01 March 2014

Some people aren't going to like this post

but hey, when has that ever stopped me?

I've been in Lyttelton for a couple of months now on and off, travelling in to Christchurch about 2-3 times per week for shopping and various other reasons.  Today I went to a whisky festival and took some extra time to walk around the city afterwards.  Also, over the last couple of weeks I've been reading the newspapers, watching the rebuild process and following local politics a bit.

Both Christchurch the city and Lyttelton the port town were heavily damaged in the 2010 earthquake, Christchurch to the point where the CBD basically ceased to function and was "red-zoned", which meant that everyday people were prohibited from entering while the necessary demolition work was completed to take down the unsafe buildings, and some propping up to make the remaining buildings safe.

As a result of not having a CBD for so long, Christchurch has basically learned to live without one.  The CBD is now open again, except for a few roadblocks and lane closures where some limited amount of construction (road and/or building) is happening.

I say "limited amount" because, despite the fact that three years have gone past since the major earthquake, there really isn't very much reconstruction happening.  The city is full of empty building blocks, boarded-up buildings, half started foundation works, etc.  Some of these have for sale signs on them but most of the CBD doesn't exist any more.  There aren't queues of traffic waiting to pass at the various roadblocks, there aren't queues of traffic at all.  Many of the buildings that look fit to occupy aren't occupied.  Most of the construction sites have limited amount of activity on them, and some are showing signs that there has been no activity for a year or more.

There's this thing called the "Re:Start Mall" in the centre of the city, on the ruins of one of the major shopping precincts of past.  According to the signage it contains "great caf├ęs and a mix of speciality gift stores" in fact it's a themeless assortment of retailers hanging by a thread, operating out of re-purposed shipping containers and the graffiti-endorsed patched up remains of the buildings that didn't entirely collapse.  Sure it might be interesting to view the sort of things that can be done with a few shipping containers and some ingenuity, but the partially permanent, partially transient effect gives one the impression that this is just never going to get fixed.

Behind all of this, of course, there's a bit of politics.  There's this Canterbury/Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority, headed by a government minister with almost limitless power.  Along with that limitless power is a limitless reluctance to do anything, mostly because he's an appointee of a conservative government which is mostly interested in what size tax cuts it can offer to rich Aucklanders so they can afford that second Jaguar, and not particularly interested in spending money to fix Christchurch.

On the other side is a city council that seems to be more interested in how many political points it can score in arguments against the CERA, and despite being on the progressive side of politics and quite interested in fostering the rebuild, it doesn't have the money or personnel resources to be able to do it alone.  The big money comes from the national government and that government isn't really that interested in spending very much of it.

Then of course there appears to be the (government funded) national earthquake insurers and on the other side the various commercial insurance companies.  Neither of which are actually interested in funding any of the rebuilds either, they are each mostly interested in ensuring that the other party funds the rebuild.

So although one would expect that, in this recovery phase, the city would be a great place to work if you were a builder, plumber, engineer, or architect, in fact it's just a great place to work if you're a lawyer (and in fact I suspect that most of the money spent here goes into the pockets of lawyers in Auckland, and hence to Jaguar).  Perhaps if you're in the health industry, or any of the industries servicing the nearby agricultural sector then it's OK too but I suspect that the agriculture and forestry industries (Lyttelton port is full of logs) are really the only things from keeping the local economy from collapsing completely.

5 years ago, Christchurch was a beautiful city.  Right now, it's just munted.   It has the potential to be beautiful again.  I think that a large number of people need to come to the realisation that unless the PTB pull their collective heads out of their collective posteriors, that's just not going to happen.

I witnessed a local bus station attendant today tell a couple of foreign tourists that there was nothing for them to see or do in Christchurch, and that they should head either north or south.  I've seen or heard that happen at least 2 or 3 times since arriving here.  On one occasion two travellers were looking for work (just seasonal stuff, fruit picking or farm labouring) and they were both advised by a local to head for the north island.  That's quite sad really.

There's a national election this year.  That gives the opportunity for change, however it appears that the latte-sipping Jag-driving spin doctors have enough of a hold on the national political conscience that the change isn't going to happen for at least another 3 years, hopefully by which time people will start to realise that it's been munted for quite long enough and do something about it.

I'd hate to see a serious political riot here but that's just what it might take.