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Monday, April 25, 2011

Over the top?

Over the top?

Last updated 15:28 26/04/2011
 
Gerry Brownlee's ears must be burning. So too, Bob Parker's and Tony Marryatt's.

At a conference on international best practice approaches to earthquake recovery, Christchurch is being held up as an incipient bureaucratic, spin-doctored disaster. Think fabled cock-ups like New Orlean's Hurricane Katrina, the critics are saying.

A week ago, the Government pushed through its bill to form an emergency government department, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera).

All powerful, overseen by Earthquake Recovery Minister Brownlee and already tainted with farce in its attempts to find a willing chief executive from within the ranks of the civil service, Cera will effectively run greater Christchurch for the next five years.

"It is necessary to put in place stronger governance and leadership arrangements for the rebuilding and recovery of greater Christchurch from the cumulative effects of the 4 September and 22 February earthquakes," Brownlee said on the bill's passing.

But on Monday, at a Lincoln University seminar on "Resilient Futures", both academics and local politicians were calling Cera an alarmingly back-to-front approach to the recovery.

Labour Christchurch East MP Lianne Dalziel said putting a government department in charge was continuing the militaristic, command and control model established in the emergency Civil Defence phase - the "we'll tell you how its going to work" approach.

"But recovery is the complete opposite. Recovery is bottom up," Dalziel said.

Massey University disaster researcher Professor Bruce Glavovic, holder of the Earthquake Commission (EQC) chair in natural hazards planning, with rather more caution, agreed.

Glavovic said there is abundant international evidence on how to do recovery. And with Cera, New Zealand is inventing its own recipe. "It's untried, untested." As perhaps the country's top expert, hadn't the Government asked Glavovic what it should do? Bemused, Glavovic says certainly no-one sought his opinion. Or anyone else's that he knows.

Glavovic says the Government even threw out the Civil Defence's own emergency management (CDEM) template at an early stage. So what is going on seems a real mystery.

The way to run a recovery seems pretty clear, according to a succession of experts, including San Francisco consultant Laurie Johnson, a veteran of numerous rebuildings from Chile to China, and Gavin Smith, chief of the US Centre for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters.

Recovery is about the people. It has to spring from the ground up, says Johnson. Glavovic says it is about democracy in action. Instead of imposing an agency and tasking bureaucrats to design the recovery process, the people should be creating the plan and then the Government coming in behind it with the means to make it happen, he says.

In a number of famous disasters, governments have been slow to realise this. The recovery after Japan's 1995 Kobe earthquake was initially technocrat-led, until public unhappiness led to a system of more than 100 neighbourhood councils, a grassroots process known as machizukuri.

Glavovic says the recovery from 2005's Hurricane Katrina likewise became a mess, mired in mayoral politics, until eventually a consultative process, breaking down the city into 13 districts to gather local views, led to a "people's plan".

Johnson says it is only natural the first instinct of politicians is to be seen to get things done. "But planning for recovery needs time." She says authorities must resist the temptation to fast-track every decision, to interfere over every choice. That top-down mentality is only appropriate while a crisis is still occurring and life is at risk.

The recovery is different - the feminine phase after the masculine, as Glavovic puts it. Johnson says during the recovery, information and conversations become just as important as cash to the outcome. "Both have to flow." The community has to be intimately involved in the detail of the decisions being made in its name, she says.

Speaking up for officials, Christchurch deputy mayor Ngaire Button told the conference there will be consultation. For example, says Button, the public will be invited over a weekend in May to Addington's CBS arena for a session of information seminars and idea sharing.

Button says Christchurch City Council already has a stack of existing consultative documents from the Urban Development Strategy to Project Central City.

But Dalziel replied this was a business-as-usual mentality when the "old normal" is now history and recovery must start from a new consensus.

Dalziel points out that Cera's design allows for only the most minimal input - a community panel of some 20 appointees to represent the views and local knowledge of a third of a millon people. A bottleneck almost designed to choke any real diversity of opinion.

"The minister just doesn't get earthquake recovery," Dalziel says of Brownlee. She says the hierarchy is upside down. Instead there should be something like a people's parliament, an urban villages approach, where a view is formed neighbourhood by neighbourhood, she says.

Conference organiser Lincoln University urban studies lecturer Suzanne Vallance agrees. The Government has had the public on the backfoot, she says, with decisions being made in the name of urgency, and afterwards people being told how it it has to be.

From the applause greeting the sharper remarks, it is clear the Resilient Futures meeting is itself emerging as a political event.

The audience is packed with familiar community faces as well as disaster planning academics. There are many community board members present, including Student Army leader Sam Johnson, as well as representatives of the new activist groups, like Phil Driver and Timothy Weir from the Canterbury Community Earthquake Recovery Network (CanCERN).

Canterbury's politics have, of course, been in a fragile state ever since the Government's rolling of Environment Canterbury's (ECan) elected councillors over irrigation issues last year.

And many had been saying the recovery from the first September earthquake was already being bungled. The Government may have been generous with its money, underwriting Canterbury's rebuilding, however its first go at an earthquake authority, the short-lived Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Commission (Cerc), lacked any real capacity for action.

Now with Cera, say the critics, it is bringing down a faceless, Wellington- designed, bureaucratic machine. Even Christchurch City Council has been humiliatingly sidelined, the reporting lines spelling out who is really in charge from here on.

Providing even more ammunition for Cera's doubters, the conference turned a spotlight on what Glavovic calls a shining "11 out of ten" example of how to do community-led recovery - an example found right next door to Christchurch in Waimakariri District Council.

Sandra James, manager of the Kaiapoi earthquake recovery assistance centre, was invited to explain the organisation created after September 4.

James says the first thing to be scrapped was any idea of business as usual. Council officers were seconded from Rangiora to set up a hub office in Kaiapoi, right in the heart of the community.

The EQC, Fletchers, social agencies, insurance firms and anyone else involved in the recovery process were also persuaded to move into the hub so residents could drop in and find out directly what was going on. And just as importantly, the authorities could know immediately what was happening on the ground, she says.

James says the social recovery - the soft infrastructure - is being seen to be as crucial as the physical recovery. She quotes the council's chief executive Jim Palmer as saying the district council will in the end not be measured by the kilometres of pipes and roads it repairs, "but how people come out of this".

Dalziel says there could not be a more stark contrast between what is happening over in Pines Beach on the Waimak side of the Waimakariri River and Brooklands on the Christchurch City side - part of her constituency. "In Brooklands, they're still going nowhere."

A book will undoubtedly be written about Canterbury's earthquake politics one day. The map of the city's power structures is being remade as much as that of the city itself.

So how did a city come to be run almost entirely as a branch of central government? Speaking bluntly, Dalziel says a big part of the problem is that Christchurch City Council - unlike Waimakariri District Council - never stepped up to the plate in the first place.

After the September quake, the council was content with fixing the pipes and roads, but trusting it to someone else, possibly the EQC or Cerc, to drive the recovery as a whole.

Dalziel says there was a lack of leadership on the part of Mayor Bob Parker and his chief executive Tony Marryatt. Christchurch had already become known as a large, inward- looking and bureaucratic council. In a crisis, it proved unable to change its spots.

Dalziel says her views are not exactly news. She has said it often enough in speeches and even tabled her correspondence with Parker and Marryatt in Parliament. And because of this, she agrees the Government was forced to step in following February 22. However, now the Government has come in with an even more bureaucratic and top-down organisation.

Dalziel says the Government claims it is following best international practice in setting up Cera. Cabinet papers cite the centralised authorities set up in the wake of Darwin's Cyclone Tracy, New Orlean's Hurricane Katrina, Victoria's Black Sunday bushfires and this year's Queensland floods as precedents.

Yet she says those were all independent crown agencies, not government departments. A world of difference. A corporate model led by strong chief executives, whereas Cera is going to be an offshoot of Wellington's civil service and behave like it.

Some at the conference believe Cera is a blatant election year move, a way of keeping tight control on potential public dissent. Every decision will have to cross a desk in the Beehive where campaign spin doctors will second-guess how it plays in the headlines.

"We will see Band-Aid moves, like fixing roads, or whatever it takes to keep people quiet, rather than having a real recovery plan," says one disgruntled speaker during a coffee break.

Others like Glavovic feel Cera may be simply an honest reflection of what seems important from the distance of Wellington.

The world economy is still in a precarious state and New Zealand needs to maintain international confidence. It seems a natural priority to fast-track a region so it is back up for business. And with the Government sinking so many billions into the recovery, Treasury will be nagging for close accountability of the spending. "The recovery process risks becoming a grant management process," Glavovic says. As has happened elsewhere, the obsession becomes about the dollars delivered rather than the quality of the outcomes.

But whatever the story, Cera is now what Christchurch has got, says Dalziel. It is a fait accompli and everyone's job is to make the best of it. "There is no alternative," she says.

Conference attendees like CanCERN's Driver, who runs a public policy consultancy OpenStrategies, believe there is still scope to turn things around.

Driver says there is a potential coalition now emerging between groups like CanCERN, the community boards, the district health boards, the student army and other energetic bodies.

"If we can assemble a credible voice of the community then perhaps the community participation part of the recovery process can be outsourced to us," says Driver hopefully. Something rather more palatable than Cera's 20-person community engagement panel could be created.

Yet time is short, he says. The public are being kept on the backfoot because big decisions like Cera are being dropped on the city with little notice or consultation, locking in choices before there can be any real reaction.

The very situation a top-heavy recovery body like Cera is expected to perpetuate for the next five years, Driver says. Get used to it, perhaps.

- The Press

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