I was in Christchurch this weekend for the second time since the quake. It felt like things are gradually getting worse. Compared to the pre-Christmas bustle in other cities, Christchurch CBD was a ghost-town. The public service’s emergency preparedness got us through the initial disaster – has enough been done since? What are your impressions?
I had a read through the Press to get an idea of how the locals are viewing the recovery.
A leading businessman is warning that 2,000 businesses are on the brink of collapse and will take 20,000 jobs with them if they are allowed to go under. He called for a $100 million bailout package (about 5% of what the Government spent bailing out rich investors in South Canterbury Finance).
A request was put to the government for $4.1 million in assistance to help keep businesses and jobs. Instead, Gerry Brownlee has announced a $600,000 package with $100,000 for Kaiapoi, most of it sucked up in business mentors’ fees. Just $12 million in support has been paid by the government in the three months since the quake.
The promise of rebuilding work to kick-start the economy is not eventuating. Most of the $5 billion worth of damage will not be fixed for years to come. The 3,000 worst-affected households won’t even know until February what will become of their homes. The Reserve Bank believes that 50% of the damage to commercial property will still be unrepaired at the end of 2012 – 28 months after the quake. It says that many businesses will relocate (if they don’t go under first), which raises the question of whether large parts of the CBD will ever be reoccupied.
It seems to me that the CBD needs a plan. Rather than leaving it to businesses to redbuild or move away, the council needs a vision for a green, vibrant CBD and, then, it needs to invest to build it. The earthquake opens up that opportunity, if the leaders have the vision to take it.
Things are pretty bad in the worst-hit suburbs too, most of which Brendon Burns represents as local MP. Brendon has been utterly dedicated to the recovery since the quake and, given his strong backing of the government’s CERRA legislation, no-one can accuse him of playing politics with the issue. Here’s what he wrote in the Press last week:
I don’t doubt for a moment that everyone in Canterbury shares a fervent common wish for our city and region to be strong and successful again as soon as possible after September 4.
We can all acknowledge that phase one – quake response, including from the Government – was magnificent. Everyone rallied. A wage subsidy of $350 a week was quickly introduced to help businesses retain staff. Emergency services did us proud.
Of course, phase one was, apart from the wage subsidy, all pre-planned policies being implemented by the public service, all the ministers had to do was smile and wave.
Phase two is less glamorous. It will last two if not three years. It demands no less focus and determination.
From a national perspective, we are fading from view. In September, there were 36 pages of quake-related Beehive media statements; in October, 11 pages; last month four pages, concluding with Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee’s announcement of over $500,000 being provided under the Government’s new package of measures to assist Canterbury business.
Much of it centres on advice. It does nothing to assist businesses with the crucial issue of cashflow, often down by a third or more since the quake.
The package pitifully represents about a dollar a head for each Cantabrian.
Spare a thought for Kaiapoi, which battling Waimakariri MP and Labour’s spokesman on Canterbury Earthquake Recovery, Clayton Cosgrove colourfully described after the quake as looking like war-torn Beirut.
The Waimakariri District Council asked the Government for $950,000; it got a part-time business recovery co-ordinator and a $20,000 share of $100,000 for promotion and marketing of Canterbury.
That would buy about two adverts on Australian television where the enduring image of Christchurch is a flattened city. Little wonder a Melbourne business visitor who arrived last week wondered if they might be lucky enough to find an undamaged hotel room.
Such images and ongoing issues such as cordons are feeding a sucking sound as Christchurch businesses shed staff. Each displaced person no longer spends money around where they worked.
That’s backed up by stats today showing the number of bus trips in Christchurch plummeting 20% as fewer people commute to the CBD.
…The Canterbury Employers Chamber of Commerce went in to bat with Government for a modest $3.16m package to assist Canterbury businesses.
It was advised just ahead of Brownlee’s announcement that this had been turned down for fear of creating a “precedent”.
If the Chamber of Commerce can’t get the message through to this Government about this being a once in 750 years event and deserving of a bigger response, who can?
Certainly the city’s Labour MPs and Jim Anderton have been trying for many weeks. We have been apolitical, working collegially in the greater interests of our quake-ravaged electorates and region.
I cannot but believe that Brownlee and his two other Canterbury ministerial colleagues would also have been trying to convince the Cabinet of the pressing need for more support for stressed businesses.
Many of them, hundreds by some estimates, will not survive without some real assistance. The recovery will take two years or more but it is the next three to six months that is crucial. The Government has to get serious about providing better support.
New Zealanders expect any Government to be there for people at such times, be they farmers, or householders or small and medium businesses and the jobs they provide.
Is Canterbury asking for too much in requesting a modest, well- managed budget to keep entirely viable Christchurch small to medium-sized enterprises afloat and maintaining jobs? We will pay the cost one way or the other.
Some options that could be considered include:
Reopening the $350 a week wage subsidy for the next three months – only $12.5m of the $15m budgeted was actually spent.
Assisting businesses which have had to move with relocation costs.
Underwriting further rates relief to enable the councils to more greatly assist businesses.
Funding a serious, sustained promotional campaign – Christchurch is the South Island’s gateway, if visitors are not coming here they are less likely to be going to Queenstown, Otago or Nelson/ Marlborough.
Three days after the quake, the Prime Minister said that the Government “will be doing whatever we can, within our powers to restore normality to the Canterbury region”.
We are a long way short of normality. It may never return for many businesses and their employees if the Government does not do whatever it can.
I wonder what is happening with all the millions of dollars that Kiwis donated to the relief funds. I’ve been unable to find out.
What are your impressions of the situation in Canterbury?