Queenstown faces economic crunch


Queenstown: urban population 13,500.

When one thinks of Queenstown they think of a year round tourist play ground that thrives in both summer and winter. A play ground with a stunning scenic with lakes, mountains, fast rivers and a rich history of gold mining and more recently tourism. People fly in direct from all over New Zealand and from Sydney in Australia to take advantage of the Lakes District’s many offerings.

But is the same stunning landscape that makes it a magnet in the first place a potential choke? Sadly the answer is yes.

The geography of Queenstown, whilst ensuring its popularity as a scenic spot/holiday town, is also a potential choker on growth. Constrained by Lake Wakatipu on one side and high mountains on the other, Queenstown can only spread along the lake shore and into adjacent valleys.

Vineyards, orchards, gold mining relics are all nearby. There are multiple festivals such as the WInter Festival as well as the bi-annual Warbirds over Wanaka airshow and many others. But if Queenstown is subject to rampant growth for the sake of growth, a whole set of factors are likely to combine to make it no such a great place after all. Let us have a look at them.

Rents are high. For years it has been a place that has been barely affordable for locals, who no longer recognize it as the sleepy place it was 30 years ago. The demand for services, with new buildings springing up all the time, combined with its year round attraction means a continually booming tourist town, but with an under current of socio-economic problems that are not pleasant.

There is exploitation. Non New Zealanders have moved into the town, which is fine – the problem is not whether people come or not, but whether they are willing to comply with New Zealand labour laws. People moving in to make a quick dollar are not necessarily going care about the fact that there is a minimum wage applicable to all workers in New Zealand; 40 hour working week and holiday provisions for those who have to work statutory holidays.

There is a land issue. Queenstown cannot continue spreading endlessly outwards, or it will risk undercutting the businesses on the towns periphery that help to make it and the surrounding area so special. Going vertically up also has its problems. The taller the building, the correspondingly deeper the foundations will need to be and on land that is already at a premium, that might just be some sort of impenetrable ceiling. The geology of the land, relatively close to large faults means shaking intensities are likely to be fairly high in a large earthquake, which will make lateral spreading, landsliding and liquefaction likely.

And then there is the transport issue. The exponential growth of Queenstown and the accelerating growth of Wanaka has put major pressure on the roading network throughout the area. The airport has a plan to increase tourist numbers from 2 million currently arriving per annum to possibly 5 million. These are the only two transport modes in and out of the town. No railways exist – where would you put one even if it was viable? – and catering for 30,000 vehicle movements on peak days – that is about 20 a minute, every minute, all amount to a distinctively unattractive problem.

By all means come to Queenstown. Stay a couple nights. Travel on the T.S.S. Earnslaw up to the end of the lake. Visit the nearby gold mining sites. But don’t be surprised if this place is close to hitting its limits.

Regions need an economic boost


One of the key economic themes at the election was getting New Zealand’s regions moving again. For decades a slow, but steady drift of people to the urban areas has been going on. Some how the regions have soldiered on, wondering what it will take to be noticed in the corridors of power. but with living costs in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch getting expensive pushing people out to smaller centres around the country, what is there to help these places get growing again?

The traditional answers have been “lets get dairy projects going – everyone likes dairying” or “lets get services back into these communities, like banks, and so on”.

However the economic boost should be looking at diversifying the product coming out of the regions, rather than further stoking a select few industries. For too long New Zealand has had a habit of focussing on primary industries, that whilst they have given us huge returns on what we have put in, have also come at significant cost. Also, there is a risk that goes with not having spread the proverbial eggs through sufficient baskets – if one collapses and all of the eggs are in it, there goes the economy. New Zealand has its eggs largely in tourism, dairying and a few others. Neither the Labour-led coalition Government of Prime Minister Helen Clark, nor the National-led coalition Government of Prime Ministers John Key and Bill English made sufficient effort to diversify.

But there are ideas as to what could be done. What needs to happen though is a willingness to look outside the quite enclosed box that severely limits our ability to envisage a long term future.

One idea for example, noting that a Chinese company wants to build a Waste to Energy plant on the West Coast, is explore the feasibility of putting the waste that it would consume on rail. It would serve a two fold purpose. Aside from taking more than the equivalent of trucks of waste off the road, it would help pay the for the cost of helping to keep the Otira railway tunnel open.

In East Cape and around Gisborne I note that provisional plans are being put in place to grow marijuana that could be used for medicine in the event that marijuana be legalized. This, again, would help people who might otherwise spend their lives on the dole, or in and out of jail get some legitimate employment. It would also help decrease drug crime in the communities. A similar project could be launched in Northland too, if the demand exists.

In smaller urban areas, where large or heavy industrial or commercial development might not be so feasible, thought should be given to developing niche industries that are specific to those areas. These could be many and varied, ranging from developing ecological and/or historical sites of interest into tourist attractions, to small localized gold mining businesses – mining does not need to be open cast or done in a tunnel, as opportunities for alluvial gold mining are known to exist in places such as the West Coast.

Dunedin is a unique case. Significantly smaller than Wellington or Christchurch and about as large as the Napier-Hastings metropolitan area, it is possible to sometimes feel forgotten by the Government if one lives in the university town. Built on mining in the 1800’s, made world famous in New Zealand by the movie “Scarfies”, and unique for its strong Scottish heritage, Dunedin’s population has until recently either been static or in slow decline. The loss of the Southerner passenger train in the 1990’s, the closure of the Hillside railway workshops and the Cadbury factory closure all cost Dunedin hundreds of jobs. What would it take to get some of these industries back there?

E.Q.C. report nothing new


Another E.Q.C. report – the same old story: disgruntled claimants, botched repairs and no one being made to take responsibility.

After 7 years of dealing with the consequences of the 04 September 2010 and 22 February 2011 earthquakes the latest E.Q.C. report was not surprising in the least, except perhaps with regards to how scathing it was.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Megan Woods has been in the job for 8 months now. Annette King who was appointed Chairwoman of E.Q.C.’s Board has been instructed by Ms Woods to accept the findings and begin implementing the recommendations immediately.

All well and good so far. But having spent most of a decade waiting for satisfactory resolution to their claims and fair, full and final payouts to match, many will be short on patience. Some of the claimants are in their 80’s and should not need to be still dealing with problems that might have started when they were still in their 70’s. These are the people who should be happily living out their final days enjoying their time with their relatives and friends, doing things they like and not having to worry about what the Earthquake Commission is or is not doing about their property.

The Earthquake Commission for its part needs to play along with Mrs King’s implementation of the findings. No time to delay, no games to play – anyone who begs to differ should be shown the door forthwith..

The report, whilst welcome has some serious issues to overcome, namely:

  • What will be the period in which claims can be settled – open ended settling periods are not acceptable and have been the cause of considerable and well documented angst among claimants
  • Will Cabinet approve the reimbursing of insurance companies if they agree to immediately settle on all over-the-cap claims? Ms Woods says that she will, but given the financial pressure it is likely to add, it remains to be seen if Cabinet will come on board
  • The standard of repairs needs addressing – the repairs should not have been signed off in the manner that they were until someone with neutral oversight could check the standard
  • Hire the necessary staff to do the job and stop pretending everything is under control when it is clearly obvious that it is not
  • Tell E.Q.C. that non-compliance is not an option

It is with guarded optimism that I wait to see what will happen. Having been in Christchurch for all of the magnitude 6.0+ events – 04 September 2011 (7.1); 22 February 2011 (6.3); 13 June 2011 (6.4) and 23 December 2011 (6.0) – as well as nearly all of the aftershocks between magnitude 5.0-5.9 and felt the stress, I can totally understand the frustration and anger. It is long since time to get this mess fixed.

No charges for C.T.V. building engineers


CTV building before 22 February 2011 and after (PHOTO: 3 NEWS)

At 1251 hours 22 February 2011 in an earthquake that could be technically classified as an aftershock of the 04 September 2010 magnitude 7.1 Canterbury earthquake, the Canterbury Television building on Madras Street, Christchurch collapsed. 115 people lost their lives. Investigations into who knew what about the status of the building found three people potentially culpable for its failure.

The C.T.V. building right from its design and construction was a fundamentally flawed building. On 26 December 2010, a violent magnitude 5.0 aftershock struck right under central Christchurch. Afterwards the C.T.V. building was given a second green sticker, siginalling it had been inspected and no damage likely to threaten the integrity of the building or peoples safety had been detected. This was a fatal mistake.

Today however, the New Zealand Police announced that they were not going to charge anyone over the C.T.V. building failure. The reasons given were:

  1. The threshhold of culpability with the probable charge of manslaughter was too high – the Crown had to prove that the conduct of any defendant charged was so bad as to warrant the distinction of being considered a serious crime
  2. The length of time that had passed between building and the deaths occurring

I accept that the threshhold required to prosecute in negligent manslaughter is very high. To do so one must be able to prove that the building would have failed if it were not for the design flaws.

However there are people who should have been looked at more closely than they were:

  1. Gerald Shirtcliffe (William Fisher), who faked a whole degree based another William Fisher in England who had finished a degree in civil engineering – completely unqualified to be working in the building industry at all and known to have made serious errors in his supervision of the C.T.V. building’s construction
  2. Alan Reay, who designed the building was working out of his depth and knew it
  3. David Harding, the engineer who was employed by Alan Reay Consultants failed to disclose at an Institute of Professional Engineers New Zealand disciplinary hearing his involvement in the C.T.V. building design

I further think that the building code in 1986 was probably strict enough that if followed, the building might have still had deaths in it, but not a catastrophic collapse killing 115 people. Then the specifications set down in the then building code would have designed with the understanding that Christchurch is not immune to earthquakes, that seismic waves can be amplified passing through certain strata and that the seismic waves also induce vertical movement as well as side to side shaking.

A case does exist, nonetheless for amending the law to enable such suggested prosecutions to happen. The investigation should be conducted with the support of a technical expert – qualified I.P.E.N.Z. registered engineer, or other suitable person – who shall have access to whatever files are relevant.

It will not bring back the dead. It will not change the fact that on the day of the quake there was also uncertainty about who should be leading the rescue effort. But it will hopefully ensure that the C.T.V. failure on 22 February 2011 is the last of its kind in New Zealand and that New Zealanders pay due regard to such matters in the future.

Time for E.Q.C. inquiry


During the campaign, Prime Minister-designate Jacinda Ardern and Labour made a slew of promises regarding the Christchurch earthquake recovery and the role of the lead agencies involved. Whilst the Canterbury Earthquake Authority has since been dismantled, the Earthquake Commission, the other major Government agency involved – overwhelmed and somewhat leaderless since 2010 – has fought a losing battle coping with the complexity of the civilian rebuild.

The incoming Minister for Christchurch Earthquake Recovery, Megan Woods, has stated her desire to hold a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the failure of the Earthquake Commission. The Commission which has oversight for the repairs to properties damaged in the 2010-11 earthquake sequence told media that she “absolutely wants one to be held.

This is long overdue. It should not have taken a change of Government in Wellington to bring about something that many have been demanding for several years. Despite having largely finished the settling of civilian claims, the Earthquake Commission has since been found significantly wanting in signing off on repair work done. Many of the claimants have come back to their properties after work was supposed to have been completed to find defective repairs or in some cases work that was meant to be done, not being done at all.

When former Minister for Earthquake Recovery, Gerry Brownlee was appointed to the role in September 2010, following the initial magnitude 7.1 earthquake, the Earthquake Commission was swamped by claims from the quake which totalled N.Z.$4 billion. Only a fraction of those had been processed when the 22 February 2011 earthquake hit. The claims blew out to over 200,000 and totalled N.Z.$35 billion, rising to N.Z.$40 billion with the damaging 13 June 2011 aftershocks.

Although Mr Brownlee made significant effort to get the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority and E.Q.C. working together, there were common problems – a lack of communication, unwanted Ministerial intervention, a lack of transparency in the organizations and accusations of nepotism. Unfortunately a degree of truth existed to all of these with the Chief Executives of both E.Q.C. and C.E.R.A. coming in for damning attention. To his credit, the C.E. of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, Roger Sutton fell on his sword after realizing the damage his behaviour had done. Mr Sutton had gained respect in September 2010 for his outstanding leadership of Orion, the lines company responsible for the electricity power line network and distribution in Christchurch.

The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority wound up on 18 April 2016, five years after forming. It had several successes such as overseeing the Christchurch recovery blueprint, but it also had negative events such as the premature demolition of several buildings with heritage classifications on them undermine the more positive work. Its failure to co-ordinate properly with E.Q.C. served to undermine the effective and efficient early stage recovery.Whether or not any Royal Commission of Inquiry seeks to uncover who did what is another story altogether. Let us hope it does, for the ability to find out how E.Q.C.’s involvement in Christchurch got to where it is, depends on this.