Probably the most significant news about Christchurch since the February earthquake seems to have slipped out of sight astonishingly quickly. No doubt it's in the interest of the government, the recovery authority and the city council to downplay its significance, but there should have been more media follow-up and analysis than we've had. The news in question is the decision of the IRD and the Ministry of Social Development to take a nine-year lease on office space on the western edge of the city, at the airport business park on Russley Rd.
This is big. This is huge. For all the fine talk and 'consultation' and planning for the rebuild of central Christchurch, here is a hard-ass actual practical decision not to go back there—for obvious reasons. Even if the central city is rebuilt within, say, two years (unlikely, but let's just say), for seven years beyond that we're talking about 500 workers who will no longer have their lunches and coffees or do their shopping or banking in the CBD but in western Christchurch instead.
I was out that way a few weeks ago. Western Christchurch is booming. There is a tremendous amount of commercial development along Russley Rd and a giant mall at Hornby further south. The area can only boom. Will only boom; as will Riccarton and Addington (where it has been reported that ACC has taken a six-year lease on office space).
A Stuff news report tells us that the draft plan for rebuilding Christchurch's central business district says the government is expected to contribute by 'committing to return all government operations and departments back to the area.' Yet the earthquake recovery minister, Gerry Brownlee, has made light of the departmental moves, saying it won't have a big impact because it's only temporary and 500 workers are only a small proportion etc etc.
That is pure quakewash. Of course it will have a big impact; the chamber of commerce is already getting antsy about it. It can read the writing on the earthquake-damaged wall. But Brownlee is like the mayor of Amity, the town in Jaws, who kept minimizing the shark threat for fear of discouraging tourist business. Brownlee (and Christchurch mayor Bob Parker) wants to send the message that everything is going to go back to nice and normal. In effect, they are saying 'Read my lips: no more quakes.'
Who is going to believe that? The brutal reality—the one being acknowledged by IRD—is that central Christchurch will never again be what it was, and may not even be able to function as a genuine city centre. The true centre may move west, or south, or even north (Amberley and Rangiora are a lot busier than they used to be). One can entirely sympathize with Brownlee and the government; naturally they don't want to be seen to be giving up on the thriving city that was pre-quake Christchurch. But I wonder if they wouldn't win more respect if they got more real about the actual situation on (and in) the ground.
A further curious aspect to all this is that, while the government would not be expected to dictate where private business locates, surely it should be able to say where its own ministries, departments and agencies set up shop? As Labour's Grant Robertson says of the IRD's decision, 'It's hugely symbolic because the one thing that the government can control is where government agencies go.''
Yet when asked whether other agencies are likely to set up outside the central city, Brownlee is on record as saying that he cannot say, because those are operational matters for the departments concerned. Hallo?