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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Candour refreshing

Candour refreshing

Last updated 05:00 21/02/2011
OPINION: The key moment at Saturday's earthquake summit came nearly four hours in. In an unscripted, electrifying moment, Christchurch City Council's head of infrastructure rebuilding, Rod Cameron, gave the audience of about 200 what they had wanted all along – some straight answers.

Cameron explained that the plans for the new underground river walls, which would protect the worst-affected suburbs from another major quake, were still only concepts. He and his staff and contractors had only determined in the past week that there were simply not enough pipelayers in the country to do the job, and training them or recruiting from overseas would have to start immediately. There were not enough rigs either, and they would have to be brought in.

But Cameron said he would put his neck out and say he thought work on damaged land would start at the end of winter, and the whole project would take 18 months.

As all speakers at the summit explained, Canterbury's quake has created an unprecedented task, in the number of claims, the complexity of the rebuild because of the land damage, and the impact on all services. It has led to great caution from those in authority, fearful they will be blamed if pronounced timelines cannot be met.

But, as the community's representatives explained time and time again on Saturday, those most affected appreciate the magnitude of the task. However, they also need to understand what the rebuild plan is, no matter how unclear it might be at this point.

The summit highlighted a changing dynamic. The council's chief executive was playing it by the rules – plans are formulated, presented to council and then announced to the community. Cameron wasn't defying his boss; he just felt compelled to explain what he knew. And when the head of the Earthquake Recovery Commission, Murray Sherwin, lamented how difficult it was to research the demand for emergency accommodation assistance because those who had to leave their homes had "disappeared" into the community, he was rightly chided by a community board member – "If you spoke to us, we could tell you; we know where these people are now, because they are part of our community".

The one flaw of Saturday's summit was that it was set up to be a one-way conversation, from those making decisions to the community's elected representatives. The latter want a two-way flow of information.

But, whatever the flaws might have been, it was an extraordinary event. When have the region's representatives, from Cabinet ministers and local MPs through to Environment Canterbury commissioners, councillors and community board members, business leaders and people from other sectors previously met to discuss the area's future? Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker must be applauded for the initiative. However, such conferences should become a regular event while the rebuild continues, if not monthly then at least every quarter.

Imagine, too, if such gatherings were to become a standard part of Canterbury's community; that every six months there was a summit at which community organisations – from councils to the health board, police and churches – presented their key projects, issues and hopes. Out of the earthquake would come a positive development in the way this community informs and governs itself.

- The Press

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