With earthquake slumped land and advancing sea-level rise, do Brighton and Southshore have a habitable future? A regeneration plan will have to decide. JOHN McCRONE reports.
Mike Sinclair is looking happy, almost chirpy, as he points to the mark about chest high on the front wall of his house – where the floor level really ought to be according to council flood rules.
Sinclair lives in a row of homes along the estuary margin in Kibblewhite St, South New Brighton, where the earthquakes dropped the land about half a metre, leaving the front lawns nearly level with the high tide.
All that now holds back the water during big storms like last February's record surge is a rather stumpy emergency stopbank.
"We should have been red-zoned really. When you think about it, where in Christchurch did any properties get left along the riverside like this?" he says.
But for some reason – it seems to have been an administrative error, a mistake in the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority's (Cera's) aerial mapping in 2012 – this little corner of the city was overlooked. And the buck has been getting passed ever since.
Sinclair says after Christchurch City Council (CCC) threw up the temporary stopbank, Cera took the view there was sufficient protective infrastructure in place. The dropped ground could now become someone else's problem.
And Lord, the insurance battles people have had because of that, Sinclair says. Well, in fact most of his original neighbours are gone – dead from the stress. "They just fell over, left, right and centre."
One of them was a policeman with a gun. "He was so angry it scared me." Heart attack at 51.
Sinclair says a few others went the same way. He himself wound up needing open heart surgery. A 66-year-old project manager who knew his rights, took on EQC and his insurer, his family had started calling him Mr Angry too. Sinclair says some real injustices got done. In South New Brighton, insurers exploited the council's "existing use rights" loophole to rebuild a number of homes right where they stood, with no efforts to raise them. Crazy, he says. "It's just a pack of mongrels you're dealing with."
However, with all the deaths, life has moved into a different phase. New people have been moving into the neighbourhood.
Those low-lying rebuilt properties have tenants who are not so bothered by the flood risk. Renting, they can sit back and enjoy the view across the saltmarsh – a view even better since Bexley was red-zoned the other side.
Other houses down Kibblewhite St have been sold off – unrepaired and uninsured – in "as is/where is" deals. One young couple bought theirs for about $130,000. "Where else could you buy a home in Christchurch for that sort of money?" he asks.
That is happening all around. Sinclair says South New Brighton is becoming populated by "surfer dudes", keen on the coastal lifestyle and not too fussed by its still unresolved earthquake issues.
Then over his back fence, a couple have installed a "tiny house" on a cleared section. "If the place does flood, they can put their home on the back of a truck and take it away."
So people are adapting, making the best of a precarious-looking future in a place that is both tilted towards the estuary by the earthquakes and expecting a metre of sea level rise over the next century.
Sinclair says some worry this means the area is going to become run-down and slummy. And he admits he is one of the guilty parties.
Having won his cash settlement, he is living as is/where is in his still broken home – off its piles, foam filler plugging the gaps, that line on the wall showing where the floor level ought to be.
Sinclair says he is feeling chirpy because the weight has finally been lifted. The money is in the bank. He can relax, enjoy his windsurfing and the scenery.
The house might be buggered. Yet there is not a lot of point rushing to make plans while the future of the entire suburb feels in doubt.
The long battle with the insurers was one thing. But now where is this part of Christchurch heading next?
Does anyone really intend to fix it? Or are the authorities going to let it all gently wind down into a cheerful seaside slum that eventually gets washed away by the rising tide?
Kibblewhite St looks like ground zero for judging Christchurch's earthquake recovery. It got about the rawest deal.
Property owners have been left exposed not just to flood risk, but steady coastal erosion and a water table almost reaching the surface. In places, the soil is so soft it is a question of whether it can take the long-term weight of house foundations at all.
So nothing was properly sorted. And residents fear the next step of their story is insurers withdrawing their insurance, and banks their mortgages, as the multiple hazards become officially recognised on Land Information Memorandums (LIMs) and district planning maps.
There are plenty – like Hugo Kristinsson, chair of the South Brighton Residents' Association (SBRA) and also the activist group, Empowered Christchurch – who feel much darker than Sinclair.
SBRA has been firing off notices of liability to the council, warning that many hundreds of properties are at risk of catastrophic disaster if the temporary stopbanks break – an Edgecumbe style threat, Kristinsson says.
The council should have enforced its own flood level standards on insurers and EQC, he says. Houses along the estuary front would either have had to have been safely raised, or the area appropriately red-zoned by the Crown.
That didn't happen. So now, says Kristinsson, the intention seems to be to let the area wind down over time of its own accord.
"If there's no planned future, nobody is going to invest here. We've got people living in containers, living in tiny houses, living in buses. This is slumification – but designed and performed by the authorities."
The fear is that one set of problems, fixing the city after the earthquakes, is being conveniently allowed to blur into the next, the issues of climate change. A passing of the buck, with property owners taking the ultimate hit.
Forget what didn't get done as it should. Look how nature is coming to take the rest.
And just how bad the situation is likely to be was revealed by a 2015 report from geotech consultant Tonkin & Taylor.
Because the earthquakes dropped the land in so many places and knocked the city's drainage patterns about, any effect of sea level rise is going to be felt that many decades sooner.
Tonkin & Taylor said 18,000 coastal and lower river properties are at risk of sea inundation over the next 50 to 100 years. A further 6000 could disappear due to land erosion.
The numbers were so shocking, a citizens' group – Christchurch Coastal Residents United (CCRU) – was formed to mount a legal challenge to the facts it contained.
Last year, a revised report was released. But it said much the same thing, just shuffled the numbers about. Some 5000 properties were moved out of the erosion basket and into the inundation basket, still leaving around 25,000 exposed.
A quick bit of maths says to red-zone all that – wait until it happens and pay people out following the event – would cost about $12 billion of public money.
No wonder the council's first panicked response was to talk of "managed retreat".
In other words, create drastic planning restrictions to prevent any further development, tell people not to expect sea walls, flood barrages and other expensive defensive measures, then quietly withdraw investment in local civic infrastructure like community halls, schools, or good roads.
Once property owners woke up to the writing on the wall, they would start to move themselves.
Kristinsson is still furious about the earthquake recovery injustices. South New Brighton was insured and should have been paid out whatever it took to deal with what happened to the land. Letting the area's legacy issues become now climate change issues is simply wrong.
"We want the risk that has been thrust upon us dealt with – compensated in the form of payment or mitigated in the form of hazard protection," he says.
However other are more concerned about getting to grips with the new story – what are the politicians going to mean by managed retreat?
Coastal Brighton is into its next phase now. So what are the rules of that game? Is it going to be just more of the familiar quick and rough justice – the heavily bureaucratic approach that characterised the earthquake recovery?
Bill Simpson, who has just stepped down as chair of Southshore Residents' Association (SSRA), says this is the new uncertainty which is eating into people's lives. Is the area about to be let go because it doesn't seem worth protecting?
Simpson says Southshore has been calling for its own stopbanks since homes in Rockinghorse Rd were flooded above floor level by a storm surge in July last year.
SSRA even commissioned an engineer to produce a suitable design to prod the council into action. But so far there has only been an echoing silence in reply.
"People feel quite unsafe in Southshore," Simpson says. For a large chunk of the city, the stresses of the earthquakes just seem to keep rolling on and on.
CONSULTATION, BUT NOT AS YOU KNOW IT
Perhaps surprisingly – largely because it has been unheralded – a new political process to deal with the situation is taking shape.
Regenerate Christchurch, the council and Crown recovery agency, is working up to launch a planning exercise, the Southshore and South Brighton Regeneration Strategy.
And it might even be what everyone could have hoped for, because uniquely it is to be based on a consultation process that has been designed by the very community it is intended to serve.
Consultation has come to seem an abused term in post-quake Christchurch. Even the council, saying it was not going to act like Cera, has still tended to do the bureaucratic thing of seeking public agreement on the spending options it already feels to be best.
And as has also been happening a lot in the land-damaged parts of the city, weighty technical reports keep getting created and dropped on communities in ways that leave people having to guess at the actions that might follow.
Being shut out of the council's inner thought processes, it is often easy for people to assume the worst.
That is what has happened over the talk of managed retreat. So the Brighton area has emerged as a guinea pig for what may be an entirely different way to shape a city's long-term hazard policies.
Apparently the idea arose out of the community development agency, Renew Brighton. Manager Sylvia Smyth says she has been pushing for a number of years for a co-creation model where communities are embedded in the decision making process.
The motto is: "Nothing about us, without us." And late last year, Regenerate Christchurch said to go ahead.
In January, a "How Team" of 12 was formed from a mix of planning officials and community representatives, like the Avon-Ōtākaro Network's Evan Smith and the CCRU's Simon Watts, both a Southshore local and a professor of environmental science.
Smyth says the level of trust is such that Regenerate Christchurch committed to accepting whatever engagement process the team produced. No amendments.
And the hope is the team will stay involved as the community's eye inside the process, checking that Regenerate Christchurch is meeting its expectations. An unprecedented degree of access.
Smyth says the authorities had been on quite a different track, dividing up their responsibilities on more technical grounds.
Regenerate Christchurch had taken on the lead role for strategy planning in Southshore. There was a bureaucratic logic to that as 200 estuary properties were in fact red-zoned there by the Crown.
So the government retains an interest in whether the land might be either protected by stopbanks, or allowed to be gradually claimed as saltmarsh by the sea.
Then last year, the council had started to deal with South New Brighton as its own special case. Belatedly perhaps, a study of the area's high groundwater problems was commissioned, and that is soon to be released, the council says.
The division also made sense because a quirk of the earthquakes was it sent the suburbs in opposite directions. While South New Brighton has mostly sunk, Southshore has mostly risen. The spit has had some help in terms of future sea level rise.
But Smyth says from a community point of view, it is obvious that the whole of the area needs to be treated as a single conversation. Some 2000 remaining homes and 3200 residents.
There is New Brighton too. Although at the moment is stands outside the regeneration strategy, says Smyth. Yet another rebuild agency, the council's Development Christchurch Ltd (DCL), is meant to be implementing a masterplan to revitalise the commercial area.
However it is all of a piece. New Brighton centre is not going to attract investors unless it is also clear what the intentions are for the future of its surrounding suburbs.
Another complexity for the regeneration consultation is that effectively a lot of the decisions have been put on ice until 2021.
Coastal hazard policy was supposed to be sorted as part of 2016's Replacement District Plan – a hurried rewrite rushed through under a panel of independent commissioners.
It was too much to swallow at the time and has been left to be concluded in the plan's next revisit in another three years.
So that means a delay, says Smyth. But also an opportunity for the community to have that better informed debate.
However what will matter to people is that the official thinking is shifting from the initial authoritarian approach to managed retreat, she says.
Instead of reacting to hazards that may still be decades off as if all their possible costs must be avoided immediately, a more transitional approach should become the official policy.
Smyth says humans are adaptive creatures. They make judgements about risks when they buy homes or start businesses. People who choose coastal communities may also take a different view of how to cope with the challenges.
The solutions for the Brighton area might be tiny houses, or even floating houses. Changes to the District Plan could allow for more of that kind of lifestyle as future evolves.
What some would traditionally might see as slumification, others might view as a chance to build on a distinctive character.
So a good regeneration strategy is likely to produce a plan which sees the future playing out in stages. Nothing has to be done sooner than it needs to. But also residents will have a clear roadmap of how the policy steps are going to work.
Smyth agrees that is the happy side of the story. The hazards are also of course real. The coming groundwater study, for example, is likely to be another big shock for people to digest.
A big part of the How Team's role will be to ensure the information is communicated to the community in a way it can understand. Enough of adding to the stress by dropping technical reports out of the blue.
Smyth says if it goes to plan – the regeneration consultation is still in the last delicate stages of sign-off – the baseline engagement could start in July and it will be well in progress by the end of the year.
"There's heaps of information to give out."
THE BIG PICTURE
So for coastal Brighton, the future rules for living and investing in the area remain unclear. Yet at least there is the promise locals will be more closely involved in shaping those decisions.
City Council strategy planner Helen Beaumont says from the council's point of view, it does still have to consider the bigger picture on how rate-payer money will be spent.
Beaumont says the whole of Christchurch was left with new land drainage problems after the earthquakes.
The first to show itself was Flockton in St Albans. Six homes had to be bought out, streams widened, new pumps installed, to tackle the regular flooding there.
Next came the repeated flooding of properties along the Heathcote River. Again, about $80 million is being spent there on buying people out, dredging the channel, building an upstream ponding area.
Another area with problems is the Lower Styx heading past Brooklands. "We simply don't have the budget, the people, the resources to do everything at once," she says.
Beaumont says when it comes to South New Brighton and Southshore, the recent record tidal highs show there are concerns. And yet also that they are not as critical as the residents' associations have been arguing.
February's storm saw the water rise to within 30cm of the top of Kibblewhite Street's stopbanks. But the houses were safe.
The stopbanks might be temporary in only being engineered for a 20 year life, however they are serving to protect at least 100 properties from regular flooding and up to 800 from extreme weather events.
Then while Southshore had been calling for a multi-million dollar extension to its own short bund just south of Bridge St to protect Seafield Place, again the February surge showed the dangers are not yet so severe.
Beaumont says the city needs a debate through a regeneration strategy of how much the city is prepared to spend on protecting coastal communities and what kind of long-term planning framework is needed.
But the story evolves. A lot of people have moved out. A lot of new people have moved in. A good consultation process will help decide the sensible next steps.