CCC Plan Change 5A Seeks To Reassert Christchurch CBD Primacy

Plan Change 5 is a set of proposed changes to the Christchurch District Plan that are grouped together as a Plan Change activity and are currently being consulted on. In fact, the submissions will close early next week, on Monday 30th November. This leaves very little time for us to put together a submission on the plan change.
The key agenda of the Plan Change, particularly certain parts of it, could possibly be construed as pushing back on the changes that the National Government pushed through as part of the Replacement District Plan after the earthquakes, and as such, may be either negative or positive depending on one’s views of those plan changes. Part 5A is key to this post as it seeks to assert that the Central Business District has primacy in the development of commercial business premises throughout the whole city. This is very clearly a response to the greater decentralisation of business activity which took place outside the CBD area immediately following the quakes and was a highly necessary response in the face of the central city red zone. However, this was far from a new activity as there had been considerable decentralisation of commercial activity for many years prior to the quakes, a key example being the rise of suburban malls, which have long been construed as a major threat to the provision of shops and retail premises in the CBD. This is in fact extremely true since we can recall that a key attraction of the CBD retail scene, late night Friday shopping, has long since disappeared in the face of competition from malls with free parking and 7 day opening. Likewise, but not directly related to the core theme of this post, the designation of New Brighton as a special shopping zone able to open at weekends lost its significance once restrictions on other malls across the city were relaxed, and has been in major decline since.
The problem with the old concept of centralising commercial / business activity within a Central Business District in the heart of a large city is that it creates key impositions upon the city as a whole which requires, for example, the construction of transport infrastructure that will carry a large volume of people into and out of the CBD is a major imposition on suburban neighbourhoods and results in unnecessary requirement for people in outer suburbs to travel long distances into the CBD each day and then return home at the end, this results in excessive use of time and mileage related expenditure as well as emissions. As populations grow and adjoining cities expand, it eventually becomes impractical to centralise everything because these distant cities attract development in their own right and people choose to travel to them as being closer rather than to the now-rather distant big city CBD. We can see a key parallel to this in the development of commercial centres and significant urban populations in parts of Greater Wellington, particularly Lower and Upper Hutt and also the Wairarapa. At various times the creation of these outlying residential and commercial centres under the fiat of various Governments must have grated with the empire builders in Wellington City Council. There is consequently no ability for WCC to demand of the whole Greater Wellington area that there must only be a single CBD for the whole of the Wellington-Hutt Valley territory in the middle of Wellington City.
So in a certain respect this demand being issued from Christchurch City Council is an imposition created by key politicians and political interests within Christchurch and it is important to understand it in the context of the greater Urban Development Strategy for Greater Christchurch. In every single aspect of regional cooperation that exists and is seen between CCC, its neighbouring councils and Ecan, it has become abundantly clear that CCC sees it as its divinely appointed role to attempt to assert primary in every possible way over other territories. The Urban Development Strategy is a key example: whilst it suggests 40% of population growth in the Greater Christchurch region will occur outside the city boundaries, in practice CCC sees it as their mandate to oppose further growth in Selwyn and Waimakariri, and make a point of submitting on each resource consent for large housing subdivisions. At a CCC meeting on 12 November councillors discussed the fact that SDC has recently received plan change submissions for the construction of 5000 houses in various parts of the District and it was reported earlier this week that CCC had submitted on one of these proposals being reported in the Press as authored by the Mayor on the Council’s behalf. The submission queried whether due consideration was given of the Government’s National Policy Statement on Urban Growth and the need for public transport (an example is that in West Melton, where some of the development is proposed, there is currently no public transport). One option, of course, for PT to Rolleston, a major urban growth area in Selwyn District, by commuter train, is currently being stalled by CCC. We did note recently a statement in an official public transport futures document that “By the year 2041, Greater Christchurch has a vibrant inner city and suburban centres surrounded by thriving rural communities and towns”, essentially a UDS statement that the development of Greater Christchurch should proceed along traditional lines and outdated concepts.
This is all a product of that constant push by CCC to be in charge of the whole region and ultimately the question of local government reorganisation to favour the City will come to the fore. Labour has shown no desire for this, but National is much more open to creating larger regional authorities made up of multiple amalgamated territories, as shown in the Auckland Council implementation in the 2010s. National is also much more likely to intervene in local government and will likely oppose continual attempts by CCC to dominate the region as their rural base is generally opposed to amalgamation between city and rural councils and to the domination attempts by the city. The situation in Auckland which involved a number of urban councils amalgamating was very different from Greater Christchurch with one urban and two rural neighbours because the rurals can make a case that there has not been enough development yet in their urban areas to favour those areas being amalgamated into Christchurch, but if Selwyn and Waimakariri District townships continue to expand rapidly then the case for those areas being added to Christchurch in the future becomes much stronger. Also National has made their views clear in building the two soon-to-open motorways connecting Christchurch City with Selwyn and Waimakariri Districts, which is fundamentally the intention of the CNC and CSC developments, since through traffic is already catered for by the existing SH1 bypass of the city that was first constructed many years ago around the Airport.
This is fundamentally why the dominance and centralisation attempts by CCC are basically short sighted. The CDB primacy arguments largely revolve around existing political and financial power bases for a small number of politicians and business leaders with major property holdings in the central business district at inflated higher prices and do not actually consider that as a city grows, decentralisation is an essential fact since it becomes too difficult to deliver ever increasing infrastructure to move large segments of the population across the city every day to work in the CBD and out again, but also because of the risk that was exposed in the quakes of one particular area being knocked out of contention for a lengthy period by a natural disaster. Whilst there is a strong town planning argument in favour of residential amenity being impacted around outlying commercial centres, a great deal of industry has already been permitted to develop in these areas over many decades and is not going anywhere. Furthermore the Council itself has seen the merit of creating recreational facilities such as libraries and pools in individual communities without demanding they are all centralised, in convenience to community needs, and government departments such as Education generally follow the same principle in the placement of school sites where it is appropriate to the needs of communities. The fact that employed people are able to access transport modes that can take them a considerable distance right across the city is irrelevant when the infrastructure at peak hours can’t keep up and when regular public transport (buses) is also getting stuck in traffic queues.
We will be making a submission to this Plan Change proposal notwithstanding that it is likely to be ignored, because the interests of a small group of politicians and wealthy landowners in the CBD fundamentally cannot be allowed to corruptly dominate city planning in this way.

NZ First tries to claim moral high ground in airport rail debate

Recently in transport news there has been a lot of debate over the shelving of the Auckland light rail to the airport proposals. Much of that has centred around the role played by NZ First which is implacably opposed to the development, to the extent that their representatives have waged an acromonious campaign throughout the news media and the rail community for the abandonment of the light rail development that has been a flagship Labour/Greens policy this term of government.

To understand the nature of this we have to dig deeply into NZ First itself and its political objectives and imperatives. New Zealand First is Winston Peters’ personal political vehicle which evolved out of his split from the National Party in the early 1990s. Although it is called a party and involves other people, it is and has always been unlike most other parties in NZ in the fact that it is best characterised as a populist personality cult revolving around the leader himself. This is best understood when we examine that NZF has only ever had one leader in the past 25 years and they do not have the open democratic process for leadership selection that prevails in other Parliamentary parties. Because NZ First is a split off National, their policy focus essentially follows the same social-conservative theme that is prevalent throughout the National Party, but at the more moderate end of the NP spectrum, causing NZF to be characterised as more into the centre of politics in NZ. The political centre has become much more important in NZ since the advent of MMP and nowadays all parties have to acknowledge it in order to gain and remain in power. However, the major parties in NZ are made up from dominant left and right ideological blocs and generally achieve electoral success by moderating their particular platforms by moderating their core ideology to capture more of the centre. Parties that focus more on the centre must necessarily be seen as combining policies from both the left and right wings of politics and have failed to capture more than a few percent of electoral support in NZ long term.

NZ First at its core, being a split from National, has a bedrock right wing policy approach and tends to cleave more to that side of the political spectrum. When they are inclined to come further left, it is usually by cherry picking key policy areas of from Labour or the Greens. One of those focuses for the past few terms has been in the NZ rail network largely driven by an ambitious Auckland-based member who won’t be named in this post. However NZ First is essentially having a buck both ways on transport development by playing both sides of the fence, campaigning on the same pro-roads platform as National whilst at the same time championing rail development. This leads to many contradictions, which are most visible in public transport in particular. It must be plainly obvious to the majority of public transport campaigners that PT is highly necessary in major urban environments as part of a wider platform of mitigating the adverse environmental impacts caused by unrestricted growth in private vehicle use and therefore, it is necessary at some point to put limits on vehicle usage. The NZ First approach to any form of rail based transport tries to pretend that it is possible to have unrestricted car growth and a viable public transport system, in order to capture votes from both camps. The problem with this is that the two camps are usually implacably opposed to each other (the old left/right political dynamic) and a party like NZF coming into the picture is generally seen to be focused mainly on short term political objectives and not on a long term viable approach to solving the bigger problems that need to be addressed in urban development in cities.

Auckland has been through a long series of processes over many years to attempt to determine future avenues of development of the public transport networks that will be needed over the longer term. There have been some monumental projects undertaken in the last couple of decades, among them are the DART project in West Auckland that doubled and upgraded the urban part of the North Auckland Line from Newmarket to Swanson, the Britomart underground rail terminal in the Auckland CBD, and the City Rail Loop that extends Britomart to allow through train running for greater capacity. Public transport is essential to the future of the city and it will continue to be handled by multiple modes, which at the moment include the Northern Busway and heavy rail. The biggest debate in the last five years has focused around creating several light rail corridors that will extend as far north as Kumeu and terminate at the airport in Mangere. NZ First has been implacably opposed to both Kumeu and the airport being served by light rail, as both areas are also close to existing heavy rail lines which they claim should be the focus of new PT services. This ignores that all the light rail corridors that have been proposed are completely new routes that open up rail access to additional areas of the city that are not currently so served and using the existing heavy rail corridors would not extend the reach of public transport to the same extent. The stage has been set therefore for a fractious and mostly unnecessary debate about the different merits of light vs heavy rail for public transport (the differences are comparitively minor in relation to passenger carriage) and is largely driven by NZ First’s representatives attempting to tap into the small and insular rail heritage community for votes.

The airport light rail development proposals can best be summed up as not actually being focussed particularly on the small number of passengers who would be likely to use it to meet flights. This market is so small that the services would not be able to pay their way if they were focused primarily on serving it. Hence the light rail proposal is for a line that serves urban population catchments around Mangere and for people that work at the airport, rather than flyers. The same impact could be achieved by extending existing heavy rail from Onehunga and is probably a better long term objective because it can serve the actual growth in airport traffic in the longer term when that eventually develops to become more viable, while in the shorter term it enables the servicing of the additional urban population catchments between Onehunga and the airport. However, NZ First is campaigning on a rail line from the airport via Puhinui that would not serve any additional urban population due to it running through the airport noise corridor, on the basis that it is claimed that passenger trains from Hamilton to the south and the greater Waikato could become viable. The problem with assuming Hamilton would be a significant catchment is that it is only about 120 km from there to the airport, which is quite driveable for a lot of people and well served by existing road shuttles that the rail would be hard pressed to compete against, especially on fares. The possibility of getting a lot of passengers from the south is really a very long term outcome that will be driven by massive population increase in that corridor over decades and again, in the short term, is simply a nonsense proposition.

The light rail debate for Auckland has become drawn out due to scope changes by the government that have obscured the important outcomes. The Government has failed to understand the background of the original light rail proposals and allowed itself to be sidetracked into supporting a proposed PPP for a very expensive airport focused metro line. This is as nonsensical as NZ First’s Puhinui heavy rail proposal. Neither of these achieves the development objectives that the original heavy rail (via Onehunga) and light rail plans were intended to achieve. If the Government proceeds with the airport metro line it will be an expensive white elephant around the necks of taxpayers and ratepayers for decades whilst funnelling fistfuls of their money into a Canadian pension fund that will profit handsomely. Incredibly, this has continued to be at the forefront of Labour’s blatant hijack of the Auckland Transport Alignment Project in its present term, and since Labour has now dropped the original ATAP light rail plans in favour of the metro white elephant, it will remain contentious should they win the election later this year. NZ First’s pitch for a heavy rail line from Puhinui to the airport is mostly about capturing votes from both sides of the political divide from being cheaper to construct than light rail and supposedly enabling fast train services to the airport from all around the Auckland and Waikato regions. Neither of these is relevant in the short tot medium term as the economics do not actually stack up. The best outcome really for Auckland is to build the extension of the Onehunga heavy rail to the airport and develop the light rail separately without reference to South Auckland – earlier proposals were to take a light rail line from the city to Mt Roskill without heading further south as ATAP proposes. NZ First taking their high road over stymying Labour’s airport metro project is ignoring the fact that their alternative is not better than various alternatives that have been on the table in recent times. The NZ First Party has employed a range of questionable tactics in its campaigns on the issue due to attempting to straddle both sides of the political fence and their attempts to divide and conquer the public transport landscape are not material to their lack of long term political viability because the key factors concerning this are deeply rooted in the Party’s history and culture and the important differences between it and other Parliamentary parties. Ultimately, whilst we believe there are serious and valid concerns that have been raised by NZ First over the government’s flagship light rail/metro policy platform, they are not in a position to claim any moral high ground in the debate because their alternative is not any more credible.

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.