Ian and Ruth

Port Hills red zone

Area 8: Port Hills

Red zoned due to risk of cliff collapse

White zoned, green zoned, then red zoned in December 2013


Ian and Ruth’s story

Ian: I’m a structural engineer with 40 years’ experience. I’ve been working in Christchurch since the early ’80s. I went through Canterbury University, obviously. Prior to the earthquake we did very little residential work, but we’ve done quite a lot since then because people need help. I don’t particularly enjoy it. I’ve been involved knees up in the whole thing. The commercial stuff you just deal with it, but the residential stuff … 

Having been through it I empathise with a lot of the people we’ve talked to. We act for both sides − for insurers and we’re independent − but one of the things I try to bring to it is, “I know what you’ve been through, we’ve been through it too, we’re going through it.” It helps people. But also I’ve seen an unbelievable range of totally incompetent reports across the board. It just astounds me. People are looking at these things and just haven’t got a clue, and yet they’re acting with authority! And it’s pretty galling.

That’s one of the reasons we’re staying and able to get on and repair our house, because I know this process. I’m not a specialist geotechnical engineer, but I do have quite a lot of knowledge in that area, and basically GNS have got it wrong, but they won’t listen to us. 

I was away for the February 2011 earthquake and returned the next day. I checked the house and thought it was safe, but my wife said, “I don’t believe you.” I said, “But people pay me for these opinions, Ruth!” And she said, “I still don’t believe you!” She said, “I needed a husband and you came back as an engineer.” I saw it as something to be fixed, and of course that makes your whole response quite different. I can fix this, and that’s OK, and that’s unsafe, stay away from there. If you don’t have that technical knowledge you’re just overwhelmed.

Ruth: I’m actually retired now. I’m not 65 but I’m very lucky to have retired. At the time of the quakes I was working as a voluntary teacher with English Language Partners, which I’d been doing for a number of years. I was teaching four mornings a week a group of deaf refugees who are also preliterate. That involved me learning a new language: Sign Language. By the time I left I’d been a volunteer for something like nine years. I’ve worked in schools and IHC, and I was a social worker, so I’ve always had that leaning. And politically I am quite strong on human rights. So I’ve come from quite a strong background of caring about people and their situations. 

Ian and Ruth’s property 

Ruth: Initially in June 2012 we [Ian and Ruth] were green zoned, and that was after having waited quite some time. We felt that was the correct zoning. Mark Yetton, who was part of the Port Hills group, had been on our property several times and always assured us that we were OK. He was a very good communicator very early on after the earthquakes and I felt he knew the property really well. When we had that June earthquake [2011] he said to me about more rocks that had come down, and it was almost like he knew exactly which rocks. 

So we had no cause to feel other than that we should have been green zoned, but it was a huge relief when we were. As far as we were concerned that was the end of the matter. And then, 18 months later, in December 2013, we got a call out of the blue at night to say that we’d been red zoned. We’d had no inkling. We hadn’t appealed our zoning − our neighbour had, but we hadn’t − so there had been no communication, nothing to indicate that our land was still under investigation. So it just came as a huge shock.  

We were red zoned because we were “10 to the minus 4” in terms of life:risk − which is, I gather, a risk of 1 in 10,000 in a year − because of possible cliff collapse. Their definition of cliff collapse is when uncountable rocks come out, but you could count the rocks that have come out of our cliff. The height of the cliff comes into it too, and again our cliff is below this height, and in fact their model specifically excludes anything under 10 metres. So we seem to be excluded on all of these factors, but they’ve calculated that life:risk factor. 

One of the other things is the occupancy - they take the occupancy of a house as being 100 percent which is a fair enough thing as there would be some people, I guess, who were home all the time. So they’ve put this hazard line which is out in the garden - but no-one is ever in the garden 100 percent of the time. ... I mean, our house is quite a long way actually from where they’ve put the hazard line. We still don’t believe it’s the right decision. But that was a terrible process to go through. ... 

On the Port Hills it was only 70 properties or something that were in the situation that we’re in, so it’s not many. They knew. They could easily have sent us a letter, and then we would have actually had the ability to have some input into the process. Other people who had appealed their zonings could put in their reasons for appealing, but we were red zoned with no right of appeal. So it’s not democracy. I still feel pretty angry about it.

Ian: The house is in McCormack’s Bay, at the top of a 12-metre cliff, and was built in the mid-60s so it’s 50 years old. We’ve been out there 23 years. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for us to move so we’re not.

We’re a repair. It was a fairly incompetent assessment of our property by EQC [Earthquake Commission]. They were lucky I was there with them, because I was pointing out what the damage was and what it meant. I think it’s why the insurers were a bit edgy at the start. They thought we wanted a new house like everyone seems to want. And I said, “No, it’s quite repairable. It’s got a lot of damage, but it’s quite repairable.” We had no problem there. Structurally it’s sound, it’s on the rock, it’s fine. 

We were white zoned for about nine months, and then we were green for a bit over a year and the insurers had just started going through the process of sorting out what had to be done. Then we were red zoned. At about 8.40 pm on the 14th of December 2013. It was just a phone call out of the blue: “Oh, I’m just ringing to let you know you’re red zoned before it’s public tomorrow.” My son looked on the website and it was public already, and that was the first we knew about it. We’d been green zoned, we were in the process of going through our insurance, and we’d heard nothing, nothing at all. 

Of the 44 houses on Balmoral Lane, 15 have been red zoned. Of those 15, 12 have been demolished. We’re not going and two more are yet to go. We’re the only red zoners who have decided to stay. To be fair, the other ones were all section 124 as well. Our neighbour across the road got some poor advice. I think her property got less damage than ours, but that’s what has happened. We’re only where we are because I’m an engineer.  We’d have gone, I’m sure, if I wasn’t an engineer, because I simply wouldn’t have the fortitude to fight it, or I guess the knowledge to see that it was OK anyway.

The red zoning has no “legal basis” - that was the term the Supreme Court used - and yet still it sits on our property and takes away our value and there’s nothing we can do about it. We’ve lost all the value of our house. The value of the property has gone from $760,000 RV to $44,000 for the land and house. Ruth thought we should appeal the revaluation and I said, “What’s the point? Who’s going to buy a wrecked house, red zoned with a hazard management zone across it?” But people have got short memories. It’s a fantastic section, and in 20 years’ time we’d like to think that we’ll get reasonable value for it again. But, I mean, if I drop dead now and Ruth had to sell the house she’d get peanuts for it.

Reasons for staying

We chose to stay for a whole mixture of things. We did go off looking at other properties at first. Our property is not perfect, but we have got a very nice home and a very nice setting, so we like living here − that’s a big thing. Because our house was a repair rather than a rebuild we weren’t going to get a full payout, so the choice between taking insurance or the government offer − whichever we took − meant that we actually wouldn’t be receiving the money to replace our home to a similar size or standard.

We’re not going to be pushed around. To me, it just absolutely was trampling on our rights as property owners, and being bullied. We have written to the Minister and we just simply got a reply saying that we have been told that our property is at immediate risk of death or something and there is no right of appeal. So we haven’t been able to write to anyone. 

Of course people have − and we have, too − stood to lose a huge amount of money. We’ve lost in our property value, but we’re still going to have a very nice place and we’ve decided we can live there, but sometimes I think, “Actually what if something happens?” Things happen in people’s lives and we haven’t got an asset that we could sell and use that to buy another property. We’ve obviously decided it’s worth the risk, but it is a risk.

Reasons for agreeing to interview

Ian: Ruth said this is going to be your only opportunity to have someone listen to what you’re going to say, because everyone else I talk to either thinks “He’s ranting again” or it has no impact. When it first came through I thought, “Oh God, not another bloody survey” and left it sitting there. And she said, “No, it’s the Human Rights Commission, that’s something that is substantial and proper, not just a research foundation wanting to sell you paving tiles or something. It’s proper. This might have some impact on helping someone next time it goes around. They might not be treated quite so arbitrarily.” I’d hope so.

Ruth: I was very pleased to get the [Human Rights Commission] survey and see how comprehensive it was. I guess in that survey I let off a bit of a steam! We just feel since we were red zoned that no-one has listened to us. We’ve had no avenue of appeal. We’ve had acknowledgement from close friends and families that we’re in a difficult situation − even from neighbours. So I felt this was a real acknowledgement that actually the process hasn’t been a good one, and that for those of us who have made that choice to stay in the red zone it still isn’t an easy situation to be in. I would just like to think this wouldn’t happen to other people in a natural disaster in New Zealand. That there would be a far more consultative process.

I know that telling our story can’t change anything that’s happened, but if we can do something so that other people don’t have to go through it. With any disaster, with anything like this, there will be learnings, but I would just like to think that no-one would be bullied in the way that we’ve been. 

We’re not talking about stirrers or troublemakers. We’re talking about very ordinary New Zealanders. I continually see that. They’re people that probably have just sat back and taken life as it came and not complained. So it is very ordinary. They’re not all stirrers like I’ve been. My determination comes from the injustice of it. I just feel very strongly that there’s been a huge injustice done, and it’s really interesting to talk to people about the fact that we’re staying and they say, “Oh if only we’d known” or, “Oh I’ll tell my friend because they didn’t know they could have stayed”, and that’s a shocker. A lot of those people still may have made the decision to go, because sometimes you just look at the amount of work. And of course it was different on the flat. There was a very clear implication that people were going to lose their services. But now it’s come out that legally the Council is obliged to keep those services going. So that’s what people say to me, “What about your services?” And I just say there’s no question of that, and in fact the City Council has given us a new sewer line since the earthquakes.  

Some people’s homes weren’t actually terribly badly damaged, or their land, but they happened to be red zoned. I’m not against the red zoning per se, because something needed to be done to help some people out of very difficult situations. For instance, we’ve got neighbours − their land simply cannot be built on. I mean it is dangerous, there’s no doubt about that. But on the Port Hills there are properties that have been caught up in the red zoning that I don’t believe are dangerous. 

We were also assured by [the government] right at the beginning of that red zoning process that no-one would lose equity in their properties. Well, it’s simply not true. 

Reasons for staying

Ian: I understand the [red zone purchase] offer has been reopened, but we had already made the decision we were going to stay, largely prompted by the fact that there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with our property that couldn’t be fixed. And if we move off, in 10 years’ time there will be someone on our property because it’s going to be sold by the Government. They’re not going to sit on all these properties. And we couldn’t see any reason to go, not helped by the fact that our RV [rateable value] was probably only about two-thirds of what the market value was. I have to confess I cannot see any reason at all why the property should be taken at below market value when if it were acquired for compulsory purchase for a road you’d get market value. And of course there’s always an argument about what market value is. 

I’ve had five geologists now, two employed by EQC, one employed by the Council and two employed by us, who reckon that our cliff is OK and repairable. So why should we listen to someone from GNS who has admitted that he hasn’t been on the property, has accepted there’s no clifftop recession, and has accepted that the cracks across our carpark they’ve put the zone around aren’t related to clifftop damage? 

We’re both a bit bloody minded. There isn’t any reason why we should go, so why the hell should we go? If we’d been offered full market value for our house I don’t know what we would have thought about it. We might have had a different view. But we’re very much attached to the area. That’s where our kids grew up, we’ve been there for 23 years, so it’s the community we live in. We like it out there. 

We were very fortunate because we didn’t have a mortgage. That would have been another major thing. When I went to that red zoners’ meeting I was surprised they had a banker there, but then I thought that’s pretty major because if you couldn’t get insurance you’re not going to get a mortgage. You’ve got no choices.

Support for each other

Ruth: I don’t think I could have gone through this process without Ian, and I don’t think he, to be fair, could have done it without me either. In meetings we are quite interesting: I was able to be the more emotional one and say things that Ian couldn’t. Ian, because of his professional standing and dealing with other engineers, had to be a bit more careful, whereas I felt I could say more how I felt. He’s used to dealing with difficult people so he doesn’t get nearly as upset as I do by the conflict of the situation.

Ian hadn’t been in Christchurch for the 22 February 2011 earthquake and he arrived back reasonably early the next morning. I could see right through our house and it was just an absolute mess. I just thought it was gone. We went home together and we had a talk before we went home about how we were going to have to be gentle with each other, and it was quite a shocking − almost brings me to tears, actually − a shocking situation to arrive home to find our house in the state it was. Ian walked around the place and he said to me, “Oh I think it’s repairable,” and I said, “I don’t believe you,” and he said to me, “But people pay me to make decisions like this,” and I said, “I still don’t believe you.” I did tell Ian later in the day, when he was telling someone that story, “You came home and you were an engineer and I needed a husband.” 

So from that point of view we’ve been extremely lucky, just in general with dealing with the earthquakes, but also once the red zoning came, having that technical knowledge. 

I’ve certainly suffered stress − a huge amount − but I also realise that there are two of us in our early 60s who have enough energy to cope with all of this, who have the knowledge. So in terms of when you look at so many people who haven’t got the education to be able to cope with this sort of thing, or the support. But no, the stress has been immense. I still feel it. I can feel it in my face. I can feel it when I talk about it. Often when things come up about it or about earthquake stuff in general, with people who I don’t think will understand, I simply don’t get involved because it is too stressful. That feeling of being misunderstood and the feeling of “You’re a complainer”. 

Insurance and Repairs

Ruth: The insurance company already had a builder, and we were talking with the builder and we were well down that process. But once we were red zoned they wouldn’t repair our property, so that was a real blow. Actually, after we were forced to cash settle − which wasn’t our first choice − it’s turned out to mean we’ve got control of the repairs, we’re in control of the process.

Ian: We had to go through a lot of hoops to get insurance, and then in the end the insurers were quite happy to insure us on the same basis as we were before once they’d seen the reports. So we’re with AMI, who we always were with. There was a bit of a struggle to get it done, because they just had the walls up against people who were red zoned, but I went through the broker I worked with for my own company insurance and he got the local manager to back us up. Having insurance has made us feel immensely better, because you’re not going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on your house if you can’t insure it.

We were well over cap. We were over cap as soon as EQC came around. Even though the guy really didn’t know what he was doing, I think they could see where the damage was and they could see this is going to be repair. We cash settled because the insurer would not repair on red zone land, so Southern Response wouldn’t have anything to do with it. I found Southern Response reasonably professional. They had a project manager we dealt with who very quickly saw that we knew what we were after and we weren’t trying to get more.  We weren’t after any more than was our fair share. 

Now we’re managing our own repairs. It’s hard work. My wife is staggered at how much you have to answer, but I said that’s just what happens when you project manage. It’s not so much difficult as relentless. There’s always something to do. I’d spend probably four or five hours a week just answering queries. I’m not complaining. We chose to do it.  

We’ve got our building consent, we’ve got our insurance, we’ve got contract works insurance for the house, and it’s underway and it’s all straight forward. We’ve got to do a little bit of stabilisation of rock on the cliff, which EQC declined to pay for initially despite seeing their report from their geotechnical engineer, who said this is earthquake damage and can be repaired by doing this. The Council has indicated they require this for the consent, so that’s still in the process of discussion. We haven’t been settled for the claim, but the indications are that they will finally come to the party. We’d have never got there if I wasn’t an engineer. This is what I do for a living, so I know the process, but it’s incredibly frustrating − and that’s for someone who is in the game. 

Immediate post-earthquake community response

Ian: There were 44 properties on Balmoral Lane. It’s a private lane because it’s too narrow for the Council to take it over. We have to operate as a private land. We all pay a land levy to maintain the lane, so we’re all part of a group anyway. The structure was there. I’m on the committee for the land, and I’ve been quite handy to them over the last few years. But one of the things as a Lane Association we did several times after the quake was had meetings just so people could know what was going on. Mark Yetton came along to three of them and was really fantastic, because people were pretty frightened. Mark was incredibly helpful and constructive. He just came along because we’d asked him. He was happy to come and talk, and he made it very clear that this was just personal opinions. We also had a meeting with the Council and had Council come and speak on the risk assessment they were doing.

I think that having those meetings in Balmoral Lane was wonderful, because people got together with a whole lot of other people in exactly the same situation and shared. I mean, socially the earthquakes were fantastic. We got to know people up and down the road. All you want to do is talk and share. We ate and drank phenomenally. You work all day trying to fix your house up, and then you just sit down and eat and drink. We ate like princes for that first week, because everyone was emptying their freezers.  Salmon, whitebait, crayfish … people just came out and helped each other.

Initially we got thrown out of our house for about five days because they thought the whole hillside was going to slip down. I was able to get up there because I knew four other routes they didn’t know. We had to feed the cat and things like that. I also did a number of inspections for people for the safety of their houses. 

We didn’t have water for six weeks and we didn’t have power for four-and-a-half weeks. The power didn’t worry us too much because we do a lot of camping, so we had gas stove. The thing I feel very smug about is that seven years ago I put a rainwater tank in − and I stabilised it, of course, being a good structural engineer! − so we were able to supply our neighbours with water. It was massive. It made a big difference. 

First meeting with CERA [Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority]

Ruth: There was an article in the newspaper about Roger Sutton telling the insurance companies to get the houses in order, more or less, and I wrote a letter to The Press saying that even dealing with the insurance company − which hadn’t been easy − paled in significance to having to deal with CERA. I’ve never, ever been spoken to and bullied in the way that I was. I can still feel it! Mostly I’m fine, but every now and then it’ll keep me awake at night, this resentment that I have never ever been able to …  I think that being red zoned with no right of appeal is actually a very big bully. That’s a shocking thing to have done to anyone. 

The first meeting we had with CERA was the day the red zoning became public. We’d been rung the night before so I was feeling pretty angry, and I just simply got on the phone in the morning and said that we deserved an explanation and that I expected someone to come to us that day. I wasn’t going to hang around and wait. We’d just been referred to a website. It took quite a number of phone calls and I was insistent. [...]

As the thing progressed I realised they had the legislation on their side. They didn’t have to justify anything to us. They were insistent that it was a voluntary offer, but we said, “Well it’s voluntary, in that you say we don’t have to accept it, but immediately it’s taking away the value of our land, it’s taking away our ability to get insurance.” We have never been under threat of having our services removed, because they all just come to our property from the main road. I’ve known people who are red zoned on the flat, but this was all new to us. We just felt absolutely gobsmacked in that we were having to leave our land. That was bullying.

[...]I can’t believe that in New Zealand − and I mean, I so much believe in democracy − that we’ve been treated in this way.

Attempts to get clarification for the red zoning of their property

Ian: It must have been about a week after the first meeting, they [CERA, Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority] asked us formally to a meeting in town. What staggered me is we went through three locked doors before we could get to the meeting room in a building on Worcester Street. Unbelievable. You’d think we were criminals being led in. We got Ruth’s sister to come along with us because we wanted an independent person there. Joan wrote notes. She was horrified. [...]She understands people processes quite well. She was simply horrified to see how we were treated when they started to give us some information and I said well that’s a photo of the wrong cliff, that’s not there, it was wrong. All this rubbish they presented as authority. Of course we interrupted them − they weren’t very happy about being interrupted. Ruth walked out of the meeting just to calm down. The process was staggering. It was ‘Thou shalt not challenge it.’ It was wrong! 

The red zoning was totally arbitrary. As soon as it was red zoned − I mean, I understand these reports, I looked at all of them and I know what this is about − I wrote a 10-point letter to Gerry Brownlee saying we have been given no reason at all for our property being red zoned, and it’s wrong, and this, this and this. The only thing we’d seen was a video saying these properties have been identified as at risk. That was all we got. Then when we went through the minutes of the meetings of all the committees that did the assessment there was nothing more to it than saying we want to link these two properties up. 

We only stayed because we’d had all that evidence that it was going to be OK and then GNS changed it. 

I just think that if you’re going to do that sort of thing you should come up with some credible evidence straight away as to why you’ve come to this conclusion, and you should be prepared to be challenged. Every report I write is on that basis, particularly when for us we’d lost $250,000 to $300,000 − probably more. So it’s the powerlessness again. We wouldn’t necessarily agree with what they said, but at least we’d have had a chance to discuss it and contest it.

I got a 10-page report back from GNS ... The cliff is between 9 metres and 11 metres high. They said it was 12 metres to 14 metres. I’ve measured it. It’s wrong. They talk about cliff-top recession. There is none. I’m gobsmacked how someone can write a technical report on a property and not have been on it. He’s driven past. He’s identified the geology incorrectly − that’s not just my opinion, that’s all the geologists − and yet this has come from GNS and been peer reviewed as well. They’ve even got photos in the report which show that the house is further away from the cliff than what they say. Their own report shows that! The thing is just full of rubbish. He offered to meet me and I said, “Well there’s absolutely no point,” because by then we’d had another letter from Gerry Brownlee saying there will be no review and made it quite clear. So why waste my breath?

Redcliffs cliff reports do not apply to manmade cliffs. [CERA and GNS] have both said the cutting is not manmade. It’s staggering, isn’t it? So we said to Roger Sutton, the cliff is manmade, and we sent him the survey maps from 1853 and 1864, which show there’s no cutting as you drive out to Sumner. It was first started in 1865, widened in 1888 and then done again in 1935, and I think there’s photographic evidence of all this sort of stuff, and yet they’re still claiming that it’s not a manmade cliff. You can actually see − when they cut the cutting, they drilled down and they put a bit of gelignite in or dynamite in or whatever and blew it off. You can see all the half drill holes across the front of our property. I mean, the stress just eats you up. That’s why we decided we wouldn’t go any further, because we had no confidence we’d get anywhere anyway.

Second meeting with CERA

Ruth: It would have been the next week we arranged to go into CERA. This was something they were arranging for everyone. I’d sort of jumped the gun and got them around. Because of the way the first meeting had been for us we realised we needed a third person there, so we took my sister. Our place is owned by a family trust and she’s one of the trustees, but she’s also a very good person to have, a good listener. We felt we needed that extra protection. I had prepared something that I knew I wouldn’t read but to try and clear the air

It was held in an old brick building they had on Worcester Street. Our meeting was getting on for 5 pm or 4 pm. It would have been the last one of the day. Even the notice on the door was unwelcoming, the way it was worded. I can’t remember exactly what it said. There was no-one at reception and [a CERA staff member] who had been at our house previously, came walking down the hallway so that meant we didn’t have to find reception and it was alright. We went through three locked doors before we got to the meeting room, and these doors just sort of slammed behind us.  Already seated at the table were [two other CERA staff members].

They didn’t rise to meet us and [one of the staff members] was sitting there with his diagrams and model thing already up on the wall. So that whole thing was most uncomfortable going in. It was just terrible. The building had absolutely nothing in it, and we went into a room that literally had just a table, a projector and a white wall. And [the staff member] was just going to leap into this model, so I stopped him and I said that at our house there had been misunderstandings about people’s roles so could we please go around and introduce ourselves? So I started and I introduced all of our side, and then they did. But they wouldn’t have. It’s just simply not the way we operate.

[The CERA staff member] was not prepared to hear anything from us. This was supposed to be about our property and he kept saying back to the model, back to the model.  It was all back to the model because there was no data about our property. So that was bullying. I started to feel really upset in that meeting and I thought I just need to get out because I can’t afford to be really upset. I wanted a drink and there was no water on the table, nothing. I wanted a drink of water but I realised I couldn’t go out through those doors because I couldn’t get back in, there was no-one at reception, there was no way for me to actually go outside and come back in.

There were several things said that were really interesting. We had written asking for a review, even though we knew there was no possibility, but right at the end of the meeting it came out that the message had come from someone higher up that there might be a possibility of review. And I just looked at him and I said, “Well, [...] if you’d said that right at the beginning of the meeting the whole tenor of this meeting could have been very different.” Why? It was all this control of information.

We were referred to the CERA website, and in particular to a video on the Port Hills zoning review. I know I’m emotionally involved in it, but I just found the whole thing patronising. There was no information given about our property on it. [The presenter] started off saying something along the lines that he could understand the difficulties that home owners had because he had built his own house. Well, that’s absolutely irrelevant. Another comment he made was about how thorough the process had been and how they had collected information that was almost a foot high. It was very patronising. 

When it came to actually talking about our area − and it’s the same in the minutes − it talks about the risk. For our neighbours’ place, at number 6, they said that they had underestimated the risk to life ratio so that was changing from green to red.  For number 10, they had overestimated the risk to life so it was staying green. And he simply just waved his hand over number 8 [our property]: red zoned. Nothing more than that. There was no information. Even the multipliers when it comes to life risk: they talk about “10 to the minus 4”… Well, sorry! I wouldn’t know whether “10 to the minus 4” was bigger or smaller than “10 to the minus 3”.  So even when it gets down to those sorts of basic things there was no information for a lay person.  


Ian: There were five factors in the cliff hazard management risk. One is the probability of another big earthquake. Another one was the cliff-top recession. Well, how can you possibly apply that without looking? Another one was the likelihood of the house being occupied, and I’ve accepted that is 100 percent, because this isn’t just a holiday house. Another one is the 100 percent risk, the chance of you being at the top of the cliff. We’ve actually got a hedge and a fence at the top of our cliff to stop people going there, and that’s not taken into account. The other one is the chance of you being killed if you fall from the cliff. The numbers that come out of it say you’ve only got a 50 percent chance of being killed. So when you go through those risk factors for our property you’ve got a one in ten thousand chance of being killed on our property. And if it’s greater than 1 in 10,000, it’s red zoned. 

Those factors are just so arbitrary and incorrect. For example, to accept that there’s a 100 percent chance of you being killed if you’re at the top of the cliff is wrong, and that there’s a 100 percent chance there could be someone at the top of the cliff is wrong too. In other words, it’s total manipulation of the figures. This magical 1 in 10,000 − it’s so arbitrary. 

Ruth: EQC [Earthquake Commission] sent Tonkin and Taylor. When their report came back it identified the one rock the City Council had already identified, and they had sent people to scale off our cliff. The Council had identified just this one rock and suggested it may need either removing or bolting back. Then Tonkin and Taylor, quite independently, said the same thing. There’s four reports that have all looked at our property, and none of them have identified that there’s anything needed doing on that cliff. On this front one there’s one rock bolt, which is going to be done shortly.

They spent many, many hours saying they would like us to think over all of this, but it would have taken them five minutes to come up.

Further engagement with CERA

Ruth: We had a meeting with CERA at our home, which they had organised at very late notice − like 1 pm and they were at our place by 4 pm, so we were really surprised. They rang up Ian and wanted this meeting. Given what we’d had in writing − we’d written letters − it was a bit of a surprising response. [...] And at this meeting again they came so ill prepared. We had written several pages of questions and things that we wanted answered, and they didn’t even have that with them! 

Towards the end of the meeting we suggested we should walk around the property because we’ve got no cliff-top recession, which is one of the big things in all their formulas. My understanding of maths is that as soon as you’ve got a zero and you multiply it, it doesn’t matter what other numbers you multiply it by, you come back with a zero. How could they come up with our life: risk thing when one of the things was cliff top recession and we don’t have any? There’s a zero in your formula! 

They didn’t actually say no, we won’t do it, but we didn’t do it.  [They] couldn’t afford to do it because there was no cliff-top recession. There is no damage to show. And [they were] arguing that our north cliff − which is actually a manmade cutting, which is another thing that disqualifies you from this model − wasn’t a manmade cliff. Ian said, well no, actually it was cut through in 18-hundred whatever, but they simply would not abide by their own rules of the model. So that night I got on the internet and found the ordnance survey maps from the 1860s and we sent them a copy of that so it was patently obvious. I mean, you can go down, you can see where it’s cut, you can see the blasting holes, and everyone knows that the cutting went through for the trams. 

Another thing: at that meeting we were insistent that we needed information in writing, and [they were] really reluctant. I said, “We’re trying to make a big decision here. We need to marshal all the facts. We are having to look at the insurance, we’re having to look at our property value, we’re having to assure ourselves whether we’re safe or not, we need all the geotechnical information. You’ve red zoned us, and if we’re going to decide whether to stay or not we simply need all this information.” He was offering a meeting with [GNS], and we agreed to that, but I said that we still needed this information in writing. 

It took us several months to get anything in writing from CERA about our property, but we finally got a written reply from [GNS], [...] and it absolutely had untruths in it. [It] said it was a matter of opinion whether that cliff was manmade or not. I mean, we had sent them the ordnance survey map! Ian had written a very comprehensive letter. They even had the height of our cliff wrong. They were talking about the height of the cliff in this area being 15 metres. None of our cliff is that high. It’s all done in this sort of general modelling thing. [GNS] admitted at the hearings that [it hadn’t] been on our property but, oh he’d looked up from the bottom. Well, I’m sorry! You can stand at the bottom of the cliff, that’s one way of looking at it, but when you’ve got all these different factors … In the end we’ve said we didn’t want a meeting with [GNS] because, as Ian said, you people aren’t going to change your minds so there’s no point. 

Arbitrary nature of red zoning

Ian: Our property is quite safe, and the house is quite safe, and that makes us different to a lot of people. Of course it’s a political decision: for consistency we’ve got to clear all those properties. I accept the principle behind the red zoning, particularly on the flat. I’m not suggesting that it would be any less stressful to be on the flat, and to have to move out of your house. I think it must feel awful. But on the flat you’ve got whole areas. On the hill every single property is tangibly different. You don’t need to be an expert to pick that. And so I think they should have provided more evidence.

Our property is a classic because it wasn’t even in the thing originally, in the unstable cliff areas. And then, “Oh it’s a mistake, you’d better be put it in there.” Well, OK, provide some data. Our neighbours have got so much damage there wasn’t really too much dispute. There were people who were quite happy, so it’s not a big issue. But as I said to Roger Sutton, when I produce a report saying your building has got to be knocked down because it’s got earthquake damage, I expect to have to justify it. It’s quite reasonable for you to say, “Come and show me the damage please and explain why it’s got to come down.” That’s what we sought. 

Independent Hearings Panel

Ruth: Earlier this year we went to the Independent Hearings Panel, and we had to sit and listen to all of this wrong information again. The adversarial nature of it. It was a shocker. They had a pre-hearing meeting for people particularly about rock roll and cliff collapse on the Port Hills. When I walked into the Independent Hearings Panel building I felt a wee bit intimidated, and then the panel came in and we all had to stand because the chairperson on the panel is a retired High Court Judge, John Hanson. I muttered something to Ian and he said, “Now just calm down”. 

By the end of that meeting the panel had made several offers to those of us landowners who had attended, because most of us had had no direct contact from the City Council about the hazard line that was put on our property. We decided we would take up one of the offers, which was for the panel to come and visit our property. Well, I had to change my tune and think, “Oh!  I think we’re in for a fair hearing”. I actually said that to one of the panel members when they were at our house. 

Then we had those people visit our land, but when they came out I just wanted to stand up and yell at them, “You’re talking about the wrong thing because we’ve got two cliffs, and the north-face cliff is a manmade one!” They talked about “ground truthing” using LiDAR [Light Detection and Ranging], which is a radar survey of the land. And of course it will pick up a crack, but it can’t tell that this crack is because there’s a retaining wall here. We said to the panel people we’d already told CERA − and the officials who came to our place agreed − that it’s nothing to do with land movement. They acknowledged they’d made a mistake that day they came to our house. 

So I marched them up with Ian, and they agreed that the crack was nothing to do with any land movement. It was because our retaining wall had moved, but that was left on the LiDAR map and that’s where the City Council have now put this big hazard line. They’ve still left the red zoning! Even though they’ve been on our property. Ian’s firm belief − and I guess I’ve come around to it − is that they have been told that they have to be very careful about changing anything that would affect the red zoning. What else can you start to believe? 

Engagement with agencies

Ian: Just about every time I run into someone I haven’t seen for a couple of years they say, “You’re allowed to stay?” They have no idea that the red zoning is a geological label and offer to buy, that’s all it is. ‘Voluntary’ is a bit of a tricky term if you’re at the top of a cliff, but for us it has been voluntary. I don’t think CERA made that as clear as they could have, but the Council certainly made it very clear for us. CERA is dictatorial, just strides over the land. It was just disgraceful. You’d think we were criminals.

I found CERA on the technical side pretty good, but on the residential side for our own property I found them disgraceful. EQC? Well, I think some of those people should be up in court. Unbelievably frustrating to deal with. We’ve got a flat in Redcliffs, and you deal with somebody different every time. You’ve got to go through the whole thing. We’ve been told we haven’t been paid for something when we’ve been paid. We’ve been told we’ve been paid and have to pay it back when we’ve never been paid. They’re just incompetent, quite frankly. Staggeringly bad. Even worse than them was EQR. Professionally I’ve had a bit to do with them and they are staggering!  

Although I don’t agree with everything they’ve done, the Council have actually been reasonably good to deal with by and large in a very difficult situation. In the confusion after the earthquake the Council weren’t going to do much, I suppose. It would have been December 2011 that they scaled loose rock off the cliff. Very little came off, but that was what they wanted to do to see the state of the cliff. And fair enough. They identified there was an area of loose rock. We’ve since had an assessment, which we needed for our insurance but also use for our building consent. It’s a pretty minor bit of work. It’s going to be less than $20,000 worth of rock bolting, so pretty minor in the context of things.

We’ve certainly run into Ruth Dyson [Labour Party Member of Parliament representing the Port Hills] a couple of times at red zone meetings, and she’s been very supportive indeed. She’s been incredibly hardworking in terms of providing support and going to the red zone meetings, and she was quite supportive when I showed her my first letter I sent to Gerry Brownlee. I’m not sure she’s had any impact on any of the decisions, but she’s been there and understanding and suggesting ideas and putting us in touch with people and so on, so she has been wonderful. 

Southern Response − she was quite tough, but she was professional and straight up and down with us and good to deal with. The Arrow project manager who was with Southern Response, he was good to deal with.

Central versus local government involvement 

Ruth: I’ve had a lot of time for Lianne Dalziel, and I think she’s doing a very good job as mayor. Now she is coming out very much in support of the structure [the Regeneration Plan]. But when you read the structure there is still far more government representation than there is Council. Does it run for five years? The first three years the government-appointed chairperson is in control, then for two years the Council gets a go. So I feel that central government, for whatever reason, is still holding onto powers that rightly belong with local government. 

They’ve done the same thing with ECan [Environment Canterbury], so that in Canterbury we have this erosion of democracy. They’ve got the same sort of attitude towards our District Health Board, where they’re wanting to change the model so that there are more government-appointed than elected members. Of course we need central government funding, but I just feel that everything is set up with this. 

Helpful people

Ruth: I was very impressed with Ruth Dyson [Labour Party Member of Parliament representing Port Hills] and her knowledge about all sorts of things to do with the earthquake. She knew all the people I was talking about, but of course she couldn’t do anything. [...] I just felt she was stand-out with her knowledge.


Ruth: I don’t feel a sense of stigma among my close friends, and we’ve had very good support from my family. Recently, it’s obvious our house is being fixed and people assume that we’ve sorted all this, but we haven’t. What we’ve managed to sort is insurance and getting a building consent. But we have got no recourse. We can never sort this.

We know that the zoning has no legal status, but we’ve only found that out because we’ve done good research. No-one ever told us that. There was no legal status: it is simply a geotechnical or geological area with a government offer to buy your property attached. There’s no expiry date for it, and so most people, including friends who were in the red zone on the flat, they’re just absolutely staggered to find that we can stay there. Most people in Christchurch, their impression would be if you are red zoned, you’re out. And from a few comments from neighbours and things, from some quarters there’s a feeling that we’ve made a foolish choice and why would you want to, why don’t you just pack up and go? Some people have gone and some people have stayed, and there is no right or wrong answer to that.


Ian: Trying to find out why the red zoning was given to us was incredibly stressful, and my wife is still very stressed by that. I guess I am. I’ve totally lost faith in the legal system. They can’t even write down facts. It’s predetermined if you ask me. I also can’t believe the Supreme Court could sit on that decision for four months until miraculously about two weeks after the zone comes out. The zoning change, the district scheme change, came out about two weeks before the Supreme Court decision on the Quake Outcasts hearing, and that hearing was way back in July last year [2014]. Everyone wanted to know when it was coming, and then miraculously it comes out just in time so they can lock in the red zone before it’s found there’s no lawful basis for the red zoning. I’m afraid I just don’t accept that’s coincidence. I accept there have to be political decisions, but a little bit of openness would be quite nice in a democracy.  

That powerlessness was the worst of it. I think it all comes under that. I mean, not knowing where you’re going. I was talking to Ruth about this last week because she said, “You always undersell the stress.”  Yes, well, we have suffered. You wake up in the night. It’s just with you all the time. We went away down south in early August and we closed the tenders for our property the day before we left, so we had a look at it while we were away and made a decision and rang the contractors and said we’d like you to go ahead. And Ruth said that coming back into the Christchurch for the first time in four-and-a-half years she didn’t feel the stress go up like that [gestures] because we were in control of it. It’s the powerlessness. That’s the stressful bit. You have no say in it. You have no input. Up is down, down is up, and you can’t say anything about it. Well you can, but it’s taken no notice of.

Oh yes there has been stigma, and even people up Balmoral Lane are staggered that we’re still staying. It’s definitely got a stigma. The stigma doesn’t worry me too much, but it’ll come back in a tangible form when we try and sell our property. I think the red zoning should simply be removed. There’s no lawful basis for it, so take it away. Full-stop.  The fact that it has been red zoned, we can’t wipe that from the record, but it shouldn’t be red zoned anymore. We will ask for the red zoning to be removed, because it’s absolutely ludicrous you can get a building consent but you’re red zoned. We were going to write a letter and get into that but we just decided, let’s focus on getting back into our house, and after we’ve done that we might pursue it. Life has to go on. We’ve got to look after ourselves.

Ruth: I feel I’m probably less engaged right now than I’ve ever been. What do I feel? It hasn’t made me want to get more involved. I’ve always been one for standing up for my beliefs. I would demonstrate if necessary. I write letters to the paper. We’ve always been involved.  With this current government I just feel there’s no point. This is why we’ve given up on going to the High Court. We’ve got to protect ourselves. You can’t go on. That was very bruising, the Independent Hearings Panel. I would never − unless I really had to − put myself through something like that again. And so going to court would be a very similar experience.

At the very first meeting they [CERA] handed over a pamphlet or something and said, “If you need some help or something then these people…” And I just looked at him and I said, “If we need help we won’t be asking you.” I mean, why would you? When you’ve been treated in that way. I have absolutely no faith. I know that other people have used these services, or felt the need to, but we haven’t felt the need for that because we’re pretty good at advocating for ourselves.

One of the things I felt very resentful about with the red zoning is that because I couldn’t do anything to the house I’d really got stuck into our garden. We’d had most of our vegetable garden all held up with brick, which had found its way to the bottom of the hill. So we rebuilt that. I paved an area, just because it made me feel better. I put in a new lawn, I worked very hard and suddenly we were being told …. 

Phases of recovery 

Ian: It’s hard to believe how stressed we were. We moved back to our house after about five days, when they let us back on the property, and about two weeks later Ruth said, “Can you go and get the sheets off the bed down below?” And I said, “Why? We haven’t had anyone stay with us.” And she said, “We’ve been sleeping there for two weeks.” I had no recollection of having slept in that room.  That first six weeks was just bizarre, and you didn’t need to have serious damage to be that way. So I haven’t heard it put like that in those four phases, but I think it’s dead right.  

I don’t know whether we’re in the ‘regeneration phase’. When we’re back in our house, then we’ll start to think about it. Oh God, life can get back to normal! 

For the city as a whole I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I was talking to people about three or four months ago about the things happening, and they said, “This whole vast area is where they’ve cocked it up, basically, and it’s going to take years to come right.” But there’s a lot of new stuff on the other side of the river. And you go out to Sydenham and Addington, there’s a lot of good things happening. For me, the first thing that really woke me up to that was probably a year ago, when one of my friend’s kids was moving back to Christchurch at age 22 or 23, and I said, “What the hell are they coming to Christchurch for?” and he said, “It’s the happening place now, that’s where they all want to be.” And that’s great, because it’s the young people who give the enthusiasm.

I feel pretty positive about the future. There’s still things I’m pretty unhappy about, but it doesn’t make me depressed or anything. It’s just the normal political process.


Ruth: I think there have been a lot of good things in the media. John Campbell, I don’t like his manner, but he certainly − not just over the earthquake but over quite a number of good issues − he was the only part of the media that was really prepared to keep on about the situation that people were in.  We’ve had some good stuff in The Press, too. I did try to contact [a reporter from the Press] at one stage and didn’t get any reply from him, but of course they’re inundated with people’s stories.  I suppose there’s been a side of me that has wanted to expose what I’ve seen.

Learnings and Recommendations

Ruth: I think the communication thing − I come back to that − was just absolutely appalling. Nothing excuses that our property was green zoned for 18 months but was still included in further investigations and we were never informed. That is one of the things I said pretty strongly to CERA, that actually, if we’d had pre-warning … I mean, people cope with far worse things than losing their property in their lives, so it’s the communication. I think it’s absolutely inexcusable.

I just feel the red zoning’s been too far-reaching. In our own case, if there was a belief that the cliffs were too dangerous to be that close to, it would have been cheaper for the government to say we will pay for you to build further back. It would have been a much cheaper option than trying to buy our land as well. So I don’t know what the answers are. 

People did need some help to get out of the situation. I was just appalled at what had happened to a lot of that flat land and people’s homes, and they couldn’t stay there. If your house is contaminated with liquefaction and sewerage and stuff − those people did need help because your insurance only pays for your building, it doesn’t pay for your land. But I still believe they’ve over-reached with the legislation. 

Ian: I think that sort of size group [like the Balmoral Lane Association] is really what you need to do. Government would be horrified with the process, but it’s the only way you’re going to get it right. The decisions may not have been different, but people would have accepted them a lot better because they’d have been involved in understanding what’s happening. To me that would have been a better way to do it. I know it’s a hell of a lot of effort, but I think there was a gross arrogance from EQC and CERA that ‘We know best’ and ‘This is what you will do’. People might not agree with it, but if you give them a bit of explanation, then they’ll understand the reason behind it. That would be the biggest thing to do next time.

The biggest lesson out of this is to trust democracy. Democracy is a bit difficult, but you do get the right answers. It’s a very robust process when you get people’s input into it, and I think they could have had much more of a democracy, particularly in the centre of the city when you think about the red zoning. People might not have been happy, but it would be a much better process to deal with and move on to doing something constructive. 

I remember a lovely tale. The chief structural engineer in the Auckland office, very good guy, and he said, “What qualifications do engineers need to go to Christchurch to help out with the earthquake?” and he answered, “Grey hairs”. I thought that was a lovely quote: experience. I think that would have avoided a lot of these problems, just having someone who could look at it and actually make a proper assessment.

The engineering fraternity in Christchurch had the blueprint for it really. I’m not saying they got it perfectly right, but every night they’d come back for a debriefing. They just worked fulltime and at the end of each day they’d go back and have a debriefing just to make sure they’re getting it right, and say look this is really serious stuff that you need to look for, and that’s not so much. And because a lot of it was evolving knowledge for us, it was brilliant, there was this dissemination of knowledge and experience. It was fantastic for a lot of engineers coming in from outside to actually get time to understand the Christchurch peculiarities. That to me is an outstanding example of what to do after a disaster. And MBIE [Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment], in particular, has bought into that because they’ve been workshopping a lot of their documents on residential houses, so it’s been a fantastic process both ways: the engineers learning, but also the institutions drawing on that knowledge to develop standards, and it’s worked very, very well indeed.

One of the things that really does grate on me a hell of a lot is the waste. I know Alan Edge from Southern Demolition, and I was talking to him about six weeks after the quake, and he said it’s unbelievable when you go to these buildings you’ve got to demolish. One was a ski shop, and he said there was this rack full of $500 ski suits, nothing wrong with them at all, and he’s got to put it on a truck because they’re not allowed to take anything out. I just think, what an unbelievable waste. You don’t need to waste all of that. I can’t see why a house should be wasted if it’s quite repairable. Why would you chuck things like that away? 

Unanswered questions

Ruth: I’d like an answer as to how the whole thing was allowed to happen. I see this late zoning, this late change of zoning, as a misuse of the Earthquake Recovery Act. The fact that we were green zoned and then 18 months later … We’re not in an emergency situation so I feel there has been a misuse of the Act.  With the Independent Hearings Panel, if the City Council have their Plans and people are affected in different ways, the normal process is if you go to a hearing, you’ve got the right of appeal to the Environment Court. That right has been removed from this under Order in Council. Our only right of appeal was to the High Court on legal grounds, and that’s why we felt we needed to go with the lawyer who we had got involved with through a group heading towards the High Court to try and appeal our red zoning. But we’re not doing that now either. There is no point wasting our emotional energy, money and time, so again we haven’t got our full democratic rights. 

I’m very pleased to see that they have said with the coastal one − they’ve still got it on people’s LIMs [Land Information Memoranda], it goes on your LIM straight away − they are reinstating that right of appeal to the Environment Court. 

It’s just the whole process, really, and the thinking behind it, and the bullying nature of it. And it’s not just us. I see it in other ways.  I feel like CERA as an organisation … they just have disregard, really, because they’ve got the legislation behind them.  No-one can question it, and the Minister has the power to say yes or no in the end.  

Our house and land are valued at $44,000 now. That’s our RV [rateable value]. So how many years is it going to take? I know we’ve made the decision to stay − it still keeps me awake at night sometimes − but what right have they to make a decision like that without absolute proper on-site investigation?

Update: Where Ian and Ruth are now (August 2016) 

Ian and Ruth moved back into their home in June 2016 after 10 months of repair work. Their insurers required two geotech reports confirming that the property was safe despite the red zone designation. The Christchurch City Council has issued a Code of Compliance for the repaired house and Ian and Ruth now have full insurance including earthquake cover at normal premium rates. They say that it’s great to be home.