Public transport in Canterbury not well served by political parochialism in Christchurch

In my last post I wrote about the NZTA cycling and walking survey and concerns that it showed a much lower level of engagement with bus services in Canterbury than either of Auckland or Wellington. There are a myriad of possible reasons why public transport uptake is lower in Canterbury and I will attempt to explore these below. The main reason is a long-running (around 120 years) political dispute between Christchurch City Council and a succession of regional public transport bodies over who runs the network in Christchurch City. A lesser reason is the effect of the quakes on PT service demand and another reason is the post-EQ reorganisation of the network. All of these issues need solutions that are currently lacking in the operation of PT by Ecan which under a council that is only partly elected, has become “business as usual”.

Historically, public transport around the country has been organised on a regional basis with a local, elected body which organises the network. In Christchurch the role was originally held by the Christchurch Tramway Board, which became the Christchurch Transport Board. This body was completely independent with its own elected members and operational structure, and was never under the control of any other local authority. With the reorganisation of local government in 1989, CTB’s functions were taken over by the new Canterbury Regional Council (trading as Environment Canterbury, or Ecan). Several years later the newly elected National government deregulated public transport and forced regional PT operators to contract out their bus operations. This resulted in the buses being sold to Christchurch City Council as Redbus Ltd, a situation that is essentially the same today.

Ever since the very early days of tram operations CCC has wanted to operate the PT network itself, and there has been even in the time I have lived in Christchurch, endless whining and griping from CCC against the regional council, which clearly CCC thinks they should be running. The latest regional flashpoint is over the allocation of artesian water supplies. CCC politicians have been vehemently opposing Ecan’s management of the water resource as contrary to the interests of the city. Apparently the city is the centre of the known universe and no one else out there exists in any shape or form. However Ecan is responsible for a very large percentage of the South Island as the Canterbury region covers from Wharanui in the north to somewhere south of the Waitaki River these days, and Christchurch City only occupies a small portion of that territory. Much of the productive land is used for farming, and there has been no end of whining against dairy development and its irrigation demands. However these farms are large economic activities that contribute significantly to regional and national economies. The amount of hysteria over a water bottling plant in Belfast has been shocking but it is yet another example of CCC politicians bullying the regional council and, by implication, their smaller rural counterparts.

So what is to be done? Well the move back to a fully elected regional council is a step in the right direction but they also need strong leadership to stand up to CCC. The last elected leader I can remember doing this was Sir Kerry Burke, a former Labour MP, and the last time a Commissioner was effective was when Dame Margaret Bazley called out the council as incompetent liars over the failure to install superstops at Northland and a bus lounge at Riccarton for the “new network” that was introduced in 2012. We need strong leadership at Ecan to ensure the PT needs of the region are properly promoted because CCC is indifferent to anything to do with a PT network they do not operate. The Joint Public Transport Committee has been constructive in developing the new Regional Public Transport Plan but has also been hijacked as a soapbox for the latest CCC mayoral campaign against Ecan’s operation of the network. This is getting quite tedious especially now it is clear that the Government has rejected yet another approach. Another possible initiative for trains to Rangiora and Rolleston will not happen unless Ecan takes up the cause strongly which they have not done so far and this needs to be addressed in the upcoming elections.