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Blackball

Rain, rain and more rain

Back from a wet bike trip: Blackball-Reefton-Westport-Charleston-Punakaiki-home. It rained every day. Biking in a soft drizzle is pleasant, but as it becomes heavier, one is torn between donning the rain gear which makes one sweat and suffering the drenching. The Lower Buller Gorge seemed particularly malevolent and I felt for Thomas Brunner on his dreadful journey. And then there’s the business of a wet tent, which inevitably leads to a damp sleeping bag. It was one of those weeks when the rain refuses to budge, like a dementia patient. The sky almost lightens, a patch of blue, but then another shower arrives.

Nevertheless, cycling, as well as massaging the cardio-vascular system, unclogs the thought patterns.

Visiting these tourist spots gave me a chance to think about tourism and tourist towns (or visitor towns – an interesting difference perhaps?). Reefton does the visitor town well – it’s on a good scale and it has managed to dramatise itself tastefully.  The shopfronts are all painted, each with a flag above the veranda. There are good cafes, a quality art gallery run by a co-op of artists and splendid second hand shops spread among the more functional day to day shops for the locals. There’s heritage in the mining school and the Blacks Point Museum. What do visitors need?  To pass the time by eating, drinking, looking at interesting things and sometimes  venturing on a walk or a cycle. Hokitika has a similar culture, with locals taking advantage of the increased market that visitors provide. There’s no singular attraction in either place and this is, I suspect, an advantage.

Westport tries, but lacks the artists and the second hand shops, so the visitor is stuck with the everyday (other than a couple of art nouveau buildings) and an awareness of marginality. Charleston is a potpourri: limestone caves and a fine bay, the business headquarters for a national company, a camp ground and the smallest club in New Zealand, which made me feel at home when I popped in for a beer. Wet through, I hired a cabin, the tiniest of rooms but absolute luxury, especially as there was access to a drier.

Punakaiki is a tourist spot, cursed with the Pancake Rocks attracting thousands for the photo op, before  most move on. There’s immense infrastructure pressure for sixty rate payers and a confusing array of councils and DOC to deal with. The water has to be boiled, the accommodation is booked out and there’s no space for expansion. The glacier towns are the same. There’s not a lot of point in this meeting between nature and capital, the photos have all been taken and a gormlessness sets in. But cycling along the Coast Road I appreciated the attraction for those life-stylers tucked away in the bush with a resplendent empty ocean in the foreground.

Greymouth lacks just about everything: there’s a couple of decent craft shops, but little art, no second hand shops, nothing to look at other than Shantytown which is on the outskirts, some tolerable cafes, but hard to kill time in a place locked into franchises and suburbia, with an inability to dramatise itself. To do so, it would have to adopt a tangatawhenua/turangawaewae framework, but instead holds on grittily and determinedly to a 1950s settler culture.

Where is Blackball in this? Puzzled I suspect. It’s possible, but difficult to dramatise an activist past – it requires  cultural and historical understanding and an ongoing political sympathy for the progressive (participatory democracy, co-operatives and the like), which is asking a lot of a small West Coast village. There’s  some craft, an excellent salami company, an iconic pub, a working men’s club that survives, a museum that does dramatise the activist past on a shoe string budget, and now a suburban infrastructure (a car park and a dunny) being overlaid to provide for the walk. There will be some local opportunism around the edges, but coherence?

The racks of bikes will pass through, someone might build a motel – maybe, as in Punakaiki, staff will come from Greymouth. In the past it has been a discreet visitor town, now it will become a minor tourist town.  Locals will keep to the back streets and wait for winter. Or am I being overly pessimistic?

As I write, the sun has come out – briefly.

Sport

Sunday: Stiff, but happy, after the annual cricket game between Blackball and the Christchurch Larrikins, a team cobbled together once a year by Dave, who owns a holiday house here.

It made me realise yet again, how far away we have moved from the true function of sport, defined by the OED as ‘amusement, diversion, experiencing life as a game…’ And ‘to play’ is ‘to move about in a lively fashion, frisk, flit, flutter and frolic’ (a lot of f words).

Instead, sport has become a commodity, the players are ‘brands’, with agents seeking their millions before the body gives up. Game plans are analyzed by coaches, psychologists, strategists – the whole thing a military operation, with the public bemused and mystified consumers as players troop around the world like mercenaries, selling themselves to the highest bidder. At the same time, followers of teams are supposedly rooting for local pride and tradition. It’s as mad as Donald Trump.

But on Saturday, down at the domain, sport and play existed for an afternoon. The field had been lovingly mowed and we marked out the pitch with a paint brush and some house paint. The gear was ancient, no one was particularly skilful, everyone had a bowl (so there were lots of wides), the pitch was surprising (despite a modicum of rolling), there were many spectators, a lot of beer was drunk and children tossed the newly-mown grass at one another. Nevertheless, competition was keen.

The Larrikins, having urban pretentions,  brought with them a short section of picket fence so that they could enter to bat through a gate. They scored a miserable 126. Blackball had a perhaps fatal runout early on, but put their heads down. By 5,30pm the Larrikins were somewhat staggery after the fourth drinks break and Blackball seemed to have it in the bag until a ball skidded along the ground to hit the wickets of in-form Michael and the last batsman had to be shown how to hold the bat – not a promising sign. Two runs to go and Jerry struck the ball hard at a stout fielder at close mid-wicket. It stuck in the flesh as it were and his hands enfolded the hurt and fatefully, the ball. Much amusement – and it had been serious enough to be a contest. The sun had shone and everyone was content. No money had changed hands.

As one of the spectators said, ‘It’s lovely to do nothing for a day. ‘ Meanwhile another was going through the feelings of the last year – his wife having died – a soft murmuring. The kids continued to frolic, and a nice story was told at the group photo, of this bloke who used to surreptitiously expose himself on such occasions, until taught a lesson through a cigarette lighter being equally surreptitiously applied.

There was much shaking of hands, pride at it having gone so well, a wheelbarrow of empty bottles loaded onto a trailer to be taken to the dump and everyone would have some new images in their head.

There is a phrase, cricket was the winner. On this occasion, community was the winner. And it hadn’t required any government intervention, or NGOs, charitable funding bodies, advisors, criteria, visions, missions, objects or outcomes.

Just some people experiencing life as a game.

The Value of Houses

Recently the village of Blackball where I live, and in fact, the whole of the Grey District, received its three yearly valuation adjustment on its land and housing stock. Generally, values went down, but Blackball was particularly hard hit. People lost something like a third of their value. The valuations, from an SOE called Quotable Values, are done for rating purposes, but become something of a benchmark.

I’d never investigated this matter before, this being the first home I’ve ever owned, but as a community we were shocked, for it seemed to condemn us to a downward spiral. It people seriously lose equity through buying a house in a town, they feel bitter about the town – not a good thing for community spirit or volunteer work. They become reluctant to renovate or won’t be able to get a loan to do so, banks will be wary to give mortgages and so on. It’s a race to the bottom.

A look at Quotable Value’s website reveals an outfit geared to the investor. Even if buying a house to live in, you should have the investor mindset. I enquired further and discovered their assessment is based on sales over the last twelve months. They don’t inspect a house, but have knowledge of the number of bedrooms, bathrooms etc and will pick up on any building consents issued with regard to the property.  I suppose at that point the numbers are crunched through a computer programme and the results arrive. Via a real estate agent I was able to find out the nine sales in Blackball over the twelve months. I wondered whether nine sales constitutes a market. But perusing them, there three where the previous valuations were ridiculously high and one property where the house had been removed and the land bought to be used as a farmlet. So, four out of nine sales were anomalies and helped push down the percentage. Individuals can object on the basis of improvements carried out without consent, but there is no process whereby a community can object or request greater transparency. A very blunt axe is being wielded.

We’ve asked them to come to a community meeting. No response. We’re advising everyone to object but I remember the using of similar processes to destroy Maori communal land ownership in the past. The final outrage is that, via rates, we’re paying for this to happen.

It also caused me to reflect on the notion of value when it comes to houses. For a start, all domestic houses are social. Reserving the term for the needy is ridiculous and a dreadful comment on the neo-liberal system. Secondly, there could be an objective value set nationwide according to size, land, double glazing, soundness, heating and so on, a top value set to the average wage. This would encourage people, no matter where they live, to renovate, for their equity will improve. Other factors affecting house prices: education and health access, infrastructure, transport, cultural and recreational access, employment etc could then be influenced by government and local body intervention, for example, a tax rebate for those living outside Auckland, a rebate which is higher if living outside the major cities.

Meanwhile, what do we do? We will make a collective submission, we will make ourselves prickly customers of QV; but ultimately the only real protection would be to move to collective ownership; to turn the village into a housing co-operative with individual equity realisable upon exit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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