This is the first of three parts taking an indepth look at the lack of focus on transport safety in Christchurch, more particularly the centre of the city, and how this has been influenced over the past decade more especially. Christchurch is in the position unlike other cities recently of having had its local council’s powers abrogated after the 2011 earthquakes by a Government commission. This has provided an excellent example of why this is one case where the balance between central and local government interests during this period was pushed too far in favour of central government. This has happened with both Labour and National governments of a right-wing persuasion since 1989, and the fundamental issues of this balance are somewhat complex, hence it will take all that time to explain them, and certainly involve insight into more of local issues than just transport.
New Zealand over the past 33 years has seen a lot of change in local governance. This period starts in 1989, and that was the year in which a neoliberal Labour administration in Wellington decided to reform the local government landscape substantially. A large number of territorial councils were rolled together into a smaller number of larger bodies, and a new tier of local government between central government and the territories was introduced in the form of regional councils, to which the Government devolved substantial power. This however was not the end of the matter as a large number of local boards on matters such as pest control, drainage and transport were either rolled into regional or territorial councils. The key issue for these reforms was for the government to focus on what political objectives and advantages it could realise in each region around the country. For Labour, it would be natural for them to focus on what their local branches in each region wanted. What is important for this discussion is to understand how the minds of Labour politicians work. Labour is very much a party of centralisation. The nature of Labour governments is to try to put Wellington in charge of everything and just have a little bit of local input into stuff. However, when it comes to local government, the Labour parties in each region expect a regional centre to be created, so that instead of just national centralisation with everything run from the capital, there is a mix of national and regional centralisation with the government empowering and devolving to regions. The regional centre could be the central business district of a major city in that region. So in the Canterbury region, the regional centre for the local Labour party is the central business district of Christchurch City. This power sharing between local and central government has been exposed many times over the past three decades under study.
Taking 1989 as an example, Vicki Buck, a Labour supporter and first mayor of the newly amalgamated Christchurch City Council, succeeded in lobbying Wellington to roll the Christchurch Drainage Board into CCC. There was clearly an assumption that CCC had a “divine” right to run the local drainage networks; just as there certainly was the same tension over the Christchurch Transport Board which had been the subject of over a century of lobbying for usurpation by CCC. The CTB was however transferred to the regional council as it clearly affected a wider area outside the city where the urban bus services operated. The ongoing tension between national and regional centralisation as regards the present Labour Government and its policies continues to be felt in matters such as co-governance, 3 Waters and the public health system. People did ask the question why local Labour mayors were some of the most strident opponents to the 3 Waters policy that the present Government is bringing into effect. Simply put the Labour mayors believed they had the “divine” right that Wellington should be giving them to control all of the local functions in their areas.
So that was just the start in 1989 and the subsumption of drainage in places like Christchurch from that time has come back to haunt the CCC in the case of the 3 Waters where it can be shown that kowtowing to political interests has delivered an outcome of the Drainage Board’s functions being subsumed into the bigger interests of CCC as a whole and consequently, maintenance has been downgraded and deprioritised leading to the present debacle over the state of the water networks in the city. Despite this pattern being repeated nationally, numerous Labour mayors have come out strongly in opposition to the government’s 3 Waters policy. That was just the start of three decades of major meddling in the local-central balance. In Auckland in the 1990s, the National Government then in office got involved in attempting to force the privatisation of major local government assets in the region. The Auckland Regional Services Trust was the body that was formed to take control of, among other things, Watercare. The elected board of the ARST refused to pander to the government agenda and retained the ownership of the assets which was ultimately to the betterment of Auckland as a whole. The next major imposition was in the establishment of District Health Boards in 2000 by the Clark Labour Government, another example of a transfer between national and local centralisation. But there was only limited actual transfer, as the Government wanted to retain most of the control over the health system, so the local boards were expected to have at least 50% of their members, and the chair, appointed by the Minister of Health, with the rest being elected locally.
From 2008-2010 it was decided major reorganisation of local governance in Auckland was warranted, leading to the “Super City”. What was different from a straight amalgamation of local councils and the regional council was the creation of various CCOs which were given quite significant powers, for example Auckland Transport was granted the complete control of the entire roading network of the supercity, as well as public transport. The CCOs were run by appointed boards, these being chosen by both central and local government. This was clearly a departure from the established situation in other regions where roads are controlled by local councils with an entirely local membership; conceptually, these organisations are the offspring of the District Health Boards in that central government retains significant control over the local functions and powers. Clearly, the self interest principles established by the Clark Labour government in the establishment of the health board system were carried through into another tier of local administration. Note that the health board example is somewhat different as local councils did not have any involvement in the DHBs and consequently it was left mainly to the health unions to build their powerbase on the local level. Thus we find that these unions are strong supporters of the now-defunct DHB system and stridently in opposition to their removal by the Ardern Labour Government as has occurred this year.
The 2010s era was also that in which there was major meddling by the National Government in local governance of the Canterbury region. Firstly in 2010, not much more than a year on from being elected, the new National government sacked the regional council and appointed commissioners. The reasons for this are very contentious; the government claimed water was being managed poorly in the Canterbury region with too much emphasis was placed on the environment, and resource consents for water were being held up; critics especially from the centre-left said the government was attempting to fast track major irrigation projects that required large amounts of water that should not have been allocated. It was not until 2019 that elected members once again occupied all positions on the Regional Council. Then in March 2011, after the February 22 earthquake in Christchurch, the Government established the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority whose function was to take over full responsibility for the rebuilding of Christchurch, including much of the power of CCC. The City Council was not disestablished, but lost a great deal of its decision making authority over various aspects of Christchurch.
In part 2 a closer look will be taken at the situation particularly in local governance in Christchurch and how this government intervention has led to the present situation in the central city.