Cranford Basin (Photo: Simon Britten/The Spinoff)

The Christchurch regeneration project that is slowly sinking

The former wetland of Cranford Basin was all set to create 400 new properties as part of an exciting, and much needed, regeneration plan in Christchurch. Three years on, the land remains empty. What went wrong?

Picture this: it’s the year 2020. In the north of Christchurch, the first of over 400 sections are being developed in the formerly rural Cranford Basin. Houses will meet exemplar standards for access and efficiency, and there’ll be innovation and diversity in neighbourhood layout and building design. A shopping centre and frequent public transport are within walking distance, and residents easily access cycleways and major roads.

Wholly inside the city boundary, the sections are nestled amongst a naturalised waterway network. Pre-existing specimen trees have been retained, and there is an open and attractive interface to the adjacent natural floodplain. The area is well connected to established residential areas, and ecological, historical and tangata whenua values are reflected in the design.

Sounds good? That’s the vision of the Cranford Regeneration plan, approved in 2017 by Gerry Brownlee. Development of the plan involved mana whenua, multiple central and local government entities, a public consultation process and the exercising of a special planning process under post-earthquake legislation.

The plan was expected to enable a “focused and expedited” regeneration process, with subdivision under way by 2020. Three years later, however, there has been no visible action. A small herd of sheep grazes on land that is otherwise empty of activity.

Is development going to commence any time soon? Why is a plan that promised so much yet to deliver results?

Cranford Basin was a wetland, part of a wider network of springs, waterways and swamps in the Christchurch area. Post-colonisation, the land was drained for flood mitigation and horticulture. Prior to the regeneration plan taking effect, the land had a rural zoning, but the Christchurch City Council’s assessment was that rural activities were not economically viable, with owners describing it as “impossible to farm” and “virtually useless for anything” other than housing.

Talk of residential rezoning for the area dates back to the 1990s, but there was no progress prior to the 2010-2011 Christchurch earthquakes. Following the earthquakes, the government passed the Greater Christchurch Regeneration Act (GCR Act), which has purposes including “improving, subdividing or converting land” as part of the city’s recovery.

The Cranford Regeneration plan was the first such plan prepared by the council under the GCR Act. Following consultation, the plan was approved by the council and submitted to Regenerate Christchurch (a council/crown entity established to lead post-earthquake regeneration), which subsequently recommended it be approved by government. The plan was gazetted and took effect at the end of August 2017.

At the time of council approval of the plan, two issues were noted as being unresolved: Regenerate Christchurch concerns that implementation would not be sufficiently expedited, and mana whenua concerns over stormwater discharges.

The main block of land proposed for housing has nine landowners, who will need to collaborate to bring the development to fruition and will likely benefit unevenly from doing so – two stormwater ponds are planned for one owner’s land, resulting in it yielding a fraction of the saleable sections it otherwise would.

Regenerate Christchurch asked for a mechanism that would cancel or defer the rezoning if development progress failed to meet a deadline. This wasn’t included in the plan, but the council did commit to working with the multiple landowners “to ensure development is progressed expeditiously”, including pursuing memoranda of understanding (MoU) obliging developers to deliver some housing by the end of 2020.

The Ngāi Tahu rūnanga raised concerns with the plan, including the downstream impacts of stormwater discharges from residential development on the site. Stormwater from the Cranford Basin makes its way into Horseshoe Lake – an area of particular significance to the rūnunga.

The plan was approved by the council and the minister without this being resolved, but it does require flood attenuation and “first flush” stormwater treatment within the development site. In the plan the council also commits to work towards moving the stormwater discharge away from Horseshoe Lake.

There are signs that Ngāi Tahu’s concerns will be addressed, with the head of “three waters and waste”, Helen Beaumont, advising that the council is tendering for preliminary design of a stormwater wetland treatment project for water that would otherwise directly enter Horseshoe Lake. Despite this, the requirement for on-site treatment within the Cranford Regeneration area looks set to remain in place.

To date the council has not reached agreement with the nine owners of the main block of land. An MoU has been signed with the two owners of a smaller block, allowing for consents to be issued for a minimum of 40 housing sections by the end of 2020, but by September 2020 no consent applications had been lodged.

In 2019 a number of Cranford Basin landowners approached the council, highlighting the challenge of multiple owners needing to commit without certainty of others doing the same. Could the council fund some of the investigation and infrastructure costs in order to get development under way, and then subsequently recover this through development contributions or other mechanisms?

Later in the year, a council meeting considered options. A motion to support council provision of infrastructure was lost, and the council resolved to maintain the status quo, albeit with a request for staff to do further work with landowners on a way forward.

Citing Covid-19 disruption, the council advises there is no further news on this.

Has it all gone wrong? Should the council and government have foreseen the challenges of fragmented ownership, and either not put this plan forward or taken a different approach?

The council points out that the plan does provide for the land to be used for housing, and that even though “significant progress has not been made”, at least the conditions exist for development should the landowners find a way forward. Had the plan not been created, rural zoning would remain in place.

When will housing development happen? While land ownership remains fragmented, it’s hard to envisage the sheep will be making room for houses any time soon.



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