Wind back three years. We were at the beginning of a hotly contested council election. The incumbent was being challenged by a long-serving Member of Parliament, who many of us had persuaded to run in order to change the culture of the council.
"There'll be more jobs. We lost 8,600 in Christchurch last year. Christchurch will be a more business friendly city. The inner city which is dying will be revitalised and we've got a wide range of affordable housing that we should build. Secret council meetings, poor decision making, and bad decisions will come to an end. No more failed property developer bailouts, no more overseas trips to sunny sandcastle building, and 24% housing rental rates for council housing will end. The doors of the council will be open to people..."
Jim was running as a recovery mayor before we had even experienced the disaster that we were not as well prepared for as we could have been.
If anyone had said on the 3rd September that Jim Anderton would not win the mayoralty and that I would leave parliament and run for the mayoralty in 2013 I would have laughed. Nothing could have seemed more remote in terms of possibility.
But now it feels as if it is the only thing that could have happened.
It is a shame that it has taken a disaster for me to understand what truly matters. But what would be worse is that I learned nothing from what I have experienced.
I am concerned that there are people in influential positions who do not want to learn from these experiences, because it means they might have to accept responsibility for some of the things that have gone wrong or worse they could be forced to change the way they operate in the future.
The silo thinking and business as usual culture that has remained endemic in council and which were created in EQC and CERA, despite the fact that one was scaling up and one was brand new, have really held us back.
But what is worse is this stubborn refusal to work through all the issues with the relevant people.before the decisions are made. If there is one thing I have learned is that there is not only time to do this, it actually adds value to the decision-making process and saves time in the long run. People don't go off to court if the decision has buy-in. And as I said on Sunday, no one should have to take their council or their government to court to get justice. Especially now when we are recovering from a disaster.
What I have also learned is that the very act of engaging with local communities is empowering, which we are told is vital after a disempowering event. It is respectful and there are things the locals know that can inform the so-called experts.
There is also something deeply undemocratic about trusting others to make the decisions without us when they affect our lives and the environment within which we live.
It is with regret that I confess how little I knew about the connections between the health and wellbeing of the community and the environment until I came to Christchurch East and that I found I had much more to learn after the earthquakes.
I had a theoretical knowledge of the relationship between planning decisions and the environment, but did not understand how to negotiate my way through competing ideas and 'positions' when I didn't know enough about what they would mean.
I was MP for only a matter of weeks before a group that wanted to lower the sand dunes were in to see me. They presented a strong case showing that the dunes had grown much higher than originally allowed and it was preventing sea views that would increase the amenity value for local residents.
They had done their homework and had a detailed presentation. But it didn't take long for me to find that other members of the community had equally strong views about the need to protect the dune system. Their existence, apart from the protection they gave to the coastline and the residential properties behind, created a wonderful wilderness beach environment.
I realised that I would never be able to form an objective view if I only heard from protagonists in a debate, so I decided to start by understanding dunes. I visited Canterbury University, where Bob Kirk, gave me a personalised tutorial.
I learned that dunes were the only landform shaped by the vegetation – marram grass made them grow higher, whereas pingau made them lower and flatter.
I learned that their protective capacity derived not from their height but from the quantity of sand available to be given up in a storm event. Dragging the sand back into the sea helps quell the strength of the waves. It wasn't therefore about the height.
I was thinking there was a clear compromise until I realised that there was no room for a low flat dune unless we were willing to do away with Marine Parade.
It was a good lesson for me as the new MP for the area and I started to learn more about the environment around me, particularly the Estuary and the wetlands. Living in Bexley was magic. I joined the regular planting days and then enjoyed photographing the increasing birdlife – pukekos, kingfishers and white herons were my favourites.
And then the walkway was cut off to enhance the environment for the birdlife. A group of people who had moved into the area couldn't understand why their enjoyment had been compromised. This time it was the council ranger who came out and walked with local residents and told us about the important role Bexley now played in the region as a safe nesting environment for rare species and was even an overflow for the spit for the godwits.
We talked about potential compromises, which could allow the track to be open in the non-nesting times, but unfortunately that was relatively soon before the 2010 earthquake.
Having become the Patron for the Travis Wetlands, I spent time down there and learned the history of how that came to pass and met the most committed and passionate advocates for the environment you could meet.
And then we had the first of the earthquakes.
I had never heard of liquefaction and lateral spread, but I soon worked out it had something to do with the water. My journey since then has been one of discovery and it has changed me forever.
The truth is that the earthquakes have exposed poor planning processes, where known hazards were not even addressed.
The older long-term residents of Bexley knew Pacific Park should not have been built, but who will ever be held accountable for that. Local knowledge – guided by science and expert advice – should be an integral part of any planning process. That's what I've learned.
We all know about teachable moments – something happens that means we can teach children something important. We don't say, 'we send our kids to school; that's the teacher's job to teach them that.
Yet as a city, we've had everyone's undivided attention for nearly three years – but what have we learned?
That it's someone else's job to understand the risks we face?
It is time that we stopped thinking about responsibility for these decisions as belonging to someone else.
The government has red-zoned land but they did that outside the legal framework that gives people rights to have their objections heard. The High Court has seen through the so-called 'voluntary offer'.
What the government was trying to do was commendable – there are areas exposed by the quakes, which we ought to retreat from. But how they went about it, with no engagement, no attempt to explain or negotiate before decisions were locked in stone, that was inexcusable. And then to wrap it up in a public announcement with no prior warning add salt to the wound.
Whole communities wiped out by the colour of the pen and an impossible option for those who didn't have EQC cover for their land.
I believe the council has a moral duty to undertake a full analysis of all the land in the district plan. We need a principled approach where people are given access to a full and frank assessment of the land and the risks they are exposed to. Flood risk is now extremely concerning especially in places around the estuary.
The response of the affected residents is to seek flood protection, but what impact wouldthat have on the estuary. We know what happens when waves don't have anything to absorb the impact. Bouncing against a stonewall could damage the estuary in ways that people who fear their properties being flooded may not appreciate.
Should we be asking if area-wide solutions are enough or whether they just delay the inevitable. Could we have an honest conversation about managed retreat in these areas – and how would we do that?
We owe it to the people to tell it how it is. When can we fix this if not now? We now know that we must work with our natural environment. Di Lucas said to me once – you can cover it up, you can pipe it, you can divert it, but the memory of the stream remains in the land.
I loved living in Bexley, but in the end it wasn't hard to go. Living in that environment affects your perception of normal and people are living in subnormal conditions that we would never have tolerated prior to the earthquakes.
I believe the council has to step up to the plate and take responsibility for righting the wrongs of some past decisions.
It seems to me that we are much more likely to get it right when we work in partnership with organisations like yours. The outfall decision was absolutely the correct one, but not without controversy either.
I believe in a council being much more than a governance board for a city. We have a representation review in the coming term, which is our opportunity to allow the citizens of Christchurch to reinvent meaningful democratic participation at the grassroots.
We are rebuilding social housing and community facilities – let's make sure we right the wrongs of the lack of urban design so evident in our city. Business as usual is evident in the council's suburban master planning processes and in the so-called consultation on community facilities. This is an incredible opportunity for communities to learn new skills – participatory planning and collaborative decision-making – and what is more these will invigorate and empower communities in a way that can only help recovery.
Strengthening community boards to enable them to engage directly with their communities in the recovery process is a positive way forward.
This is going to be vital if we truly want to learn the lessons of our experience.
Where do we build the community assets that will sustain our lives as communities. Surely the council shouldn't be looking at a map and highlighting what's there and looking for gaps to fill. A library here – a swimming pool there.
Or raising community expectations in election year – who would do that?
The irony is that we complain about being left out and then demand our representatives take positions before all the facts and figures and options are known.
We need to do better than this.
This is what I said in my submission on the annual plan:
People need something to look forward to and a hope-filled vision for the future of the place where they live. New Brighton has been down the council-initiated planning track before, so I admit to being sceptical about this proposal being sufficient to provide that vision. On the other hand, think about what the red-zoning of so much residential property could do for the ward as a whole. And it is this world of opportunity that could provide the hope-filled vision we need and benefit New Brighton as well.
Think about having the largest natural wetlands within a city boundary based on Travis and stretching through the red zones – perhaps the Horseshoe Lake. Think of the eco-tourism potential that could provide, as well as the potential for learning experiences for children, with interpretation centres explaining the history of the wetlands, its native plants and the birdlife it already attracts.
Think about a rowing lake that has the advantage of utilising our excess water from a river that would regularly flood our streets without the new stop-banks. Think about creating a place where various venues would flourish around such a lake and where residential properties would be sought after – as our wetlands' perimeter properties were before the earthquake. Think of a second lake where people could enjoy a range of activities. Surround it with a running and cycling track and think of the marathon opportunities.
Think of an aquatic theme park with hydro-slide and wave pool as the base for a range of activities, which sees the ward become the city's playground and a great place to live once more. I mention this in response to calls to Keep QE11 in the East. I understand why the council would want to put the Olympic size pool in a sports centre based in the city, but you cannot take away from the eastern suburbs the source of so much activity, without offering anything in return. The proposal as it stands is again divisive just as is having two separate rules for rates remission. Mine is an alternative option that the council should consider. And although it will not please everyone, there would be enough in it for people to see that their ward was not being asset-stripped and that many of their needs were being met.
On this note I also support the evaluation of repairing Centennial pool to a usable standard (as opposed to as new) so that it could be ready and available by the end of the year. We managed a temporary rugby stadium in 100 days; surely this is a worthwhile project which would go along way to providing immediate relief to the lack of swimming facilities to the east of Hagley Park.
I have said on many occasions that we must turn this disaster into an opportunity and the opportunities in the east are boundless if only we open our minds to the possibilities."
When I was invited to join the UN Parliamentary Advisory Group on Disaster Risk Reduction, I used the opportunity to visit places that have had their own experience of disaster recovery including San Francisco, New Orleans, Kobe and Queensland. As a result I was invited to attend a couple of international conferences, which have opened my eyes to the connections between disaster risk reduction, resilience, sustainable development and climate change adaptation.
That is why I understand how important it is to remain future focused.
At a conference last year I heard the Mayor of Greensburg, Kansas, speak about their
experience after they were hit by a tornado. He said 'I'm not a greenie by any means, but if you're going to build back, why wouldn't you build back green'. Every one of that town's new civic buildings is rated Platinum Green. But it's what he said next that gave me pause. He said: 'never forget that the greenest building is the one that's already standing'. His wisdom doesn't come from years of studying environmental science or engineering. It comes from what is obvious, except to those who won't let common sense get in the way of a plan no matter what the price or who pays.
We need to seriously think about what we are doing and why.
St Faiths Church Hall, New Brighton, Christchurch - 4 September 2013