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Christchurch: A Bureaucratically Buggered City


Hugh Pavletich FDIA
Performance Urban Planning
New Zealand

20 September 2010


The 7.1 magnitude earthquake of 4 September 2010, with in excess of 700 aftershocks, was not unexpected. What is now referred to as the "Darfield Fault" close to the city , was however not known to experts, as explained by John McCone of the local daily newspaper The Press . Mr McCrone provides important information within this article, about the characteristics and behavior of earthquakes.

The most intense shocks were felt in a small residential township Rolleston, 20 kilometres to the south of the city of Christchurch and at the eastern end of the Darfield Fault, as illustrated within the New York Times article - In Earthquakes, Poverty, Population and Motion Matter - NYTimes.com

While New Zealand is known as the “Shaky Isles”, the public understanding of earthquakes is generally poor, which in turn creates excessive public apprehension and stress. This issue needs to be dealt with following the Christchurch event.

Although the event of 4 September was the largest experienced locally, Christchurch has a history of earthquakes, as Canterbury University History Professor Geoffrey Rice explained within a recent The Press article "Quakes not new in Christchurch". More recent earthquakes, such as the June 1994 6.7 magnitude Arthurs Pass earthquake, were not mentioned within Professor Rice’s article.

Indeed - the writer was in his office on the top level of the 7 level heritage listed brick Manchester Courts Building, when the 1994 earthquake struck, sure the building was going to collapse then. It wasn’t the groaning as the building swayed, but the cracking sounds that one found rather disconcerting.

Being in the Manchester Court high level brick building during the 6.7 magnitude earthquake of June 1994, was a more anxious experience, than being safely in a modern low rise residential structure on September 4, 2010, with the 7.1 magnitude event.

Thankfully, the Manchester Court building, which experienced significant damage following the September 2010 event, is to be torn down. Not before time.

If the September 2010 Christchurch earthquake had hit six to twelve hours earlier on the Friday, while businesses were still open with the bars and restaurants full within the old brick buildings, there would likely have been significant loss of life.

This is an issue vocal heritage interests have not bothered to mention since the event.

The power and characteristics of the Christchurch earthquake have certain similarities to the 1995 7.2 magnitude Kobe Japan earthquake (known as the Great Hanshin earthquake), with its population of 1.5 million, where 6,434 people lost their lives. This quake inflicted $US102.5 billion of damage, with serious long term economic consequences for Kobe.

A year earlier, the 1994 Northridge Los Angeles 6.7 magnitude earthquake struck, with seventy two deaths and $US20 billion of damage.

At this early stage, the losses with respect to the September 2010 Christchurch earthquake are expected to be in to order of $NZ4 billion ( $US2.8 billion ). Rather miraculously, there has been no loss of life.


Like Kobe, the local civic administration of Christchurch collapsed, as the 1,200 local authority administrative staff were unable to enter their new $NZ113 million (originally $NZ105 million) redeveloped premises. This building is not likely to be fully reoccupied again until around 20 October. Initial estimates for repairs range from $NZ2.5 to $NZ5 million – described as “superficial” by the Council and co owner Ngai Tahu – and a "glitch" by Paul Holmes, a broadcaster and media friend of Mayor Parker.

Basil Fawlty (of the British sitcom Fawlty Towers) certainly has some competition in New Zealand. The Mayor must also be pleased with his old pals in the main stream media too, “loyally” reporting these Council failings as “superficial glitches”.

This building had originally been constructed during the early 1970’s by New Zealand Post, as the city’s Chief Post Office and multi level mail sorting centre. Being multi level, it was an inefficient mail sorting centre and recognized as obsolete from the day it was built. That was the way Government Departments behaved prior to the reforms of the 1980’s.

The processes followed for the redevelopment of this building to a Civic Centre were deliberately rushed. The decision to proceed was unconventionally and possibly illegally rammed through just prior to the 2007 local authority election. It is a well understood convention within the Westminster system of Government, that major decisions must not be made near or during an election campaign.

The rentals were grossly inflated above market at $NZ435 per square metre, well above the $NZ330 per square metre for the new Inland Revenue Department building. The new Civic building was sold to the public as an A Grade building by the outgoing Mayor Garry Moore. The strength of the building was emphasized, in that it was capable of taking two further floors in the future if required.

Ratepayers expected this building to be “fit for purpose”, bearing in mind the statements by the Council regarding the new buildings structural strength and above market “gold plated” costs and rentals.

Belatedly – it now appears this building was not redeveloped to “essential building” status and indeed may still only be at the seismic standard it was when first built in the 1970’s. That it did not perform to the standards of the recently completed Inland Revenue Department building and the 20 level Price Waterhouse Coopers building completed during the 1980’s, suggests that there was likely minimal (if any) structural upgrading during the Civic Building redevelopment process.

The current Mayor Bob Parker has been unclear on this important issue.

Within a recent The Press article "New civic building gets all clear" it states –

“Parker said the Council had considered upgrading the new civic building to Civil Defense standards, but instead it was built to office building standards.”

1970’s standards? Current standards? And why not essential building standards considering the elevated costs and rentals and use of the building? Why weren’t ratepayers told about this – prior to the decision to proceed being made?

The reality is this high cost and essential (like the Police, Hospitals etc) redeveloped building did not remain functional through the recent event – and should not therefore be considered “fit for purpose”.

It is not acceptable for essential buildings of this nature to fail when they are most needed.

The costs and consequences of the collapse of the Councils administrative capabilities following this event, have yet to be discussed and investigated. As Chris Hutching of New Zealand’s National Business Review noted, the Regional Council (known as Environment Canterbury – Ecan), was not significantly disrupted following this event.

Ecan had its elected representatives dismissed earlier in the year, with Commissioners appointed, as it had also been dysfunctional for years. The previous Government was well aware of this, but failed to act. It saw its primary role as a bureaucratic support service.

The appropriate seismic standards for all classes of buildings are well known. Sound governance and competent management should know that it is important to ensure essential services remain functional through events such as the one experienced on 4 September. Essential buildings should remain functional up to approximately a 9 magnitude earthquake ( bearing in mind no two earthquakes are quite the same).


Professor Andy Buchanan and Associate Professor Greg MacRae of the internationally highly regarded Engineering School of Canterbury University, made these issues clear within a recent article “Christchurch Needs To Prepare Buildings For The 'Big One'”.

Professor Buchanan illustrates the case of Chile, which experienced a major earthquake 1985 Santiago 8.0 magnitude earthquake , with a death toll of 177, destroying 142,000 homes. Upgrading of seismic codes, improved building standards and risk minimization should have happened – but didn’t . Fifteen years later in 2010, Chile experienced an 8.8 magnitude earthquake, causing 510 deaths and massive destruction. The largest ever recorded was the 1960 Valdivia (Great Chilean) 9.5 magnitude earthquake .

The Chileans paid a huge price for the complacency following the 1985 event.

One major lesson from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks , is that it is not a good idea to consolidate operations in one location. If it’s not a good idea for commercial organizations, it is even less than a good idea for public organizations without the usual commercial disciplines – as they soon become “bureaucratic breeding grounds”.


The 1989 reforms, forcing the amalgamation of local authorities in New Zealand have had a major influence. While Christchurch had smaller and manageable Local Authorities, such as Paparua, Waimairi, Heathcote and Christchurch City prior to this (where there was healthy competition), the amalgamation was sold to the public, promising to bring greater efficiencies to local government.

They took the local out of local government.

Indeed the reverse happened – in that it became a “bureaucrats paradise”, where they (with their carefully chosen commercial allies and a largely compliant local media) took control of the city.

The elected representatives have in essence become the promoters of the litany of hair brained schemes generated by bureaucrats, in the latter’s insatiable quest for greater revenues and control. Parkinson's Law on Prozac has been the order of the day. Administrative staff have increased from 1,100 when the new Civic Building was approved in late 2007 to 1,200 plus now. This spreadsheet provides a group breakout of the 1,232 bureacrats of the Civic Offices from the Councils recent disruptive reshuffling announcement.


This explains in large measure, why the Council has “insufficient resources” for its infrastructure responsibilities. Infrastructure is “boring” to bureaucrats, elected representatives and the urban elites. This event highlights the urgent need to have people with sound engineering training, in senior positions managing Local Authorities. Buildings and infrastructure are after all what Local Authorities are all about – or should be all about.

It explains too, why the Council limits land for normal growth on the fringes (to further lessen infrastructure costs) - creating unnecessary housing bubbles and additionally, charges illogical Development Levies (in reality New Home Buyer Levies with subdivision and construction margins) for good measure (never enough revenues to feed the growing bureaucracy).

The Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Surveys of the 272 major urban markets of what is loosely termed the Anglo world, clearly illustrate how households are forced to pay over twice what they should for housing in Christchurch.

The writer explained this as it relates to Christchurch, within a recent article - Houston, we have a (housing affordability) problem | interest.co.nz. Included within this article, is a clear and easily understood structural definition of what an affordable housing market is. Housing should not exceed three times gross annual household incomes – not six times - as it is currently. Some of the solutions were further discussed within a recent New Zealand Herald article - Earthquake highlights need to open city limits - developer.

Little wonder the gross annual median household income for Christchurch is $NZ52,000, while the powerhouse of the New Zealand economy Auckland, is 30% higher at $NZ68,000 (refer Schedules Demographia Survey). In its persistent quest for greater control and revenues, the Christchurch City Council has seriously suppressed normal growth, higher incomes and much improved living standards.


Current Mayor Bob Parker has excelled in his real role of being the “bureaucrats promoter”, with for example, his active support for the forced (against the will of the citizens of Christchurch) amalgamation with Banks Peninsula (which likely costs Christchurch residents $10 - $20 million a year for Banks Peninsula infrastructure upgrades they haven’t been told about); the sham consultation and discredited Urban Development Strategy (which is anything but); the unnecessary $NZ17 million “Hendo deal” (which isn’t and won’t go anywhere – other than chew its head off with holding costs); unwise purchase of the Ellerslie Flower Show and tram extensions to nowhere (comprehensive costs with ongoing losses likely having cost ratepayers in excess of $NZ100 million to date).

The proposed Music Centre boondoogle at the Arts Centre, thankfully, didn’t get out of the starting blocks.

The “icing on the cake” in this litany of horror stories, is the new Civic Building – now referred to as Fawlty Towers – which is clearly “not fit for purpose”.


Mayor Bob Parkers focus following the September 4 earthquake was the CBD. He failed to understand that the priorities in an event such as this should be (a) human life (b) people’s homes and lastly (c) commercial property. He ignored the households in the worst hit liquefied pockets of the poorer north east quadrant of the city – only turning up in low income Bexley once. In contrast, Prime Minister John Key visited these residential and outlying rural areas on numerous occasions. The television cameras were in Bexley at the time.

If the liquefaction occurred in the affluent Fendalton and Merivale, it seems likely the Mayor would have taken a greater interest in residential matters.

Both Parker and the administrative staff have only recently become active – actually doing anything – regrettably negative. With Councilor Sue Wells, he is more interested in stalling necessaruy demolition of damaged privately owned heritage structures and causing unnecessary bureaucratic delays for owners. The Council had belatedly a week or so after the earthquake raised the seismic code for damaged and redeveloped heritage and older buildings to 67% of the building code. The damaged privately owned heritage structures clearly had to go – and the faster the better.

It should have been clear to Parker and Wells, that the last thing the central city needed at this sensitive time, was to further erode commercial confidence. The Council has been degrading it for years, with its romantic elitist schemes. Unfortunately - elementary ”commercial nous” appears to be lacking with these two. They sent out all the wrong signals to the commercial community, no doubt unwittingly speeding up the ongoing flight to the suburbs.

To further weaken confidence in the rebuilding of the Central City, Parker announces the appointment of Ian Athfield (the architect of the new Civic Building) as the “Architectural Ambassador” to the city (the Institute of Architects had announced it on its website a day or two earlier – but hey – why not another photo opportunity). Mr Athfield had been involved earlier with Parker on the failed redevelopment of Magazine Bay Marina, following the (anticipated by most boat owners) destruction in a storm, of the earlier Council floating Marina development ten years ago. The writer has been embroiled in these issues over the years. The Council incompetence has seriously retarded the development of marine recreation and the supporting services industry in Christchurch and Canterbury.

Obviously Mayor Parker has commercial and property development skills this writer (and commercial property developer) hasn’t noticed – yet.


The wise decision (on every count) regarding the Councils accommodation needs, should have been to disperse administrative staff around say six to ten service centres throughout the Christchurch Council local authority area, with better local control by Community Boards stimulating meaningful community participation. A small central office would have been sufficient.


The Key led Coalition Government is fully aware these local Government systemic performance failures must be dealt with. Prime Minister Key (and many other Ministers too) has visited the city often, particularly the hard hit residential and rural areas and communicated the Governments intentions effectively.

The Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Bill 215-1 (2010) was passed in to law last week, where the focus is to speed up the bureaucratic processes, so the recovery process is not impeded unnecessarily.

Thankfully - since the first Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey, initiated and co authored by the writer, was released in early 2005 (this years 6th Annual Edition here), it has precipitated much discussion and policy development work at Central Government level. Major Central Government announcements, led by the Environment Minister Dr Nick Smith are due this month (further comprehensive information available on the writers website Performance Urban Planning).

Competent and decisive action is required – now – if confidence is to be restored.


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