Leaked emails show Brown's council split

Emails between Auckland Council members obtained by the National Business Review show in-house tensions boiling as several opposed the controversial demolition of St Heliers buildings supported by council chief executive Doug McKay.

Mayor Len Brown announced at 5.30pm last night that he was "regretful" the buildings could not be saved, blaming Environment Court decisions and the actions of previous councils for the failure to protect the much-loved buidlings.

The emails obtained by NBR show councillors were against the decision former Sealord and Independent Liquor chief executive Mr McKay, appointed to the council in August, announced in December to decline ordering heritage protection of the buildings. It was finalised on Friday at a council meeting despite several councillors passionately disagreeing.

The three Spanish Mission houses and two Victorian cottages at Turua St owned by local developer couple Mike and Sandra Markham were due to be torn down yesterday despite local protest groups fighting to save them but rainy weather appeared to have prevented demolition for at least one more day.

Community groups were formed and protests staged against the Markhams’ company Anacona Group’s plans to build a retail development in the place of the properties many thought added "seaside character" but were not heritage protected buildings.

Mayor Brown said yesterday the developer would only sell the buildings for more than $10 million which made it too expensive and claimed a heritage order was not valid. "That decision would have resulted in the council being taken to court and potentially ended up costing ratepayers millions of dollars," Mr Brown said.

In an official memo issued by Mr McKay on December 24 he stated there was no “reasonable basis” to halt demolition of the buildings, based on a 2004 heritage report. On Friday the council voted that there was not enough reason to order heritage protection and they could be demolished. Moving the buildings could cost the council $2.5 million and buying the site was estimated at $5 million.

But several high-up councillors were outraged at the council's attitude. Internal emails obtained by NBR show top councillors are in support of saving the buildings.

Parks, Recreation and Heritage Forum chairwoman Sandra Coney wrote to Mr McKay on Sunday rejecting his claims the report did not support heritage protection of the buildings and expressing her opposition to the demolition.

“I cannot see that the report supports your position. Quite the contrary, the report called for further Heritage Assessment of Turua St, an assessment that has not been carried out,” Ms Coney wrote.

“I cannot see that the Auckland Council has grounds in evidence to sanction the demolition of the Turua St buildings… The economic prosperity of Auckland depends on preservation and enhancement of our historic heritage and character, as it does in cities all around the world. Consequently, I am deeply opposed to the demolition of these buildings.”

After reading Ms Coney’s letter, in an email to the mayor and other council colleagues Orakei councillor Cameron Brewer rejected tearing down the houses.

“Demolishing these heritage buildings without council conducting a full heritage assessment is negligent at best,” Mr Brewer said.

“A heritage order does not spell a $10 million commitment by the council to buy the property and compensate the developer. Rather it would simply give Turua St a stay of execution until a property heritage assessment of the buildings was conducted.”

Auckland Council transport committee chairman Mike Lee concurred with Ms Coney in private emails.

“The consent to demolish needs to be suspended until the council can formally consider and hopefully act on the recommendations of this report – the full contents of which have not until now been made available,” Mr Lee said.

Auckland Council chief press secretary Glyn Jones told NBR it was decided finally in a meeting on Friday that a heritage order would not be issued.

“Auckland council staff have basically looked at the possibility of a heritage order from every angle possible and it was their view that under the rules by which heritage orders are issued it was very obvious that the buildings did not have the heritage qualities necessary for a heritage order to be issued,” Mr Jones said.

Protest group Save Our St Heliers was devestated by Mr Brown's decision. It had implemented a roster to keep vigil outside the buildings in case a wreckers ball was to be swung yesterday.

"We are outraged that the mayor states that there have been negotiations that included local residents. At no time have the residents been able to speak to the mayor personally. The talks have all been between the council and the site owners Mike and Sandra Markham behind closed doors," Save Our St Heliers spokeswoman Dorothy McHattie said.

Mr Markham was previously the director of Epic Packaging, which won multiple awards including business of the year at Westpac Manukau Business Excellence Awards in 2003. He could not be contacted.

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