Megan Woods’ task for Christchurch: regenerate the regeneration

As Christchurch approaches the seventh anniversary of the big quake, the challenge confronting the incoming minister is daunting, argues James Dann.

At 2pm on Wednesday, in one of the dusty gravel carparks that plague the centre of Christchurch, Megan Woods, MP for Wigram, and the Greater Christchurch regeneration minister in the new Labour-led government, made her first significant move. Citing a $75m cost blowout, she dunked on the Metro Sports Facility, letting the existing contractor loose. The Metro Sports Facility is one of former minister Gerry Brownie’s cherished anchor projects, the series of big ticket items that were announced with pomp and ceremony in mid-2012. Designed to jump start the rebuild, they have largely failed to materialise. Woods’ decision highlights some of the big issues in this portfolio, and may indicate a change of direction.

The Metro Sports Facility was going to replace the old QEII sports centre, which was built to host the 1974 Commonwealth Games (you know, the one with the great logo). Usually, cities build these big pieces of sporting infrastructure to host a specific event, and then spend the next 20 years trying to figure out how to recoup the money they spent on it. But not Christchurch! No, we were going to spend the money now, and then maybe hope to get some sort of big event at some point in the future. Build it and they will come. This, despite the council already budgeting for it to run at a $4m loss a year when it opened.

But gargantuan, poorly thought out projects with little-to-no business plan was a recurring theme in Brownlee’s Christchurch. We’ve got the stadium, forecast to cost $500m to service “sports-mad” Canterbury, whilst gate tickets to the rugby continue to shrink alarmingly. Then there is the Convention Centre, in which $35m was spent on consultants and consulting and other intangible services that only seem to be necessary when it involves important men grafting off the taxpayer. The whole project is meant to cost almost $500m, and while there is a business plan, we aren’t allowed to see it, as it was written by the people who are going to run the damn thing.

Photograph: James Dann

Ironically, it is the ineptitude of Brownlee and his ministry that leaves Woods and Labour more options than they really should have, three months shy of seven years on from the February quake. The pathetic rate of progress on the biggest of the anchor projects gives room for Woods to scale back some of the excess, if not quietly can some projects entirely. The retail precinct in the CBD has been coming along rapidly this year, and there are some other exciting pockets of activity, such as Little High St and the restored Arts Centre. We’ve got a two-storey high mural of abject Kiwi league coach David Kidwell, for some reason.

Photograph: James Dann

So while the opening of each new building is celebrated, there is also a realisation that progress is too slow. You only have to walk one block east from Colombo St to get to the barren wasteland of Manchester St – six full city blocks without a building, or a plan for one. This is land bought up by the government as part of the Blueprint, and earmarked for residential development, but a start to construction has been delayed so many times I’ve lost count. It’s clear that getting more people back living in the CBD would be the best way for the government to jump-start the central city, so it will be interesting to see whether any of Labour’s flagship KiwiBuild program is deployed here.

Of course, Woods won’t be able to back out of all the anchor projects. Some will already be contracted. There will be blowback from the business community, the developers, the old boys’ network (in Christchurch, often the same people) talking about “stability” and “continuity”. But when we’re spending the thick end of o$1.5bn, you’ve gotta have a better reason than stroking an old white guy’s ego. The regeneration portfolio will be one of this government’s trickiest, and Woods’ performance in the role could have a large effect on determining whether Labour’s poll bounce in Christchurch in 2017 was a blip, or an actual resurgence.

James Dann hosts the breakfast show on RDU and is a former Labour Party candidate for parliament.

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