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

Sir Edmund Hillary's grandmother's home
The home once belonged to Sir Edmund Hillary's family
The home once belonged to Sir Edmund Hillary's family

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.

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