This Is Christchurch: Localism / Regionalism In Canterbury

First published on This Is Christchurch

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Following up from the previous post on the so called “regional” stadium here are some more thoughts about local authorities in Canterbury. This follows on from a desperate attempt by CCC to portray the stadium as a “regional” facility in order to justify approaching other local authorities in Canterbury to get funding for the stadium. Mike Yardley, a Press columnist aligned to the National Party, and National-aligned councilors such as Sam MacDonald, are touting this possible solution, among others, and Yardley has even gone as far to suggest it should be funded by a regional rate. As it stands however, the simplest and cheapest way to get a stadium is to fund the current temporary facility in Addington to become permanent. There is practically no economic case to get a facility costing $670 million in Christchurch, once it is built the purported financial benefits are cancelled out by the operating losses, so it represent essentially a very expensive way of providing some accommodation, hospitality and event management businesses with a ratepayer subsidy. It does have a feel good social factor for the small proportion of the local population who can attend events there, but these events have been held historically at open air locations like the old Lancaster Park, Hagley Park etc with much reduced costs, principally because these places can be set up temporarily with much less cost for a specific event and the rest of the time they are just being maintained, or because their costs were incurred a long time ago. As only a percentage can be at any event such as a rugby match, the rest will be watching on their TV screen or some other device from a distance away, and for them the location is essentially irrelevant.

The problem is that Christchurch politicians have evoked a massive feelgood factor, but also one that is based on a stadium “arms race”, and a wider problem of the government abandoning national economic development and leaving regions to compete fiercely with each other. Uppermost in the more ambitious councilors’ minds is that Dunedin built a roofed stadium some years ago and is therefore attracting events that now won’t come to Christchurch because it doesn’t have such a facility. Forsyth Barr Stadium has a seated capacity of 30,000 for sports events which can be increased to 36,000 for concerts, and this number appears to be significant on local politicians’ minds in seeking for at least the same capacity in order to compete effectively for Dunedin. But as the South Island in most cases will only get major events in one centre, Dunedin and its ratepayers, already saddled with significant expense in the operation of their stadium, will lose out further if Christchurch gets its stadium. Really, the South Island is only big enough for one facility of this type, and the best outcome all round would be to keep the current open air stadium in Christchurch in operation, and let the small percentage who attend major events travel to Dunedin for the events there, as they do now.

The regional development problem, which has been heavily exacerbated by the present Labour government’s Wellington-centric approach in so many ways (now being seen in health, education and infrastructure management), is seeing politicians in Christchurch positioning the city as the second biggest in New Zealand, and one which essentially should be keeping up with the Joneses in Auckland. When the Supercity was formed, it was foreseen that it would pose something of a threat to the power of the Government because of its size compared with the capital in Wellington, reviving old historical rivalries from the time when Auckland was once the administrative centre of the entire nation. Now it has become clear that politicians in Christchurch have been pitching their case to Wellington, with meetings being held earlier this year as an example, for Christchurch to become a much bigger city than it currently is, it being a particular cause of outgoing mayor Lianne Dalziel. Christchurch essentially desires to become amalgamated with the neighbouring Selwyn and Waimakariri Districts, which would further cement its existing stature in relation to Auckland, and probably give a larger land area than Dunedin, which currently reaches all the way out to Middlemarch, some 80 km from the Octagon, but has a much smaller total population. If that were to become the case, facilities like the stadium and a lot more would become much easier to justify, as would local demands for more funding support from central government, and land area for a large increase in population. Dalziel and co have stated in the past their desire for Christchurch to become a city of a million, which essentially places it on the same kind of trajectory as Auckland. But in so doing, the rest of the South Island will miss out in a major way. This is already being foreshadowed by CCC’s sneaky attempts to close down the international airport in Queenstown by building a competing facility in nearby Tarras, for which the land was recently purchased. The one good thing about Government apathy towards the regions is that just as Queenstown was unable to get its new proposed airport for Mossburn off the ground, and looks likely to run up against a similar brick wall in Wanaka, Tarras could also fail if there is enough local opposition, since the government’s failure to become involved has put a brake on the ability of such large controversial projects to succeed.

The purported case for a new stadium in Christchurch is much weaker than one for an airport or seaport. These are true regional facilities, which the proposed “Te Kaha” stadium is not. Te Kaha is more of a local vote buyer for councilors, especially those who are beholden to CBD property owners, and it’s notable that one of those calling for a pause is a National-aligned mayoral candidate who, like his predecessor in the office, Sir Bob Parker, wants to see a less CBD-centric approach to developing the city. This approach essentially reinforces the strong suspicion that the prime reason for building a new stadium in the CBD is to give a large windfall boost in land values in the city centre, which will flow into increased rating income for the council and votes for local politicians who support the stadium project. At the time of writing, because these types of perverse incentives loom large as priorities for the upcoming local elections, just as in 2020 when the all important vote to rebuild the Town Hall was a catalyst for garnering political support, TIC fully expects the consultation process the Council has said it will now undertake in light of the greatly increased cost will be a simple rubber stamping exercise; there will be a strong incentive for councilors to wrap the issue up before the election later in the year, and to vote for the project to proceed. This however should remain locally funded, without the absurd demand that other councils stump up with any funding for it. As it is not a true regional facility, and scarcely even a city wide one, the nonsense idea that Yardley has promoted that the regional council should fund it with a rate from all across Canterbury deserves huge contempt. In seeking to become nationally dominant, politicians in Christchurch have trampled on too many toes across the local region and the rest of the South Island, and it’s totally a crock to believe there is any real desire to provide economic benefits to greater Canterbury or further afield. Most residents in Selwyn and Waimakariri already pay much higher rates than for comparable properties in Christchurch, for a lower standard of infrastructure, and an expensive stadium that few of them will benefit from has to be seen as irrelevant; this argument gains greater strength the further out one goes from the city.