Government planning to give itself sweeping powers to cope with the earthquake rebuild

:  Evacuees from Kaikoura on board HMNZS Canterbury
 

The Government is already drafting legislation which will give it sweeping powers to over-rule local Councils and District plans in the earthquake affected North Canterbury and Hurunui districts.

POLITIK understands it is proposing to attach the new legislation to an already existing piece of legislation going through the House, the Civil Defence Emergency Management Amendment Bill. 

The new draft is being co-ordinated by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and will be modelled on the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act.

But the fact that the powers are to be added to a permanent piece of legislation suggests they may stay on the books able to be activated for future crises.

At the same time, the Government is getting a clearer idea of just how extensive the rebuild of the road and rail will be.

The Earthquake Commission's geo-tech engineering consultants, using photographs, have been able to measure the size of the slips and the amount of material that will have to be removed.

Ministers have preliminary results from that study.

“A more detailed picture is emerging as more information comes to hand,” Transport Minister Simon Bridges told Parliament yesterday.

“The scale and complexity of the slips on State Highway One are unprecedented and task ahead of us is huge.”

It is the size of the slips that raises some big questions.

First, where will the debris from the slips be dumped?

Government MPs spoken to by POLITIK yesterday said that notwithstanding the need for urgency to get the transport links restored, it would be highly unlikely that the debris would be pushed into the sea as some industry sources have suggested.

Nevertheless, the legislation being proposed by the Government would give it the power over-rule any local plans which might stop the dumping and to cut off any appeal rights for those who opposed the dumping.

But the key local iwi, Ngai Tahu,  would be sure to oppose any dumping at sea and are generally allies of the Government and the Maori Party. National List MP Nuk Korako is Ngai Tahu.

However last night Environment Minister Nick Smith told POLITIK it was far too early to speculate on options.

“The Resource Management Act has emergency provisions for the sort of temporary work required to get the inland Kaikoura road open and access for those communities,” he said.

"It will be a massive design job on the mix of earthworks and civil structures to resolve long-term secure access for Kaikoura north and south.

"The biggest issue will not be what to do with surplus fill but how to secure a safe, resilient state highway given the scale of these massive and active landslides.”

Both Bridges and Smith are hinting that the replacement of the state highway and railway will not happen quickly.

Even the suggestion from some Ministers that it could be "months" away may be optimistic.

In Parliament, Bridges suggested that time-critical freight would need to travel by road to the South Island leaving open the option of using coastal shipping for less time-critical freight.

A contributor, who blogger Cameron Salter said runs a major trucking company, wrote on the Whaleoil blog that the trip from Picton to Christchurch via State Highway Seven was 30% longer than the coastal route which has been destroyed by the earthquake.

“ For us today a run from Christchurch to Picton took us just on 12 hours (including deliveries).

“Under the old State Highway One rules it would have taken five hours one way, six back and a full round trip would have been completed.

"So far we have only done half of the trip, and our driver is staying in Picton overnight.

“That equates to a 50% productivity loss in simple terms.”

It is those sort of  costs that could contribute to a drop in growth next year.

But Finance Minister Bill English told Parliament yesterday that at this stage the ANZ and ASB banks were forecasting only a small dropoff in GDP during the last quarter this year and the first quarter next year.

He said he agreed with their forecasts but the half-yearly fiscal, and economic update due next month would be more definitive.

English said it would take some time get a clearer picture but the Government would like to be able to continue with all its other investments.

“We may be able to do that because we’ve got a growing economy, the Government’s books are in good shape, and domestic and international confidence remains high.”

However, he said that the total bill to the Government for the Christchurch earthquake was now $17 billion, considerably more than had been estimated in 2011 when the earthquake struck.

Some Government MPs, spoken to by POLITIK, said they would be happy for the debt limits to be relaxed if that was what was required to get the work in North Canterbury done.

It is only starting to sink into MPs minds that once again, they face a major catastrophe and like Christchurch it will tend to divert political attention away from other issues.

At this stage, the Opposition parties are supporting the Government, but one senior and long experienced National MP wondered how long that would last; indeed, he wondered whether it should last.

Sooner or later politics will start again.

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