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Deciding when history begins: New Zealand's policy on heritage protection

As I was cooking breakfast in my central city shoebox last Saturday morning, I received a phone call from a Mt Eden resident distraught over the hubbub next door to her home.

Workers were preparing Sir Edmund Hillary’s maternal grandmother’s house for transport to Warkworth. The 1908 villa was recently purchased for $2.62 million by a developer who plans to build three brand-new units on the site.

The developer isn’t breaking any rules. He hasn’t broken any laws.

But neighbours can’t seem to wrap their heads around how a home with such significance can be carted away without an appeal or public input.

After I wrote the story, at least one reader questioned whether a 100-year-old home should even be considered historic.

From a bird’s-eye view, a 100-year-old house wouldn’t appear to be old, but from a bird’s-eye view, New Zealand isn’t very old.

The Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, and if aliens from outer space landed in Napier, they’d think humans didn’t settle there until 1931.

During my travels around the world, it’s been fascinating to note what communities consider historic and where they spend money to protect it.

In El Salvador, ammunition shells and de-commissioned machine guns decorate children’s playgrounds as a reminder of the civil war that plagued the 1980s.

Sometimes history isn’t necessarily old. Sometimes it isn’t necessarily pleasant.

So how does New Zealand plan to preserve its history and with whose money?

Heritage protection policies

There is no national policy statement for heritage in New Zealand. These statements, under the Resource Management Act, are used to help local governments decide how competing national benefits and local costs should be balanced.

There are national policy statements for freshwater management, for example, and there has been work done on a nationwide policy for urban design.

The country has also never conducted a street-by-street assessment to identify historic places. Instead, places are nominated by the public to be included on the national register, which is run by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

Buildings on the national register do not have legislative protection, only recognition. They must be on a district plan to be afforded protection, says Dr Ann McEwan, a Waikato historian who has served on Auckland’s heritage advisory panel.

“A lot of people still today think that somehow because a building is on the register of historic places that it has protection. That either winds people up because they think ‘you can’t register my building’ or gives people a false sense that a building is protected,” Ms McEwan says.

Building protection happens through the Resources Management Act (RMA), not the Historic Places Act.

“Even if it’s on a district plan and you want to demolish a building, the cynic’s view is you could throw enough money at the process and you’ll get what you want,” Ms McEwan says.

Unlike central governments in Europe and North America, which offer legislative protection to heritage sites, New Zealand’s central government only runs a register to recognize the sites.

In 2003, section 6 of the RMA was changed so the management of historic heritage was made a matter of national importance. So as regions around the country embark on the second generations of their district plans, in theory, they should be considering some heritage areas as areas of national importance.

“If your rule for demolition of a heritage building is discretionary, chances are the owner will probably be able to make the case they should be able to be given that discretion,” Ms McEwan says.

Without a national policy statement, there is no guidance from the central government to regional and local councils about how to interpret the act, she says.

“If you have a law that says it is of national importance, well what does that mean? Does that mean we all wear bow ties on Tuesday? What does it mean?” Ms McEwan says.

Show me the money

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that New Zealanders can largely agree on which sites and buildings should be awarded heritage protection. (I say for argument’s sake because many people can’t even agree on a national flag at the moment.)

If heritage was given more statutory protection, the next logical question is who would pay for it.

Developers would claim it’s not financially feasible to upgrade and retrofit a historic building. It’s not financially feasible to keep one building on a site, when you could knock it down and put three up.

In my homeland of California local governments have designed a redevelopment scheme. When builders decided to build in new areas with no existing infrastructure, called green fields, they are subject to a redevelopment tax which goes into a fund to help pay for inner city projects involving heritage sites.

This is the same way that bike paths and public transportation are funded through fuel taxes in most of the Western world. It’s about those quality of life measures that somehow must find funding or cease to exist.

If aliens from outer space land in Matamata 100 years from now, they are going to be led to believe, based on the preservation of architecture left standing, that hobbits inhabited New Zealand in the early 2000s.

I’ll bet you a Canadian penny that a Victorian villa may be extinct, but Bilbo Baggins hobbit hole would look like it was built yesterday.

More by Stephanie Flores

Comments and questions

Today it is overgrown, its pens dismantled and the entranceway bearing the wording of The Canterbury Canterbury Sale Yards Co Ltd is decaying. Little remains of a fine meeting point between town and country. ... "The Addington saleyards has a huge history and was a busy place with six stock firms and 60 to 70 agents alone running the show without the butchers and the freezing works buyers and it was a hellishly busy place," he says. ... The saleyards were replaced by the new grounds at Canterbury Agricultural Park in Wigram. Most agents will admit to pangs of regret that the old yards were bypassed, but it made sense to place the facility at the periphery of the city and next to main arterials for easy transport of stock.
In a perfect world, maybe part of the site should have been saved in a memorial to those who once worked there. Johnston says the vandalised site would be better made into a car park now for users of Hagley Park. ...
- it is hard to believe the Canterbury Saleyards facade was not protected IMO ...

It gets worse. Auckland council has proven that one desk doesn't know what the next is doing. On the North Shore a very run down precinct littered with a derelict bunch of ex state houses and cheap tacky war time builds has just been rezoned with the overwhelming support of the residents and owners. Council is falling over themselves to get developers interested with bonus provisions etc. Curiously this mess is considered by another idiot departmental jobsworth to have some historic relevance and a blanket demolition overlay has been published online. They cant even use the excuse it was part of an overall area wide task, because selected sites that have slightly newer 60's and later oddball renovations are dotted as exempt within the overlay indicating some close attention. All it tells me is the existing council planners all excited over the rejuvenation schemes have to tolerate another of their own departments sticking its hand out for fees and interfering wasteful reports to justify their existence. They wonder why no one wants to build in Auckland. Its just all too hard and costly.

Our completely undefined heritage laws are just a licence for bureaucracy to appropriate property rights on the basis of whim, ideology or lobby group manipulation.

Absolutely,anything can be designated heritage. The law is a disgrace.

You seem happy to take the benefits to your business that living in the heritage precinct if Russell brings, Alan. If you don't like heritage protection maybe you could move to Kaikohe.

Stephanie, If "aliens from outer space did land in Matamata" as you put it, they would be concerned about our society and customs not the age of our buildings. No doubt they would have modern buildings and modern means of clean living and transportation.

They would be appalled that our government made arbitrary rulings taking away property rights of the public on a whim. They would view us as a backward inhospitable society because we fail to uphold personal property rights, a necessary cornerstone of a free society.

Heritage per se, is the traditions, achievements, beliefs, that are part of the history of a group or nation. I would rather create for future generations a society where people have freedom of choice, than a society where freedom of choice is banned but we have lots of very old buildings.

NZ's Heritage began thousands of years ago, respect it all.

And the value of my property keeps going up & up. Thank you all.