Govt prioritied investors over locals, research says

The new Central Library on the corner of Gloucester Street and Cathedral Square, called "Turanga", is due to open in 2018. Picture Martin Hunter

Cantabrians became “collateral damage” post-earthquake as the Government focused on telling positive stories to attract investors, an academic has said.

Victoria University of Wellington architecture head of school Morten Gjerde wrote a research paper on Government communication after the Canterbury earthquakes for an international conference in China last year.

He said in the paper that the Government was “more eager to tell positive stories about recovery to national and international audiences that they have been to keep residents informed”.

“It would be fair to say that local residents have been collateral damage so far during this recovery as leaders have sought to curry favour with local and international investors in order to help drive it,” the paper said.

But former Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority chief executive Roger Sutton strongly disagreed.

He said communicating with investors had only been a small part of CERA’s focus.

“If I think about my time there, I spent 95 per cent with real Christchurch people, and five per cent with that kind of person,” he said.

He said CERA “fronted a lot” to Cantabrians, including at sometimes hostile meetings.

“We held a meeting with Port Hills residents over the zoning, and I think a lot of Government organisations would never have had the courage to front there,” he said.

But he agreed that CERA could have communicated better about rebuild problems.

“It’s difficult for the Government to give bad news,” he said.

People in leadership roles naturally wanted to tell the positive stories of successes, he said.

He said he had personally been told off for doing that by mayor Lianne Dalziel when he was chief executive of Orion, before he moved to CERA.

He had been making a statement about power cuts after the February 22, 2011, earthquake, and had focused on the 92 per cent of Canterbury homes the company had returned power to, he said.

“I remember Lianne rang me up and said, Roger, don’t be such a moron. Don’t talk about the 92 per cent, talk about the eight percent and when they will get their power on,” he said.

City councillor Deon Swiggs, who started the Rebuild Christchurch website after the earthquakes to help people access information, agreed with the research findings.

He said CERA had not communicated enough information to residents, and had tried to only tell the positive stories.

“People lost trust very early on with Government in terms of what they were being told.”

Dr Gjerde’s paper also criticised the slow pace of the rebuild, and said it had been skewed in favour of those who were wealthy.

“Those living on the city’s more affluent western suburbs were affected initially by the quakes far less than those living to the east. Since then, money and other resources have flowed much more freely in the west which has seen these areas return quickly to pre-earthquake conditions, whereas those living in the poorer central and eastern suburbs continue to battle toward recovery with far fewer resources to call upon,” he said.

Dr Gjerde said his conclusions were based on Christchurch research findings, and comparisons with disaster recovery processes in other countries.

He hoped the paper, which was called Building Back Better, could be used to improve future disaster response processes, he said.