers will not usurp the Council’s ownership or authority to manage these assets in order to ensure that wider community interests, including private property ownership rights, are fairly protected.
  • Similarly a rebuke of CCC processes was issued by the local Labour Member of Parliament for the City East electorate, who also happens to be an Associate Minister for Greater Christchurch Regeneration. She stated that her office had been lobbying the Council for a considerable period of time over concerns about the poor maintenance and repair of infrastructure assets in the Eastern wards. However, as an Associate Minister of the portfolio that is most clearly related to earthquake recovery under the Labour government, she is expected to be well acquainted with the challenges facing CCC in the process of long term earthquake recovery and the implications of Government legislative requirements that are imposed upon the City Council that are material to this particular situation. It is very inappropriate for a Government minister to be advocating this type of alleged vigilante activity and criticising the Council for opposing it, when she should be well aware of the legal expectations and requirements placed upon the Council and its staff. This appears to be cynical buck passing when the Government has been quick on many occasions to shift responsibility to Council to make decisions about particular issues.
  • There is a commonly held desire by elected Council members of all shades across the political spectrum to deflect blame and attention from their own decisions and processes onto Council staff. Many local politicians claim that Council staff are out of control and that decision making and spending power has been usurped by the Council management. However, all decisions over Council programmes, funding and expenditure are confirmed each year in the Annual Plan process which is conducted with very detailed in depth consideration of every area of expenditure and the final decisions are made by elected members and consulted to the public with hearing and submission processes. There is therefore considerable ability for elected members to exert considerable influence over the direction of Council. In the case of this particular situation, it is almost inconceivable that the concerns being raised could not have been addressed either by the Community Board, a Council committee, or the full Council. Even if the decisions made were not favourable to the Eastern suburbs, it could not be denied that the correct process should have been undertaken and followed throughout the various layers of administration within the Council. It simply cannot be denied as a matter of reality that decisions may be made from time to time regarding the scheduling and financing of particular projects that not all members may agree with; but it is simply nonsensical to claim that elected members do not wield the very considerable influence that they do actually have over particular decisions and programmes undertaken by the Council.
  • If there are concerns over the particular directions and processes being followed by local government in general, then it may be necessary to have legislation passed by central government to address this. The only recent legislation we are aware of in reference to the current Labour government has been to expand the powers and responsibilities of local government to implement certain social wellbeings, thus enabling central government to shift some of its responsibility (including funding) to a local level, where ratepayers will be expected to pick up the tab. Hence, criticism of local government process by a Government minister is very hypocritical when it is the clear intent of Central government to shift responsibilities and political controversy from their implementation to a local level.

We await the outcome of the current process with considerable interest but do not expect to see the situation being condoned in any shape or form by the Council and nor should it be.

NZ First tries to claim moral high ground in airport rail debate

Recently in transport news there has been a lot of debate over the shelving of the Auckland light rail to the airport proposals. Much of that has centred around the role played by NZ First which is implacably opposed to the development, to the extent that their representatives have waged an acromonious campaign throughout the news media and the rail community for the abandonment of the light rail development that has been a flagship Labour/Greens policy this term of government.

To understand the nature of this we have to dig deeply into NZ First itself and its political objectives and imperatives. New Zealand First is Winston Peters’ personal political vehicle which evolved out of his split from the National Party in the early 1990s. Although it is called a party and involves other people, it is and has always been unlike most other parties in NZ in the fact that it is best characterised as a populist personality cult revolving around the leader himself. This is best understood when we examine that NZF has only ever had one leader in the past 25 years and they do not have the open democratic process for leadership selection that prevails in other Parliamentary parties. Because NZ First is a split off National, their policy focus essentially follows the same social-conservative theme that is prevalent throughout the National Party, but at the more moderate end of the NP spectrum, causing NZF to be characterised as more into the centre of politics in NZ. The political centre has become much more important in NZ since the advent of MMP and nowadays all parties have to acknowledge it in order to gain and remain in power. However, the major parties in NZ are made up from dominant left and right ideological blocs and generally achieve electoral success by moderating their particular platforms by moderating their core ideology to capture more of the centre. Parties that focus more on the centre must necessarily be seen as combining policies from both the left and right wings of politics and have failed to capture more than a few percent of electoral support in NZ long term.

NZ First at its core, being a split from National, has a bedrock right wing policy approach and tends to cleave more to that side of the political spectrum. When they are inclined to come further left, it is usually by cherry picking key policy areas of from Labour or the Greens. One of those focuses for the past few terms has been in the NZ rail network largely driven by an ambitious Auckland-based member who won’t be named in this post. However NZ First is essentially having a buck both ways on transport development by playing both sides of the fence, campaigning on the same pro-roads platform as National whilst at the same time championing rail development. This leads to many contradictions, which are most visible in public transport in particular. It must be plainly obvious to the majority of public transport campaigners that PT is highly necessary in major urban environments as part of a wider platform of mitigating the adverse environmental impacts caused by unrestricted growth in private vehicle use and therefore, it is necessary at some point to put limits on vehicle usage. The NZ First approach to any form of rail based transport tries to pretend that it is possible to have unrestricted car growth and a viable public transport system, in order to capture votes from both camps. The problem with this is that the two camps are usually implacably opposed to each other (the old left/right political dynamic) and a party like NZF coming into the picture is generally seen to be focused mainly on short term political objectives and not on a long term viable approach to solving the bigger problems that need to be addressed in urban development in cities.

Auckland has been through a long series of processes over many years to attempt to determine future avenues of development of the public transport networks that will be needed over the longer term. There have been some monumental projects undertaken in the last couple of decades, among them are the DART project in West Auckland that doubled and upgraded the urban part of the North Auckland Line from Newmarket to Swanson, the Britomart underground rail terminal in the Auckland CBD, and the City Rail Loop that extends Britomart to allow through train running for greater capacity. Public transport is essential to the future of the city and it will continue to be handled by multiple modes, which at the moment include the Northern Busway and heavy rail. The biggest debate in the last five years has focused around creating several light rail corridors that will extend as far north as Kumeu and terminate at the airport in Mangere. NZ First has been implacably opposed to both Kumeu and the airport being served by light rail, as both areas are also close to existing heavy rail lines which they claim should be the focus of new PT services. This ignores that all the light rail corridors that have been proposed are completely new routes that open up rail access to additional areas of the city that are not currently so served and using the existing heavy rail corridors would not extend the reach of public transport to the same extent. The stage has been set therefore for a fractious and mostly unnecessary debate about the different merits of light vs heavy rail for public transport (the differences are comparitively minor in relation to passenger carriage) and is largely driven by NZ First’s representatives attempting to tap into the small and insular rail heritage community for votes.

The airport light rail development proposals can best be summed up as not actually being focussed particularly on the small number of passengers who would be likely to use it to meet flights. This market is so small that the services would not be able to pay their way if they were focused primarily on serving it. Hence the light rail proposal is for a line that serves urban population catchments around Mangere and for people that work at the airport, rather than flyers. The same impact could be achieved by extending existing heavy rail from Onehunga and is probably a better long term objective because it can serve the actual growth in airport traffic in the longer term when that eventually develops to become more viable, while in the shorter term it enables the servicing of the additional urban population catchments between Onehunga and the airport. However, NZ First is campaigning on a rail line from the airport via Puhinui that would not serve any additional urban population due to it running through the airport noise corridor, on the basis that it is claimed that passenger trains from Hamilton to the south and the greater Waikato could become viable. The problem with assuming Hamilton would be a significant catchment is that it is only about 120 km from there to the airport, which is quite driveable for a lot of people and well served by existing road shuttles that the rail would be hard pressed to compete against, especially on fares. The possibility of getting a lot of passengers from the south is really a very long term outcome that will be driven by massive population increase in that corridor over decades and again, in the short term, is simply a nonsense proposition.

The light rail debate for Auckland has become drawn out due to scope changes by the government that have obscured the important outcomes. The Government has failed to understand the background of the original light rail proposals and allowed itself to be sidetracked into supporting a proposed PPP for a very expensive airport focused metro line. This is as nonsensical as NZ First’s Puhinui heavy rail proposal. Neither of these achieves the development objectives that the original heavy rail (via Onehunga) and light rail plans were intended to achieve. If the Government proceeds with the airport metro line it will be an expensive white elephant around the necks of taxpayers and ratepayers for decades whilst funnelling fistfuls of their money into a Canadian pension fund that will profit handsomely. Incredibly, this has continued to be at the forefront of Labour’s blatant hijack of the Auckland Transport Alignment Project in its present term, and since Labour has now dropped the original ATAP light rail plans in favour of the metro white elephant, it will remain contentious should they win the election later this year. NZ First’s pitch for a heavy rail line from Puhinui to the airport is mostly about capturing votes from both sides of the political divide from being cheaper to construct than light rail and supposedly enabling fast train services to the airport from all around the Auckland and Waikato regions. Neither of these is relevant in the short tot medium term as the economics do not actually stack up. The best outcome really for Auckland is to build the extension of the Onehunga heavy rail to the airport and develop the light rail separately without reference to South Auckland – earlier proposals were to take a light rail line from the city to Mt Roskill without heading further south as ATAP proposes. NZ First taking their high road over stymying Labour’s airport metro project is ignoring the fact that their alternative is not better than various alternatives that have been on the table in recent times. The NZ First Party has employed a range of questionable tactics in its campaigns on the issue due to attempting to straddle both sides of the political fence and their attempts to divide and conquer the public transport landscape are not material to their lack of long term political viability because the key factors concerning this are deeply rooted in the Party’s history and culture and the important differences between it and other Parliamentary parties. Ultimately, whilst we believe there are serious and valid concerns that have been raised by NZ First over the government’s flagship light rail/metro policy platform, they are not in a position to claim any moral high ground in the debate because their alternative is not any more credible.

Submission on Christchurch Commuter Rail

This is our first post since we decided to close down our Facebook group “Greater Christchurch Public Transport” and syndicate these posts to the group “NZ Rail Maps and Christchurch Public Transport” instead.

The Greens have announced a policy proposal to get the government to fund the development of commuter trains for Christchurch. However, this is not new, as they had a similar policy at the previous election, and nothing resulted from it.

We are putting together a generic submission template because it has become fairly apparent that there is a lack of will from central government political parties to move the commuter rail proposals forward. Labour has effectively outsourced this to the Christchurch City Council, which to date has responded with another version of its longstanding opposition to commuter rail, and proposals for the money to instead be spent on projects focused around the Christchurch CBD and excluding the outer suburbs, let alone the satellite townships in Greater Christchurch outside the Christchurch City borders.

We know from history that the same issues have been prevalent in Wellington, where the Let’s Get Wellington Moving considerations resulted in a proposal for BRT to be implemented by Wellington City Council that was quietly dropped due to lack of political will for ratepayers to fund the proposals. This will always happen in a territorial council environment where their city limits are small enough that everyone can get around on a bus and rapid transport is only useful when going into satellite outposts, which for reasons of pork barrelling, the territorial politicians always frustrate.

Wellington would never have got its commuter train service if it had been left to Wellington City, Upper Hutt, Lower Hutt and Kapiti to agree on what service was to be provided. Neither would have Auckland back in the days of multiple territorial authorities. The governments in both eras (1938 Labour government in Wellington, and 1999 Labour government in Auckland) stepped in over the top of bickering local politicians and whipped them into line. In Auckland this resulted in legislation to bring inb the Auckland Regional Transport Authority that took over all public transport in the region. The result being the doubling of most of the suburban network and the electrification and new trains that they got subsequently). A few generations earlier in Wellington, they got their electrification out to Paekakariki and Upper Hutt and the EMUs which are now in their third generation.

And that is what this inept government needs to realise as they have given us very little to date in terms of public transport development. The main issue is that in this present pandemic environment, it is very difficult to campaign for new public transport services. So when we put the document together we will have to lobby for a staged development approach, for example to get infrastructure built before trains are eventually introduced as demand returns, which could take many years.

Anyway, this submission proposal will be progressed over the next week. Watch this space.

Greens Call For Commuter Rail Development

This week the Green Party has called for rail commuter development around the country as part of a post-Covid economic stimulus package for the country. As reported in this Stuff article, they suggest $9 billion should be invested over 10 years to build high speed commuter networks centered around Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. In our region, Christchurch-Rangiora is a particular focus, with the possibility of extending to Ashburton or Timaru to be considered as well.

A quick search on the Stuff website shows there have been many commuter rail proposals articulated over the past ten or more years. These have all been sidelined by Wellington until Labour put a proposal into their manifesto at the last election. There were similar campaigns from the Greens and NZ First as well, but no progress has been made on the issue for various reasons, the key one being that Labour has favoured one of its own local body politicians in Christchurch proposing a city-only solution instead of the Greater Christchurch regional option that heavy rail is most suited to. This flies in the face of the longstanding campaigns in the city for heavy rail as well as the views of the other two parties of Government.

We will be writing a submission over the next few days that will be copied to the Greens, Labour and NZ First as the parties that are supportive of commuter rail development in Greater Christchurch. It will be including material that we have previously published on this blog in support of Greater Christchurch commuter rail development, and will be asking some hard questions about the lack of progress on the 2018 proposals, as well as pushing for more action from the parties than we have got so far.

So watch this space as we will include the submission in another post on this site when it has been written and sent.

Examples of previous reporting on commuter rail:

Local Government Amendment Bill pushing another political agenda

A Bill called the Local Government Amendment Bill No.2 has just been reported back from a select committee to Parliament. This Bill is of significance because it proposes to make it easier for local authorities to reorganise themselves by attacking each other and taking over services that the other provides.

Let’s have a look at the pros and cons of local government structure as it now appears. We have territorial councils that run a city or town and we have regional councils that govern entire regions and have regional responsibilities assigned to them. Before 1989 the regional councils did not exist, but there were a range of regional governance arrangements in place; for example there was Auckland Regional Authority, and closer to home there was Canterbury United Council. When local government was majorly reorganised nationwide the regionalisation arrangements became the norm across all areas, so that ARA became Auckland Regional Council, whilst CUC was essentially superseded by the Canterbury Regional Council. Many territorial councils were amalgamated together into larger bodies. This was done in a very piecemeal way rather than following common sense in a lot of cases, and this resulted in some unitary councils in places like Gisborne and Nelson-Malrborough for no good reason, and in some areas very small territorial councils like South Wairarapa District Council (total population 10,000), Kaikoura District Council (total population 3830), and three councils for the West Coast with an average around 10,000 in each of their districts.

So other words what is the point of having such small territorial councils and the reason is purely political. And what is the point of having unitary authorities and again it is political. When we see that there are clear benefits in the way regional councils and territorial councils are organised with clear responsibilities then the fact there are unitary authorities in some areas means that the regional and territorial functions are combined which creates a clear conflict of interest. This results in the regional function being minimised in most cases in those areas. To be able to look at the issue in this way we have to be able to understand that territorial forms of government are relatively weak and therefore prone to corruption and self interest. This weakness both comes from and contributes to a low standard of candidates for territorial council offices. Local governance is weak and corrupt because the wards that elect councillors are small and are therefore dominated by very local issues. The most local interest that any voter can have revolves around the house they live in. From there things scale up into their neighbourhood and its character. For political blocs to take control of a council they have to campaign across all the wards regardless of their character and therefore in most cases have to campaign on populist parochial platforms that will make the areas they represent more desirable, which usually involves spending lots of ratepayers’ funds. These platforms are in turn captured by interest groups that have the most time and money to spend on lobbying, generally the more prosperous areas in a city or town.

Both major political blocs recognise there are objectives that they can achieve through local government. National generally favours keeping councils locally focused taking as many responsibilities from them as possible or placing them under heavy government regulation. Examples: changing the Resource Management Act multiple times to push through development without public consultation,; mandating interference from NZTA in public transport tendering; forcing councils to sell their shareholdings in electricity retailing and public transport operations; mandating council corporatisation of commercial holdings, etc. National also supports councils becoming unitary so that a layer of bureaucracy is eliminated. Labour on the other hand supports councils that are involved in more things with more deveolved powers from central government, less regulation, more public consultation powers, more assets owned by central government etc. The problem is that both of these differing objectives fail to make local government more equitable. The populist character of local government campaigning and representation is not being addressed. This means that less populist causes such as core council functions and better services in areas such as water and public transport are not well served by local government.

National brought this Bill together to provide for new CCOs that would be owned by multiple Councils and organise infrastructure and services such as water and transport services into such organisations. Reorganisations would have to be under the supervision of an increased Local Government Commission with more members and powers than before. Labour has gutted key sections of the Bill, most notably the additional powers and duties assigned to the Local Government Commission and the sections changing the functions of CCOs. probably because the National Party model of a CCO would look more like the ones in Auckland, which follow a more corporate model of organisation that has less direct accountability to elected governance. Since the effect of National’s proposals was to regionalise local government more and the Labour proposals are to territorialise it more, the outcomes of changing this will be more negative for functions that are currently regionalised in local governance. This has come about because the Labour mayors of large cities which do not control functions such as public transport have been lobbying for decades to take over control of these functions regardless of the merit of any such proposals, which in most cases is non existent.

The problem with this Bill that Labour is pushing through (to serve their own political interests) is that the local government weakness is going to become more empowered by this law. A territorial council can instigate a reorganisation proposal out of naked self interest, usually from a political bloc who will claim they can do something better than another group of politicians. An example in Christchurch is the campaign by CCC to take over running local bus services from Ecan. There is no substantive basis for this claim except for naked self interest and political greed from CCC politicians, namely the Labour-Peoples Choice bloc. The much wider agenda is making it easier for territorial councils to seize power from their regional counterparts in every area possible. This means that CCC could also campaign to take over the responsibility for air quality, another area where they have proven particularly ineffective in the past to regulate due to a well funded vocal lobby of heating appliance and car owners who believe they have a right to pollute. Another example could be water quality. CCC is currently one of the biggest freshwater polluters in the city due to overflows from the wastewater system that it steadfastly refuses to fund the upgrade of. The reasons for pushing these measures through are not to improve services to ratepayers, but to advantage political blocs like Labour.

Once the Bill is passed we can expect to see the political blocs in various cities exploiting the very weak reorganisational mechanisms to push through various takeovers and the Government will stand by and do nothing as it is a political advantage to them to have territorial authorities that have more fingers in pies than ever. In public transport, because the existing provision of PT functions by CCC is already very weak, an improvement is unlikely.

What is the best administrative structure for public transport?

In New Zealand, since 1989, public transport around the country is governed by regional councils, whilst territorial councils are responsible for funding road-based infrastructure for PT that uses roads, such as buses. Where rail is a form of PT, the local infrastructure, however, is generally under the ownership of the regional council, the rail line and corridor being owned by the Government. Unitary authorities work in a similar way to a territorial council that has taken over regional functions. Auckland is in a unique position of being a unitary authority with all of its transport and roading functions placed under the control of a CCO, a company owned by Auckland Council which it only has governance oversight of, not direct operational control. This essentially means the board of Auckland Transport is not elected directly by ratepayers and therefore not accountable to them.

There is no perfect system for administering public transport because the sticking point is the source of funding for local infrastructure. Ratepayers in local government areas are very reluctant to see their rates being spent on public transport infrastructure, or road space being prioritised for public transport ahead of cars. So in Christchurch, bus priority takes forever to implement, and bus shelters and interchanges tend to be scarce. Residents opposing the operation of a bus down their street is also an ongoing issue.

Rail has a relatively easy ride compared to road transport because the rail network is a central government asset, and they are not directly accountable to local ratepayers. The operation of trains has to be contracted out, but the regional council governs the service just as they do with bus services. The crucial difference is that local ratepayers cannot hobble the operation of the train services. Train services are also different in that local infrastructure such as stations is owned by the regional council rather than by a territorial council.

Public transport therefore works best when it is governed by a non-territorial authority. This is precisely the reason for the system we have now. The problem is that as a long as roads are under the control of a territorial council, which is guaranteed to kowtow to the owners of private motor vehicles, public transport will always remain second priority and second rate because the money will never be found from rates to fund the infrastructure that is needed to improve the services.

The solution for road based public transport is probably to keep the governance of the services themselves at regional council level as is the case now. The second step that is needed is for central Government to fund public transport infrastructure directly, through either the regional or territorial council, preferably the former. Therefore for example, giving the regional councils the powers necessary to designate and manage a public transport network and the necessary infrastructure, is probably the improvement necessary to ensure that road based PT systems operate much better than is possible now. This essentially would mean giving the regional councils the power to override local councils in the matter of bus routes and corridors, and the funding to build the supporting infrastructure themselves. At that point, the operation of a road-based public transport system is similar to that of a rail network.

There are those who argue that the answer is to give full governance control to the territorial authority. This will result in the services being subsumed to the all-dominant motor vehicle interests. In short it is not going to improve on the current system as funding will still be at the whim of ratepayers.

“Planning For Successful Cities”: NPS on urban development out for consultation [1]: Background

Earlier this week the Government (HUDA and MFE) released a discussion document on its proposed National Policy Statement on urban development. Consultation is now being undertaken in relation to the issues raised in the document, until 10 October 2019 at 5 pm.

The key issue raised in the DD is that significant problems exist in current urban planning and growth that are producing negative outcomes such as severe housing unaffordability, falling home ownership, increased hardship and homelessness, increased household debt, intergenerational inequality, congestion, poor transport choice and urban pollution. The Government therefore proposes its Urban Growth Agenda to provide the improvements needed to address issues such as these. It suggests some important issues that it aims to address are reducing car dependency, fixing the present broken system for funding and financing infrastructure, and ensuring central government works more closely with local government, the private sector and communities.

The following is a summary of the chapters in the DD and my responses to it. These responses will form the basis of my submission that I intend to produce for this proposal. Christchurch is one of the key growth areas identified in the government’s press release and public transport forms a key part of the solutions needed in the city. At the same time there is existing and substantial concern that the last government’s pro-developer agenda expressed through the combined impacts of the replacement District Plan and the Resource Management Act amendments pushed through in 2009 have gone too far in their impact on neighbourhoods.

As we already know, recent governments have attempted to fund ways to promote increased housing development in the major centres to increase the housing supply but this has produced quite a mixed bag of results with concerns particularly identified over National’s policy shift promoted as “reducing red tape” that has given developers greatly increased rights to develop without considering the impact on the environment such as through increased vehicle traffic in existing streets, removing trees, lack of carparking on site, etc. There have been numerous higher density housing developments recently in Christchurch that have created these concerns, but a much bigger one currently occurring in Merivale is the expansion of a local shopping mall which is likely to end up in court because the impacts are far from being “less than minor”.

The newspaper reporting on this NPS release has suggested this is “a government plan to sideline nimbys” and this could be a problem if it is an accurate statement. I am certainly hoping this proposal is a reasonably balanced one. Whilst it is undeniable that intensification of housing is always going to create challenges for some residents, the worst cases in Christchurch to date have resulted from the District Plan requirements being regularly flouted and concerns over streets becoming clogged with traffic and parked vehicles. Since the release refers to “high quality streets, neighbourhoods and communities” I certainly hope this is adequately addressed. Another issue that is important to be addressed is social housing development. Housing New Zealand is a key concern with their post-earthquake trend of pushing through many new complexes in parts of the City and changes in their tenant case management since the change of government, but CCC’s SH developments are also capable of creating similar challenges.

This NPS is expected to replace National’s NPS-UDC from 2016, by broadening its focus and adding significant new content. The key relevance for Christchurch is the existing Urban Development Strategy which has in turn resulted in some key initiatives taken by the preceding National government. The key ones which were relevant are:

  • Changes in the District Plan to produce increased intensification in various areas of the city.
  • Developing the Southern Motorway to enable faster road transport to/from Selwyn District.
  • Developing the Christchurch Northern Corridor motorway to speed up road transport to/from Waimakariri District.

These have all raised their own issues. Intensification has already been mentioned above. The key issues with the motorway developments have varying impacts. The Southern motorway project has been largely focused in recent years on bringing the existing SH76 through to join SH1 at Weedons, creating a bypass of the main urban areas of the south-west of Christchurch, so that freight and passenger vehicles can reach the city more quickly and conveniently from Selwyn District. SH76 joins onto Brougham Street, the main arterial route for freight to and from Port of Lyttelton. As this area has been intensively developed along these lines for decades, there has not been too much of an issue with the motorway expansion, which on SH76 itself has seen widening to four lanes completed just after the earthquakes, west of Barrington. However, the last National Government put forward an election campaign proposal to four lane SH1 from Rolleston to Ashburton which was dropped by the incoming Labour administration and has raised some local controversy. West of the city, SH1 which has run on that route for many years via Russley Road and Johns Road, was widened to four lanes and a bypass was built to go around Belfast at the northern end, the roundabout at the Memorial Avenue intersection was replaced by an overbridge and on/off ramps, the bridge with its large arches being a prominent landmark in the area. The Christchurch Northern Corridor, currently nearing completion has been the most controversial proposal. Although it runs mostly through greenfield land and the designations have been in place for decades, it will funnel a large volume of traffic into the existing roading network through Cranford Street and St Albans Residents Association has been highly active in campaigning against it and this is ongoing at the time of writing.

A key part of the counter proposals to address the impact of the CNC has been the proposals to develop a rail passenger service between the City and Rangiora and this has been well addressed by this blog and the campaign will continue. I will share some thoughts about the upcoming elections and the possible impacts in my next post. The NPS discussion will continue in part [2] of this series/



Protests needed against NZTA/Government buck passing on public transport funding

The Labour government came to office promising improvements in public transport funding which have so far amounted to very little. All that seems to keep happening in this sector (or for that matter in many sectors) is the government announces another time wasting review. All they have to do is ask people in the sector what is needed instead of more reviews and delays.

In Canterbury we have a new regional land transport plan developed by Ecan in partnership with CCC, Selwyn District and Waimakariri District, but no means of implementing it without additional government funding. Consequently Ecan is limited to doing reviews to try and squeeze more efficiency out of the current level of funding, so there have been a few services cut and changed but no new ones introduced as proposed in the plan. A look around the country shows that things aren’t different anywhere else except in Queenstown where the local council has stumped up additional funding for their improved bus service, or in Hamilton where a hugely expensive train service is being planned. In Wellington where they are trying to fix up the mess of the new services they introduced there, the governnment is refusing to help, but without repealing the PTOM or increasing funding there is a limit to what can be achieved there, too.

It is simply not credible for the government to have left public transport funding improvements in abeyance for so long with no relief in sight and it becomes necessary therefore to consider protest action from across a range of different organisations with the objective of getting the government to stop passing the buck, especially in Canterbury where we have a much lower level of government funding for public transport than in Auckland and Wellington.

Another time wasting Government review announced

We’re still waiting for the repeal of National’s cuts to public transport funding through the PTOM and farebox recovery target. Without those improvements there is no more money available to improve public transport in Canterbury.

We’re also waiting for the repeal of legislation in the resource management area like National’s Resource Management (Simplifying and Streamlining) Act 2009 which essentially made most consents non notified, thus removing the requirement for public consultation. In Christchurch this was followed up by a new District Plan which has been highly controversial for allowing housing developments such as intensification in certain areas of the city.

But the Government has only made limited changes so far to the Resource Management Act and has just announced a complete review of the legislation. Whilst this review takes place there is no change happening.

One is left with the impression that this government is overly focused on political correctness and its own web of red tape stymying just about everything. As you can see, when Nick Smith passed through that piece of legislation, it was the year after his government was elected. They didn’t waste time getting their changes implemented.

Here we are faced with not only another time wasting review of the RMA, we also have the situation that a new Housing and Urban Development Authority is being established which itself will take time to set up. Another waste of resources. It seems the focus of Labour is to spend oodles of time and resources trying to reinvent everything under the sun. This is a complete waste of time and taxpayers money. Labour needs to get some perspective. They only get three years in office between elections. Whilst some policies have been implemented, everything slowed down a whole lot after the first 100 days in office. It has just seemed that was a publicity stunt. Labour may not actually be able to stay in office long enough to get anything completed.

We don’t believe we will see any improvements to public transport funding and management before the 2020 election. This means the creaking inadequate public transport system in Christchurch (and in other centres) will not be able to be improved in a reasonable timeframe.