Questions Over Recent Actions by Christchurch Eastern Ward Councillors [2]

This article has stretched to a second post because of additional governance issues raised in ongoing online conversations in respect of this matter. The main protagonist being a strong supporter of the 2 Councillors concerned, whereas our position is to oppose them. The suggestion being as articulated in the first article, some Councillors believe that council staff have their own agenda and are intent on pushing this through irrespective of the direction that Councillors give to them.

The key issue in this situation is that we have an organisation – the Christchurch City Council – that is an operational body that also has elected members in a governance role, and the problem is that the civil functions of the organisation must be carried out in a non-political way. This precludes Councillors from being involved in operational matters or giving operational oversight to the work of Council staff. This distinction is essential in order to avoid politicising the work of the organisation, which has to be focused on achieving outcomes that are focused on lawful intentions completely independently of political ones.

In our experience, dealing with a range of people from across the political spectrum, those that complain the most about staff having their own agenda are those who are most strongly focused on serving their own political agenda – they tend to be linked to national political movements, have strongly ideological viewpoints, or perhaps are connected with major business or activist interests in the City, for example. Giving an example – Mike Yardley has been a trenchant critic of the Council through many of his columns this year – he is essentially using his platform to push National Party ideology in relation to local governance – he has in relation to this issue backed the two Councillors and used quite strong language attacking Council staff in this instance. Yardley should be required to register as a political promoter and broadcast an authorisation statement with each such message, especially during the current election campaign. No doubt we are going to see another column from him shortly defending the two Councillors further.

What must be remembered is when Councillors are, firstly, overstepping the boundaries of elected office, and secondly, pushing their political barrow through the auspices of elected office, that there is strong potential for abuse of process. We have long been strongly of the view that local government democracy is quite weak with much lesser checks and balances than central government and it tends to favour those with political agendas who have the means to push them through. For example one of the things that was highlighted as a result of the Christchurch earthquake was that councils such as CCC had flouted requirements of the Building Act related to development of land with natural hazards, and that the same Act at the time did not mandate any policy relating to the hazards of unstrengthened heritage buildings. There is very clear obvious motivation for Councillors of a particular political ideology to oppose staff’s own personal affiliations and views insofar as these may influence their actions whilst holding managerial roles within the Council. Even if a council has a plan and tries to follow it, developers can threaten legal action to get what they want and in a lot of cases this results in a backdown. Or if a proposal receives significant opposition from a community, it can be moved into some other community where there is less resistance. This last issue is of particular concern where it relates to the conflict between the interests of property owners and occupiers, this distinction becoming ever more important as the proportion of people who are renting rather than owning property becoming ever greater. For example, if an area starts to gentrify, it will be welcomed by owners because of an upward impact on property values; but occupiers who are charged higher rentals and potentially displaced from the area will see a negative impact. As we may have said earlier in this article and certainly in other posts, territorial authorities overwhelmingly favour the interests of property owners over those of occupiers.

Given these factors and the potential for abuse of process, we choose to re-emphasise that we believe the Council has followed the correct course of action in censuring the two Councillors who were involved in this activity. We have little agreement with the various parties that are supporting the Councillors, because they are mostly from groups who fail to understand that Councils have been delegated functions by central government to perform, and that these do involve a level of enforcement. The Council cops a lot of political abuse from these people who are mostly very vocal right wingers who despise the regulatory requirements that they have to acknowledge and blame the Council when these regulations are in place to ensure there is a reasonably level handed response and that people are all treated the same way.

What is a Dangerous Level Crossing?

We may have referred somewhere (or maybe not) to Transport Accident Investigation Commission’s view on level crossing safety issues, which has made it into their Watchlist. TAIC has stated that there are hundreds of dangerous crossings in NZ. Whilst not referring to the total number of crossings with various issues, they have stated that 362 high risk crossings with short stacking distance issues have been identified, according to information supplied to them by Kiwirail. This suggests that Kiwirail is to some extent knowledgeable about some of the crossings in their network. We may have previously referred to our concerns that Kiwirail is whitewashing in the area of level crossing safety in that they will simply issue a standard denial without acknowledging that the crossing is something they are at least partly responsible for. There is no transparency because Kiwirail has ensured their safety information in the ALCAM database is not publicly accessible. So Kiwirail obviously has a motive to prevent the public at large from knowing about their dangerous crossings and is not prepared to make an acknowledgement publicly that a particular crossing is dangerous.

This is a list we made of issues that make a crossing dangerous:

  • Where there is a hump in the tracks that long vehicles can get stuck on (grounded).
  • Where the tracks cross on an angle which makes it very difficult for a driver to see a train coming from more than 90 degree angle to their vehicle.
  • Where there is a right angle turn just before the crossing that means a train could be coming from directly behind the driver that they could only see in their rear view mirror.
  • Where the crossing is too close to an intersection so that vehicles are unable to stop at the crossing and also be clear of the intersection at the same time.
  • Where an intersection is too close to the crossing so that vehicles which have crossed the tracks will not be able to stop at the intersection and be clear of the railway lines at the same time.
  • Where vegetation around the crossing is not kept trimmed so that a driver’s view is blocked.
  • Where there is a curve in the railway lines just before the crossing that means a train approaching from that direction cannot be seen until they are very close.
  • Where the angle of the sunlight at certain times of day causes sunstrike preventing drivers from being able to see an approaching train.
  • Where the crossing has more than two tracks, or enough width, that it can be difficult in conditions of heavy traffic, for a driver to judge whether there is enough stacking distance for them to cross over and stop on the other side of the crossing. There may also be a risk if a driver is unattentive that they do not take precautions and check if there is any clearance distance on the far side at all, and end up stopped in the middle of the crossing during heavy traffic times.
  • Similarly with a large crossing with multiple spaced out tracks, slow moving pedestrians such as elderly people may not have enough time to completely cross without getting caught with alarms starting when they are only partway across.

There is also a large question mark and has been for some time about Kiwirail’s awareness and followup even of maintenance of existing crossings, a recent example being flagged on Tracksafe’s page where a pedestrian barrier gate was not operable and even had a neatly printed sign put on it. Who put that sign in place, how long was the barrier gate inoperable and why it was not picked up by Kiwirail as they have built a ganger’s test switch into the design of every set of level crossing alarms, this implies they must have an expectation at least that alarms are being inspected and tested regularly. There have been other situations where Kiwirail has failed to maintain the trimming of vegetation on their land that is obscuring drivers’ views, or the infamous situation where a wheelchair bound person was almost run over on a crossing in Auckland because their wheels became stuck in tracks.

A key issue we need to keep the heat on Kiwirail about is that they are not open and accountable about the level crossing information they hold. Territorial councils at least are open organisations that have public accountability for discussing the issues with crossings they are responsible for.

Questions Over Recent Actions by Christchurch Eastern Ward Councillors [1]

Two of Christchurch City Council’s elected councillors in eastern wards have recently found themselves in trouble with the Council itself over unauthorised stormwater drainage work they allegedly carried out in the residential red zone. The key issues are that the councillors have overstepped their governance role and become involved in operational matters, and that the councillors did not follow the correct process for raising issues through the community boards they oversee. The view of this blog is that the councillors exhibited poor leadership in their high level roles with the council and may have encouraged other disgruntled parties to interfere with ratepayer funded assets without permission in future.

Although many people have attacked the Council over the actions taken, we are stating here in this blog that we are backing the Council 100% over the issue. Readers of this blog will know it is unusual for us to agree with CCC on anything much. However, we are not wedded to any political cause, and we can see that this is a very strong problem of endless buck passing by all manner of politicians that is never ending in Christchurch and in which council staff are left as the whipping boys whilst politicians hide behind every convenient lamp post when the heat comes on.

Key Contributing Issues Leading To Situation

  • Underfunding of earthquake damage repairs.
  • Divide between CBD, wealthy suburbs and poor suburbs.
  • Dirty political games between local and central government.

Underfunding of earthquake damage repairs

Christchurch was woefully ill prepared for the quakes and one of the biggest scandals was the degree to which local body assets in the city were underinsured. But added into that, CCC’s application of land hazard expectations in the Buildings Act occurred in a way that did not recognise that some land in the East was very liquefaction prone and that housing should not have been allowed without special foundations or area treatments. This led to speculation in the news media of the time (sorry we can’t find the link to the article now) that residential insurance companies considered suing CCC due to the large resulting financial liability they were exposed to. The net result of these issues was that central government stepped in and (a) funded the “Residential Red Zone” property buyout scheme, (b) funded the development of anchor projects in the CBD, and (c) underwrote part of the cost of the SCIRT infrastructure repair programme across the city. However, government funding has necessarily been capped at a certain level and ratepayers have been left to pick up a considerable amount of cost, this is still ongoing at the present time and it will continue to be an issue for many years into the future. Thus, people are becoming disgruntled over the slow progress in repairs to earthquake damaged infrastructure. As the Eastern part of the city was hardest hit, and as large chunks of that area have been red-zoned (cleared of housing), the continued impacts of this damage are much greater there than anywhere else in the City. This has led to growing frustration from residents in the area. We are very familiar with the Red Zone issues, having resided in the East of the city from 2003 until July 2011, and having revisited on numerous occasions since.

Divides between CBD / Suburbs and Wealthy Suburbs / Poor Suburbs

The second issue is the divide between the CBD and suburbs, and between wealthy and poorer suburbs. Christchurch almost from the beginning was developed as a series of local boroughs, each with, in effect, its own CBD or nucleus. The Christchurch City Council originally encompassed the central part of the city. Examples being Sydenham Borough Council headquartered in the suburb of that name, Riccarton Borough Council based in Riccarton Road and Waimairi District Council centred in Fendalton. The final amalgamation occurred as a result of Government reorganisation in 1989 when CCC became the sole territorial authority for all of Christchurch. As a result, the focus shifted to one central CBD within what is generally known as the “Four Avenues”. Most major retail and office developments historically were created in the CBD. However in the 1980s New Brighton Mall was allowed to become a special retail zone able to open on weekends, which was not possible in any other part of the City at that time. From that time, suburban malls were subsequently able to be developed and operated on a 7 day basis elsewhere in the city, offering free parking onsite and paying lower rentals than the old boys’ property cartel was charging in the CBD. Consequently there was a large exodus of commercial businesses and retail premises from the CBD into the suburbs and many less desirable older buildings became vacant or were adapted for residential use. A notable example of the issue is the significant number of central city high rise office blocks that were converted into hotels and apartments by the time of the 2011 earthquakes.

Since the quakes, CBD property owners have fought hard to convince both central and local government that the city should be reorganised on the basis that the central city is again dominant, and because the people championing this the most are wealthy property owners and developers, they have achieved considerable success, aided by the current Mayor of the city who has decided she can always get a few more votes out of supporting the pro CBD cause. This has however set these people against people from the suburbs who see that the CBD has been given endless financial largesse both at central and local level (note that all the government-funded anchor projects have been developed within the CBD and it has been left to ratepayers to pay for the suburban projects).

In addition to the CBD vs suburbs debate, there is also a divide between wealthy and poor suburbs within the City. Both of these divides have serious implications for the democratic character of the political process in the City. In summary, elected members tend to favour the viewpoints of wealthy suburbs and their residents with much greater predominance than for poorer areas of the City. This is largely due to the ability of wealthier residents to fund more effective politically focused campaigns specifically targeted at councillors and boards, as well as legal threats and challenges to specific council decisions. In brief, the residents of wealthier areas of the city are able to exert greater influence over the decisions and processes of elected members, primarily with the object of favouring development in their neighbourhoods that helps to make these areas more desirable to live in and in turn, driving property values continually higher. The economic system for the City Council perpetuates this by charging rates and levies to property owners rather than individual residents, thus insulating residents who are not property owners from direct economic connection with, and therefore influence over, the financial aspects of the City’s operations and processes that directly impact on rates charged and funds expended.

Dirty political games between local and central government

In New Zealand, public governance is divided between a single central government for the whole country, and two levels of local governance: territorial councils covering urban and rural areas such as cities and towns, and regional councils covering a number of territorial areas. Central government has much greater powers than local governance, but routinely delegates authority to local governance. There is much debate about the extent of this delegation and concerns about a perceived lack of will from central government to properly fund the impacts of these delegations. The biggest and most reasonable concern about the delegations of authority are that governments employ them as a political shield in order to divert the blame for unpopular decisions to the local level. There is considerable evidence of a concerted strategy in the case of certain political movements to pass central government laws that are intended to be able to be nullified by local government under the guise of “democracy”. Since as we have highlighted in the previous paragraph that local government democracy perpetuates considerable inequality in producing more favourable outcomes for wealthier suburbs, the aim of such policies is largely focused on supporting the capture of political power and influence from any and every quarter rather by the central party’s local representatives, rather than on ensuring the successful implementation of the central government party’s manifesto promises at local level. In order to illustrate this, here are some examples:

  1. In the year 2000, the Clark Labour Government passed legislation putting the administration of the public hospital system under the control of “democratically elected and governed” District Health Boards. In practice, some members of the boards are elected in local government elections, but a significant number are appointed by the central government, which also appoints the chairperson and deputy chairperson. Central government retains firm control over the board through choosing the senior leadership and through muzzling all members except for the chairperson from publicly commenting on Board processes and decisions. This has led (accurately we believe) to the perception that the primary achievement of District Health Boards has been to help Government shut down debate about the effectiveness of the public health system by deflecting blame from Government to the DHBs.
  2. During its term of office, the Clark Labour government passed new clean-air legislation, giving regional councils the power to implement clean air plans within their regions. Subsequent to this, the Canterbury Regional Council proposed a new plan for the City of Christchurch, which brought in a requirement for much lower emission solid fuel appliances within territorial limits to eliminate longstanding concerns over the level of smog produced in the city by solid fuel fireplaces. We were astounded to discover that the local Labour Party response in Canterbury from all of its city-based MPs was to lobby the Regional Council to defer the implementation of the plan on the basis that existing use rights could be used to establish precedence. There was also implicit Parliamentary party support for local Labour members calling for the responsibilities for the implementation of clean air plans to be transferred from the regional council to territorial councils; either proposition would have allowed any such plan to be sidelined or scrapped outright regardless of environmental considerations.
  3. In the lead up to the 2017 election campaign, Labour promised that $100 million would be made available for the development of commuter rail in the Greater Christchurch region. This appeared to be a clear cut response to numerous proposals and investigations into suburban rail services in Canterbury, the most recent of these being conducted three years previously and having concluded that sufficient passenger traffic would be carried to make a service viable. To enable the proposal to be implemented, it would be clear from the Auckland rail development carried out by the previous Labour government that control of public transport would need to be placed solely within the jurisdiction of a special purpose regional transport authority. Upon election, the Labour led government failed to make these changes and instead favoured alternative proposals by its own members occupying elected roles in the Christchurch City Council to favour the predominance of the City’s interests over all of Greater Christchurch. Legislation was passed several years ago to facilitate CCC’s longstanding desire to control the City’s bus system, and the $100 million offered for rail has been sidelined as the Ministry of Transport conducts additional unnecessary business case investigations into proposals that directly and deliberately sideline heavy rail from consideration because of CCC opposition to it.
  4. A growing concern around New Zealand, which has a major coastline and many significant areas of population located in close proximity to it, is the impacts of climate change upon the coastal environment, specifically in the area of sea level rise. So far a few territorial councils, Christchurch City among them, have attempted to implement programmes such as managed retreat to deal with the impacts of encroachment on coastal suburbs and infrastructure. This has led directly to a high degree of confrontation between elected representatives in Eastern wards and Council, with the former clearly demanding that CCC programmes be sidelined or downplayed due to the impact upon property values in the area. It appears to be a strong point of contention by New Brighton / Southshore residents and their supporters that difficulty in getting flood protection works constructed within Eastern coastal zones is due to the intention of CCC to press ahead with implementation of managed retreat or other coastal hazard processes and this controversy led to a confrontation with a previous Eastern Ward councillor and community board members and has contributed to the long standing tensions between the Eastern communities and the rest of the City. There is also, we believe, an accurate perception that Central government has effectively passed the buck for many years on coastal erosion, refusing to address or acknowledge it in substantive form.

Why We Support The City Council

As we stated at the beginning of this post, we fully support the stance taken by CCC staff in confronting the issue of elected members ignoring the due processes of the Council, which the general public are expected to follow, and taking what has been alleged to be “vigilante action” to resolve a local flooding problem in residential red zoned land. The reasons for our stance are as follows:

  • CCC has clear processes to be followed when dealing with public concerns over Council decisions and services. These processes are intended to ensure that matters of concern are dealt with fairly and openly.
  • CCC staff are expected to follow all of the laws of New Zealand in implementing these processes.
  • Staff who do not follow the legal requirements would leave themselves open to risk of legal or other action against either themselves or the Council and disciplinary action being taken against them by Council management. These are all reasonable norms for the actions of staff within a large public organisation like the Council
  • Council staff working on this case have cited numerous issues relating to property ownership, damage and public safety risks created by the work that was allegedly carried out. Laws passed by central government makes it incumbent upon them to ensure that these issues are properly handled in accordance with the legislative expectations, in the interests of respecting the legislative authority of Parliament and the general expectations of our legal and justice system.
  • Elected members are subject to the same laws and should not be inciting contempt for them.
  • Criticism of CCC processes in reprimanding the elected members concerned were criticised by the National Party MP for the Ilam electorate, who also happens to be the former Minister of Earthquake Recovery. However, the council does not have the option of abrogating these processes just because the land is in the residential red zone. The real problem is that it is simply and wholly inappropriate to incite a lawless approach to the utilisation of ratepayer funded assets, when proper accountability demands that these assets are managed for the benefit of all ratepayers and with clear expectations that property owners or occupiers will not usurp the Council’s ownership or authority to manage these assets in order to ensure that wider community interests, including private property ownership rights, are fairly protected.
  • Similarly a rebuke of CCC processes was issued by the local Labour Member of Parliament for the City East electorate, who also happens to be an Associate Minister for Greater Christchurch Regeneration. She stated that her office had been lobbying the Council for a considerable period of time over concerns about the poor maintenance and repair of infrastructure assets in the Eastern wards. However, as an Associate Minister of the portfolio that is most clearly related to earthquake recovery under the Labour government, she is expected to be well acquainted with the challenges facing CCC in the process of long term earthquake recovery and the implications of Government legislative requirements that are imposed upon the City Council that are material to this particular situation. It is very inappropriate for a Government minister to be advocating this type of alleged vigilante activity and criticising the Council for opposing it, when she should be well aware of the legal expectations and requirements placed upon the Council and its staff. This appears to be cynical buck passing when the Government has been quick on many occasions to shift responsibility to Council to make decisions about particular issues.
  • There is a commonly held desire by elected Council members of all shades across the political spectrum to deflect blame and attention from their own decisions and processes onto Council staff. Many local politicians claim that Council staff are out of control and that decision making and spending power has been usurped by the Council management. However, all decisions over Council programmes, funding and expenditure are confirmed each year in the Annual Plan process which is conducted with very detailed in depth consideration of every area of expenditure and the final decisions are made by elected members and consulted to the public with hearing and submission processes. There is therefore considerable ability for elected members to exert considerable influence over the direction of Council. In the case of this particular situation, it is almost inconceivable that the concerns being raised could not have been addressed either by the Community Board, a Council committee, or the full Council. Even if the decisions made were not favourable to the Eastern suburbs, it could not be denied that the correct process should have been undertaken and followed throughout the various layers of administration within the Council. It simply cannot be denied as a matter of reality that decisions may be made from time to time regarding the scheduling and financing of particular projects that not all members may agree with; but it is simply nonsensical to claim that elected members do not wield the very considerable influence that they do actually have over particular decisions and programmes undertaken by the Council.
  • If there are concerns over the particular directions and processes being followed by local government in general, then it may be necessary to have legislation passed by central government to address this. The only recent legislation we are aware of in reference to the current Labour government has been to expand the powers and responsibilities of local government to implement certain social wellbeings, thus enabling central government to shift some of its responsibility (including funding) to a local level, where ratepayers will be expected to pick up the tab. Hence, criticism of local government process by a Government minister is very hypocritical when it is the clear intent of Central government to shift responsibilities and political controversy from their implementation to a local level.

We await the outcome of the current process with considerable interest but do not expect to see the situation being condoned in any shape or form by the Council and nor should it be.