Something that has been going on for a while now is that the Christchurch City Council (CCC) has been attempting to get the Local Government Act (the Act) changed to enable the transference of public transport management and administrative responsibility from the Canterbury Regional Council (ECan) to themselves. The legislation currently stops this from happening. The latest news was that Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel and ECan chair Steve Lowndes had signed a joint letter bemoaning the lack of progress on changing the legislation that would allow this. An amendment of the Act is currently making its way through parliament, and apparently this will address the issue that the mayor and chair want addressed. However, progress is slow, as this amendment has been underway since 2016.
Minister of Transport, Phil Twyford, has basically said that the amendment will be used to change the roadblock, which had been introduced in 2014 that forbids the transferring of responsibilities given by another Act.
A brief history of Christchurch public transport administration
For much of the twentieth century, public transport in Christchurch was administered and operated by the Christchurch Transport Board (CTB). The CTB was an independent local authority, complete with elections, that was responsible for the running and operation of most aspects of the city’s tram and bus networks. Thus it was independent of the CCC (this wasn’t the case in other cities, such as Wellington and Dunedin).
The CTB didn’t have total control of transport services. The railways had their train services, and a few private operators held the licences for semi-urban and rural routes outside the CTB’s jurisdiction, but from the 1960s-80s the CTB expanded through buy-outs and political manoeuvring to practically take over all routes. Then, in 1989, the government undertook a wholesale reorganisation of local government and the CTB simply ceased to exist.
How does it work now?
In 1989 the responsibility for managing public transport was given to ECan, while the operation of services was to be contracted to private companies. The assets of the CTB were purchased by the CCC, and became a council holding company, today known as Red Bus, which bids for contracts to operate routes alongside of others, such as Go Bus and Ritchies. To complicate matters, CCC is responsible for the provision of infrastructure, much of it crucial to the operation of the network, now and in future. This includes provision of bus stops and bus priority measures like bus lanes.
What are the issues?
The first thing to make clear is that the mayor and chair have not advocated for the transference of public transport management from ECan to CCC, they have simply called for the roadblock in the Act to be removed. They claim that the roadblock, making the move illegal, means that a public discussion cannot be had.
Firstly, I find that slightly disingenuous, although I do understand that there is no point in having a particular discussion that might possibly be irrelevant. However, that doesn’t mean there can’t be a discussion about the best way to manage and administer the city’s public transport. That would surely positively inform any advocacy the mayor and chair would undertake to get the relevant changes from the government, legislative or otherwise to change public transport management to whatever form required. The problem is that this lack of action simply cascades into further delay in getting things right, and in a city that is struggling to get mode shift to public transport happening, which is a real cause for concern, time is precious.
The key issues with the current regime seem to be largely related to a lack of alignment between councils on transport policy, particularly CCC and ECan. That’s a very high level issue, within which there are a pile of other, more detailed, issues, such as the integration of transport and housing policy, for example. Basically, it seems to be that the current way public transport is administered in Christchurch does not lead to the kinds of outcomes envisaged, such as increasing mode share.
Another key problem is that ECan represents a very large mixed urban/rural area, and that means decisions on public transport for a city of almost half a million people are being made by a lot of councillors who represent the interests of people with very rural priorities. This has long been a source of contention, and is perhaps the most illustrative example of the current issues.
What’s being done to mitigate these issues?
Currently, there is a joint public transport committee that has members from across the councils as well as NZTA and the Canterbury District Health Board. The purpose of the committee is to make joined up decisions, which are actually recommendations and can be ignored by ECan if desired. Nevertheless, there are signs the committee is actually doing some good. The recent Canterbury Regional Public Transport Plan, which proposes a massive expansion of frequent services and rapid transit, is one positive sign as it was recently approved by ECan. However, implementing the vast changes proposed in the plan to Christchurch’s public transport network, as well as securing the funding to do so, remains a test of the committee’s true effectiveness.
So what is being proposed through the legislation changes and how would that work?
Is it as simple as transferring authority from ECan to the CCC? The answer is probably “yes” and “no”. For a start, with the joint committee there are probably more integrated decisions being made, provided that ECan agrees. Simply switching to CCC being the body that has to approve those decisions, in place of ECan, would have some obvious advantages in terms of tying up decisions into one body. In essence, it could be seen as a step in the right direction. For Waimakariri and Selwyn, it probably doesn’t make that much of a difference to the status quo given that they would still be differing public transport decisions to another local authority, although this depends on whether the CCC is more in line with their thinking.
There are some obvious issues, however. There is the inherent danger that CCC will make decisions based on what is best, or is perceived to be best, within their own jurisdiction, for example. This is definitely a “maybe” sort of issue, there is nothing to suggest this sort of thing would necessarily happen, although I do see CCC’s continued ambivalence to commuter rail to the north and south as a manifestation of this. There is also the issue of whether it will actually fix the problems with Christchurch’s public transport system. Essentially, you are just shifting the responsibility, not dealing with how the system operates. The question is will that be enough? This is why I think it actually is appropriate to have a public discussion now about how public transport is managed for Christchurch, because this will inform what the best solution will be and what changes are required to make that happen.
I do wonder if the lack of urgency from the government on the issue of changing the Act is due to this. Does the Minister of Transport have concerns that this is actually the best way to achieve the desired change in Christchurch? Perhaps there are better ways?
Is there another option?
Firstly, I do think there needs to be a wholesale discussion on this topic to understand the best way forward and what steps are required to get there. However, if pushed I think the best way forward would be an independent transport authority for the greater Christchurch area. It would be informed by the existing joint transport committee, but perhaps the relationship would be strengthened to appease the councils (i.e. making it more certain that the transport authority will act on recommendations).
What responsibilities such an agency would have I cannot say, although it would at least have to have responsibility for all matters to do with public transport. Whether its responsibilities include other areas of transport is another matter altogether and probably fraught with with the stuff of political nightmares. Nevertheless, there also needs to be scope for ensuring that housing and planning and tied tightly to the decision making process, something that is seriously lacking in Christchurch.
I’m not entirely confident transferring responsibility for managing public transport from ECan to the CCC will result in a truly better situation. Essentially, I see it as two steps forward and one back kind of move. It could solve some of the issues, but there is an inherent danger it could create new ones, while others simply won’t go away. Creating an independent transport authority, with strengthened ties to a joint committee modelled on the current one, is something I think needs to be seriously considered. However, this is a discussion that needs to be happening, and trying to rush a decision for legislative change that will enable something that might not be the desirable solution seems slightly backward to me, or at least missing the big picture.