Minister Brownlee, that’s not right and you know it…

I am part of a group of people working to convince the Christchurch City Council, and other relevant authorities, that it is essential to keep the Christchurch Town Hall.   This group includes Architectural Historians Ian Lochhead, Jessical Halliday, and Architects Maurice Mahoney, and Sir Miles Warren.

This post does not necessarily represent their views.  But it does represent mine.

The Christchurch Town Hall  is one of a small handful of great buildings that this country has, it has  world-class acoustic qualities, and is widely loved by both the Christchurch public, and expert users.  It was damaged in the 22nd Feb earthquake, however the damage is repairable, and the CCC had voted for the full retention of the Town Hall in their city plan earlier this year, and as owners of the building had taken responsibility to pay for the repair and upgrades.  Since then the large government led CCDU plan has been put into full force of law. This plan had a large empty space on the site where the town hall presently is, with words to the effect that the future of this site and surrounding activities depended on the CCC final decision on the Town Hall.   The Executive Director of the CCDU responded to an email some months ago saying that the final decision for the Town Hall rests with the Council.   The culture and heritage committee voted unanimously 2 weeks ago to recommend to the council for the full retention of the Town Hall.  A small but significant victory.  The full council meeting is on the 22nd of November.

We have up till now being confident that the decision for the Town Hall rests with the CCC, and the CCDU document, and the comments by Warwick Isaacs would support this. It is then dismaying to hear, Minister Brownlee refusing to rule out that he may over-ride the council decision.  A letter we received from him a few day ago had the ominous sentence.  “I await the Council’s final decision with interest.” 

The Minister was interviewed by Mike Yardley on newstalkZB yesterday (the bit about the Town Hall is near the end) and features a number of remarkably misleading comments from the Minister which I will detail here.

Minister: “I get frankly annoyed by some of the characterisation of the damage to the Town Hall, and when I hear people saying ‘it’s got the best acoustics in the world’ I’ve got to say it used to but when you’ve got the floor so badly disrupted, when you’ve got walls that are out of line etc  and other damage to that, they are not the same as they used to be.” 

Mr Brownlee, this is why the council has budgeted to repair the building.  It is called a repair because we understand that things need to happen to the building to make it perform again.  As it turns out the original acoustic engineers have done a preliminary study of the auditorium and stated “The good news is that, on the basis of todays brief visit at least, there is no visible damage to the auditoriums acoustic fabric”.  So Mr Brownlee, you are either being misleading or you are talking about something from a position of authority when you haven’t read the reports about it.

Minister: “So I’d say this to the councillors, why not have an open day? Why not open the doors and say to people that you can come in here have a look around and make an assessment for yourself.”

Um, what?  Is the Minister in charge of  reconstruction really suggesting that public should have open access to a building inside the redzone?  This is the redzone that has been controlled by the army that has shut down the cbd for two years for the purpose of public safety.  Is the Minister really suggesting that the public should be doing structural assessments of large and complex buildings?  The Minister has a lot of faith in the public’s structural knowledge, considering this is the same minister who is overseeing a decade long multi billion dollar city rebuild with no public engagement or consultation processes.   The same question could be asked of the CERA and CCDU’s offices, if there is nothing to hide, why not let the public come in and do an assessment of the work they are doing, let them see the sketch plans, business cases, and a detailed account of all the meetings that are happening with no public knowledge.

Minister: ” It’s not a nice prospect, but it is a very badly damaged building” 

There have been extensive engineering reports done on this building, and all support the idea that it is repairable. The Council has already approved the funding for the full retention of the building earlier this year, and is meeting at the end of this month re-consider this.  If the Minister has information the public or the council doesn’t have he should pass it on, if not then he should stop mis-leading people with amateur hour engineering descriptions.

Interviewer: “Can I come back to my initial question, if the full Council ratifies the committees decision to go ahead with the full repair on November 22 at the next meeting will CERA respect that decision, or will they over-ride it?” 

Minister: “Well, in the end, its not part of the CBD plan, its a site that had a question over the top of it, so then what we would need to do is say that the Council has said they can contribute about $800 million to anchor projects over a period of years. Clearly a massive chunk of that money will go on the Town Hall, so soemthing else goes.”

The current estimates for the Town Hall suggest it will cost around $120 million to repair, and that the insurance money will cover around $80 million of that money.   As the $800 million is over several years, so the Town Hall repair could be staged.   $40 million of $800 million is 5% of that total amount. 5% does not seem like massive chunk of that to me.  Remembering that this in the context of a city that is planning a $450 million dollar stadium, that spent $30 million dollars on a temporary sports facility.  $40 million seems pretty reasonable to me if it means the Town Hall is around for another 100 years.

Minister: “So you are unpicking what I think has been a very well put together plan that 106,000 residents of this city put their ideas on.” 

Can we please stop the false and mis-leading suggestion that the public were involved in the creation of the CCDU plan.  They were not.  The public provided a large, visionary and quite vague set of ideas to the Christchurch City Council  around 15 months ago as part of their Share an Idea campaign.  The council plan that emerged from this quick fire participatory process had one draft with public feedback and then was submitted to the Minister for review.  The  minister rejected most of the council plan and created a new task force that had 100 days to draw a new plan.  This 100 days did not involve any participation with the public, the 100 days since the announcement of the plan did not involve any participation with the public.  At a public meeting I asked Don Miskell, now the head designer of the plan, if there was any intention to have consultation processes in the huge multi-billion dollar scheme and replied no.  I asked the same question about whether there would be any international peer review and the same answer was no.   People within CERA understand that there was no consultation. So please stop condescending the public by saying there has been.   The public consultation by the council about the Town Hall is quite the opposite from your version of the story.  The public submissions around the about the the Town Hall were overwhelmingly in favour of the full retention.  This notion that the CCDU plan has any sort of moral authority over this city is delusional. It has legal authority because it is in place because of an act of parliament, but not moral authority.

This case is just one of a series of examples in Christchurch where the structure of governance has become confused to the point where us as members of the public, and as relevant experts in our fields that are relevant to this building, are unable to participate meaninfully in this discussions around it.  The fact that the Minister in  charge of the reconstruction, who has extraordinary powers, is been either misleading, or is ignorant about important information he publicly discussing, is dismaying.  It illustrates quite clearly why this much power should never be hidden so entirely from the public spotlight.


5 Replies to “Minister Brownlee, that’s not right and you know it…”

  1. thanks for discussing this Barney. Sometimes I think only in NZ would people be relaxed enough to rest so much power in a single (in this case rather portly) entity

  2. well said. unfortunately i think you might be a little out with the figures (i reckon you’re about $30M short making it $70M to be found), but certainly the value of the Town Hall, Provincial Chamber and a few others make the figures largely irrelevant and a drop in the ocean in the great scheme of things. B

  3. The 106000 ideas from Share and Idea has now becomes 106000 residents!
    It would be very helpful if the Minister or his legal advisers could clarify the status of the CCRP. My reading of the CER Act is a recovery plan overrides all other plans.

  4. I know I’d much rather have the town hall than some ridiculous white elephant of a convention centre. But then, as you so rightly point out, I, as a mere member of the Christchurch public, don’t get a say.

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