Christchurch At The Transport Crossroads In 2020 [2]

Well this part 2 has taken a long time to appear, but these days we want to be more considered in blogging and spending the time to think things through properly rather than rushing out a lot of lower quality posts or ones that repeat stuff already made. Unfortunately the key problem that is affecting all transport projects around the country is a lack of commitment from the government, which is rapidly giving even its most ardent supporters the impression that they are largely a populist personality cult focused around the Prime Minister and have almost no ideological backbone. In the recent announcements all they have really done is fund projects that were either lobbied for by NZ First and included in the coalition agreement, or that were developed by the previous government.

That said, the main object of this part 2 is to continue discussing what are the key reasons we are not seeing progress in developing commuter rail in Christchurch, apart from the lack of government focus, which is a pretty big part of it. Simply put, territorial local authorities have a very weak corrupt political obeisance to the rich and powerful, whilst this is also seen at central government level it tends to be a lot more open there with more checks and balances. In fact we think it is probably a good rule of thumb that the smaller and more local a unit of government is, the more likely it is to be captured by personal interests of the people living in it and the less likely it is to care about being a part of a larger territory and the overall interests of that territory. This goes a long way to explaining why local government authorities frequently fails to take into consideration a big picture of the role they have to play in a larger urban region. They seek to maintain their own small scale political interests and ignore everything else.

In the case of Christchurch City, much of the current debate about the nature of the city focusing on the idea that the central city (the Four Avenues as it is called) is more important than anywhere else within the territorial limits of the whole city and that this area should get more of the resources especially ratepayer funding than the outer suburbs. At the time of writing this there has been much opinion commentary in “The Press” newspaper by a well known radio host and National Party member on a supposed revolt around the Council table by five councillors who are campaigning for rates spending to be reduced. The problem for the said commentator is that if we dig deeper into what is being said, it leads to a default assertion that there are in fact some projects that are not libraries or art galleries or swimming pools that should actually get lots of money from the council and these are straight commercial projects within the central city area, or large pieces of infrastructure that create business opportunities for hotel owners and the like. The key issue underlying this is that there are some wealthy developers and landowners in the central city who are sitting on expensive high value property and that the rest of the city is “morally” obliged to agree to fund, through their rates payments, what is a property owners’ cartel that keeps land prices much higher there than anywhere else in the city.

What flows out from this is that the current Mayor that we have, as with most of our mayors, being based in the central city, is captured by these interests and has focused on pushing the central-is-better viewpoint in a big way. When we see that in 2014 Ecan did this rail study which showed that rail should have been developed, and then the next year the Mayor demands the right to meddle in public transport for the entire region through forming the Joint Public Transport Committee. Then the next stage is to develop a new public transport plan that focuses mainly on Christchurch and from the Mayor’s perspective, on the Christchurch central city area with a whole lot of new routes that go through the CBD. The ideas that anyone can live in other parts of the region (Selwyn / Waimakariri) and travel to an outer suburb or that these areas can offer facilities to people living there or in outer suburbs that compete with what is in the central city, are obviously a great threat to the financial and political hegemony of the small group of super wealthy elite who control the centre of Christchurch.

At the moment the JPTC is said to have rejected rail as a possible solution for Christchurch – this has been stated by other commentators such as Talking Transport but we haven’t been able to find out as yet exactly where this was explicitly stated. However the JPTC has a funding study at work with NZTA to get some proposals investigated – as far as we know, these are for ideas like bus rapid transit or light rail, not for heavy rail. We are intending to get stuck into a lot of process behind the current direction being taken by the Joint Public Transport Committee and the plans and consultations and other processes they have been working with. However this depends a great deal on what can be achieved locally working with other transport activists in Greater Christchurch. As we signalled in the first post for this year the bigger direction we hope to achieve this year is to see greater collaboration with other groups or persons to get progress. Can’t give any guarantees of how that might play out during the year so that question will be left open for the present but we hope that saying “watch this space” will prove to be fruitful.

Christchurch At The Transport Crossroads In 2020 [1]

Whilst we may not be planning to blog as much this year, there are still things that need to be said from time to time. We have spent a few weeks thinking about this post, and just feel it is important to write it. It is partially a different way of writing about some of the issues we were going to put into a different planned article series in late December (which has been dropped due to our change in focus for this year).

Christchurch is a really badly planned city for public transport, and nothing much is going to change as long as the Government passes the buck on it. Whilst Labour did make an election promise for $100 million to establish a commuter service from Rolleston, like other Labour public transport initiatives around the country, this has fallen flat due to general political incompetence. Largely, this is due to the slavish political obeisance of the Minister of Transport to Christchurch City Council politicians. The way the power structures work in the City, these politicians have absolutely nothing to gain from any type of transport system that is not road-based. The Minister has spent far too much time listening to the lobbying of the Christchurch Mayor and not enough on actually understanding all of the issues at stake and the benefits that come from designing a public transport system that works across the whole Greater Christchurch area. It comes about because even though both central and local governance in Christchurch City is nominally Labour affiliated, the city council politicians only follow this in word and not in deed. The ideological focus of the “People’s Choice” political bandwagon in local Christchurch governance is, in practice, nearly indistinguishable from Independent Citizens or other National-affiliated right wing groupings.

So the only actual action on public transport reform we have seen from central government is to pass a law allowing the transfer of management of public transport systems between regional and territorial councils. This issue is largely irrelevant to the way these systems operate, and is unlikely to produce any real improvement in the way public transport systems are operated in Greater Christchurch at present. In fact, it is likely to work against improved systems of public transport being introduced in future, and we believe in fact this is a political calculation by the powers that be. We also note that the Mayor of Christchurch has been one of the chief cheerleaders for this legislative initiative, but we wouldn’t be prepared to put money on her being able to serve her full term at present due to questions being asked about her electoral finance returns at the last two elections. To put it another way, we have to ask what pressing issue the Mayor is trying to solve by campaigning to take over the operation of our bus services. We think it is becoming increasingly clear that it is essentially a political power game being played by Christchurch City against the regional council and territorial authorities further out, and is actually against the public interest.

So what are the political calculations involved? Firstly, let us conclude this first instalment of this two-part article by looking at how a local politician’s mind works when their territory is part of a larger urban area that is governed by multiple councils. This fact in places like Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch has been addressed to a large extent by the local government reforms of 1989, which created regional councils to govern public transport systems over multi-territory metropolitan areas. In Auckland, of course, there has since been the further amalgamation of local areas to form the Auckland Council. Prior to that, in the early 2000s the Auckland Regional Transport Authority (ARTA) was created to separate public transport management from the other roles of Auckland Regional Council (ARC). Auckland Transport is the successor of ARTA but with increased powers and responsibilities, for example management of Auckland roads. In Wellington, some smaller councils were amalgamated into the larger territories of Kapiti, Lower Hutt, Upper Hutt, Porirua and Wellington City, but there is no present political impetus for a “Wellington Council” type of amalgamation. Wellington, however, did have bus services operated by Wellington City Transport (WCT) which was controlled by Wellington City Council. Christchurch, since the inception of public transport well over 100 years ago, has always had these services regionally managed; CCC has never been in control of them. This function was originally performed by the Christchurch Transport Board (CTB) (Christchurch Tramway Board in earlier years) and their function was handed over to Ecan (Canterbury Regional Council) in 1989.

Prior to the various local government reforms that have occurred, public transport was in some areas regionally managed from an early stage (Christchurch was the first area out of the three mentioned above to have this type of organisation) and in Auckland this system was introduced in the 1960s. In both Auckland and Wellington, the all important commuter passenger services were always managed in a regional fashion, firstly through the district offices of NZ Railways and latterly through the respective regional councils. This however has never been popular with the mayors of the largest territories. In such a politician’s small mind, they are seeking to maximise their political power by concentrating as much of the population of the larger metropolitan area as possible within their territory. They also want to make it more difficult for people to live outside their territory and commute to work within it. Therefore it is in a local politician’s interest to have control over all of the transport systems in their area. A regional transport system such as commuter trains that makes it easy for people to live north and south of Christchurch and commute quickly and rapidly into the city to work has long been despised by Christchurch mayors because these residents are not paying rates into the City coffers. These simple political facts go a long way to explaining part of the reason why Christchurch City Council does not have any interest in furthering the development of commuter rail services in the region. We will look into another key part of that reason in our second article.

Local Government Amendment Bill pushing another political agenda

A Bill called the Local Government Amendment Bill No.2 has just been reported back from a select committee to Parliament. This Bill is of significance because it proposes to make it easier for local authorities to reorganise themselves by attacking each other and taking over services that the other provides.

Let’s have a look at the pros and cons of local government structure as it now appears. We have territorial councils that run a city or town and we have regional councils that govern entire regions and have regional responsibilities assigned to them. Before 1989 the regional councils did not exist, but there were a range of regional governance arrangements in place; for example there was Auckland Regional Authority, and closer to home there was Canterbury United Council. When local government was majorly reorganised nationwide the regionalisation arrangements became the norm across all areas, so that ARA became Auckland Regional Council, whilst CUC was essentially superseded by the Canterbury Regional Council. Many territorial councils were amalgamated together into larger bodies. This was done in a very piecemeal way rather than following common sense in a lot of cases, and this resulted in some unitary councils in places like Gisborne and Nelson-Malrborough for no good reason, and in some areas very small territorial councils like South Wairarapa District Council (total population 10,000), Kaikoura District Council (total population 3830), and three councils for the West Coast with an average around 10,000 in each of their districts.

So other words what is the point of having such small territorial councils and the reason is purely political. And what is the point of having unitary authorities and again it is political. When we see that there are clear benefits in the way regional councils and territorial councils are organised with clear responsibilities then the fact there are unitary authorities in some areas means that the regional and territorial functions are combined which creates a clear conflict of interest. This results in the regional function being minimised in most cases in those areas. To be able to look at the issue in this way we have to be able to understand that territorial forms of government are relatively weak and therefore prone to corruption and self interest. This weakness both comes from and contributes to a low standard of candidates for territorial council offices. Local governance is weak and corrupt because the wards that elect councillors are small and are therefore dominated by very local issues. The most local interest that any voter can have revolves around the house they live in. From there things scale up into their neighbourhood and its character. For political blocs to take control of a council they have to campaign across all the wards regardless of their character and therefore in most cases have to campaign on populist parochial platforms that will make the areas they represent more desirable, which usually involves spending lots of ratepayers’ funds. These platforms are in turn captured by interest groups that have the most time and money to spend on lobbying, generally the more prosperous areas in a city or town.

Both major political blocs recognise there are objectives that they can achieve through local government. National generally favours keeping councils locally focused taking as many responsibilities from them as possible or placing them under heavy government regulation. Examples: changing the Resource Management Act multiple times to push through development without public consultation,; mandating interference from NZTA in public transport tendering; forcing councils to sell their shareholdings in electricity retailing and public transport operations; mandating council corporatisation of commercial holdings, etc. National also supports councils becoming unitary so that a layer of bureaucracy is eliminated. Labour on the other hand supports councils that are involved in more things with more deveolved powers from central government, less regulation, more public consultation powers, more assets owned by central government etc. The problem is that both of these differing objectives fail to make local government more equitable. The populist character of local government campaigning and representation is not being addressed. This means that less populist causes such as core council functions and better services in areas such as water and public transport are not well served by local government.

National brought this Bill together to provide for new CCOs that would be owned by multiple Councils and organise infrastructure and services such as water and transport services into such organisations. Reorganisations would have to be under the supervision of an increased Local Government Commission with more members and powers than before. Labour has gutted key sections of the Bill, most notably the additional powers and duties assigned to the Local Government Commission and the sections changing the functions of CCOs. probably because the National Party model of a CCO would look more like the ones in Auckland, which follow a more corporate model of organisation that has less direct accountability to elected governance. Since the effect of National’s proposals was to regionalise local government more and the Labour proposals are to territorialise it more, the outcomes of changing this will be more negative for functions that are currently regionalised in local governance. This has come about because the Labour mayors of large cities which do not control functions such as public transport have been lobbying for decades to take over control of these functions regardless of the merit of any such proposals, which in most cases is non existent.

The problem with this Bill that Labour is pushing through (to serve their own political interests) is that the local government weakness is going to become more empowered by this law. A territorial council can instigate a reorganisation proposal out of naked self interest, usually from a political bloc who will claim they can do something better than another group of politicians. An example in Christchurch is the campaign by CCC to take over running local bus services from Ecan. There is no substantive basis for this claim except for naked self interest and political greed from CCC politicians, namely the Labour-Peoples Choice bloc. The much wider agenda is making it easier for territorial councils to seize power from their regional counterparts in every area possible. This means that CCC could also campaign to take over the responsibility for air quality, another area where they have proven particularly ineffective in the past to regulate due to a well funded vocal lobby of heating appliance and car owners who believe they have a right to pollute. Another example could be water quality. CCC is currently one of the biggest freshwater polluters in the city due to overflows from the wastewater system that it steadfastly refuses to fund the upgrade of. The reasons for pushing these measures through are not to improve services to ratepayers, but to advantage political blocs like Labour.

Once the Bill is passed we can expect to see the political blocs in various cities exploiting the very weak reorganisational mechanisms to push through various takeovers and the Government will stand by and do nothing as it is a political advantage to them to have territorial authorities that have more fingers in pies than ever. In public transport, because the existing provision of PT functions by CCC is already very weak, an improvement is unlikely.