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david meates, a white man in a puffer vest, smiles in the sunshine with a sculpture in the background and a local elections 2022 sign in front of him
Meates is happiest when talking about how he can build relationships (Image: Tina Tiller)

Local Elections 2022September 23, 2022

David Meates wants to help Christchurch write its next chapter

david meates, a white man in a puffer vest, smiles in the sunshine with a sculpture in the background and a local elections 2022 sign in front of him
Meates is happiest when talking about how he can build relationships (Image: Tina Tiller)

The former Canterbury DHB chief executive tells Shanti Mathias what he’d do as mayor to help Ōtautahi flourish. 

“Anytime you hear people promising a lot of short-term stuff, they’re actually misleading you,” says David Meates. The mayoral hopeful is not making many short-term promises – he’s focused on the big picture: housing for everyone, increasing climate resilience, making Christchurch “a really positive, vibrant, future-focused city” that “can tell its own story to itself”.

Meates had a front row seat to the impact of earthquakes, March 15, and Covid – what he calls “the disasters of the last decade” – as chief executive of the Canterbury District Health Board, and says Christchurch is now in a position to flourish. He’s led big institutions through tumult before, and he emphasises this governance experience, saying it applies to council too.

In many ways, Meates and his main rival for the Christchurch mayoralty, Phil Mauger, seem to have some similar rhetoric and policies. Both are trying to appeal to the demographic of older Pākehā homeowners who are the most reliable voters in local elections; both fit squarely within this demographic themselves. 

On a few key points, however, Meates is willing to take a contrasting position. While Mauger has explicitly endorsed and donated to the campaigns of several other candidates running for council to ensure that candidates who align with him will end up on council, Meates is confident that he can build consensus no matter who his fellow councillors are. “Diversity around the [council] table is key to get well thought through outcomes,” he says. “I’ve had to work with people from all sides of the political spectrum … to make decisions in the best interest of our city.” 

He’s less bullish than Mauger on keeping rate increases beneath inflation, too. Balancing the need to fund council services with perceptions of overspending is a “difficult issue,’ he says. “Using rates as the only means of supporting infrastructure is probably not going to be sustainable.”

Listed among Meates’s policy platform is delivering Christchurch’s expensive, controversial new stadium. Is there a way to pay for that without placing a burden on ratepayers? Meates says that it’s far too late in the piece to ask neighbouring Selwyn and Waimakariri councils to contribute; instead, there is “alternative funding” – which means leveraging council assets to take on more debt and not – he insists – privatising. 

The empty lot where the proposed stadium will be built Christchurch (Photo: RNZ, Nate McKinnon)

On another expensive question, what Christchurch Airport does with the land it has purchased in Central Otago to build an enterprise that competes with the lucrative Queenstown Airport, Meates says he “isn’t sure,” especially “if we’re going to be serious about meeting climate targets”. But he does think that big airports are a decision for the South Island and Christchurch to make, not something that should be governed by Wellington. 

Housing intensification is a key issue for Christchurch, with the council last week voting to reject the government’s national standard on urban density. While Meates is not a current councillor, he says that he would have voted to reject it too. “With three waters and the local government reform and now intensification, centrally driven solutions are being imposed on communities, and communities are responding pretty badly to that.” 

Meates is adamant that the intensification laid out in the National Policy Statement on Urban Development is inappropriate for Christchurch. Intensification can’t be “scattergun”, it has to be planned, he says, where developers are given clear regulations. It’s difficult to draw him on specifics about what kinds of buildings, and locations for densifying could work – he says population growth can be placed around “the central city, malls, big roads, public transport – that sort of thing.” 

On other housing policies, however, Meates says “we’ve got to be serious about different housing options”. Here, he is confident and specific. Christchurch needs more affordable housing, he says; he suggests that council-owned land including the current location of the Orangetheory stadium, could be a site for council-built houses that would be sold to first time-buyers or vulnerable communities. The cost of land would be regulated by a trust ownership; if the houses were sold, they would have to be sold back to the trust, with capital gains pegged to inflation, and profit returning to the trust. 

Huanui Lane in central Christchurch. Cycle infrastructure is an important issue in the Christchurch election. (Photos: Christchurch City Council, Oliver Lewis)

Meates is assured, too, that increasing cycleways and bus services will be good for Christchurch, and is open to developing light rail. While some of this infrastructure will be Environment Canterbury’s responsibility, he says that transport in Christchurch isn’t “integrated”. “We need a mixed element of transport that is easy to get around and makes sense… at the moment we’ve got bits and pieces of a jigsaw that don’t fit together.” Meates says that Christchurch needs to become a 15 minute city

A core piece of Meates’s policy platform is making Christchurch a “climate leader”; he thinks it could be New Zealand’s first carbon neutral city. Key to this will be an independent climate group, charged with holding the council accountable for delivering on climate change commitments. “The council doesn’t need any more strategies for climate change. It just needs to start doing them.” While Christchurch City Council declared a climate emergency in 2019, Meates says that some decisions aren’t being made with a “climate lens” over them.  

Building the new stadium, for instance; Meates has committed to deliver this if he’s elected but he’s aware that using the better part of a billion dollars on a single piece of infrastructure may have some pitfalls. “We’ve got to be really careful that we do not deprioritise a whole lot of other choices and decisions across the city and the region simply to fund a stadium.” Climate change never really feels urgent, even if the council calls it an emergency – Meates recognises the temptation to keep pushing hard climate decisions out. 

Like Mauger, Meates is convinced that something has gone very wrong in the relationship between communities and council; with Christchurch satisfaction with council levels at an all time low he is probably right. And like Mauger, he says that consulting with the community will be crucial to repairing relationships. Unlike Mauger, however, he points not to a history of (literal) bulldozing and construction work, but the disaster resilience and stakeholder relationships he built as leader of the DHB. I ask him how the council can change its engagement processes to increase community buy-in. 

david meates in a suit in an office with a poster on the wall and paper on the table
Meates in his previous role as DHB boss. (Photo: RNZ/Karen Brown)

“Participatory budgeting [through] community boards can give people who know the issues and the priorities for what needs to be spent on that area,” he says. He wants to pilot different kinds of engagement with the council before making big changes to the submissions process. Supporting young people will be important too; Meates thinks that the voting age should be lowered to 16 and that postal voting is a barrier too. 

In our conversation, as well as at candidate forums, Meates, who says that his leadership style is “working collaboratively to get to decisions” seems happiest when he’s talking about building relationships with others – whether it’s with Christchurch voters, other councillors, or Environment Canterbury and the central government. Twelve years leading the DHB, he says, has prepared him for Christchurch City Council, where “some relationships are pretty tense, or fractured … we need to be working collaboratively.”

Our interview is nearly over – Meates has more campaigning to do. He doesn’t have a plan B for what he’ll do if not elected, but given that he promptly found a health policy job in the UK after leaving the DHB, it’s safe to say that he has options if he can’t overcome the polls that point to a Mauger win. He looks out the window at workers eating lunch by the Ōtakaro awa, a little wry. “I made a choice to stand for mayor, and we’ll see how it plays out.”

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