Last chance to save historic stonefields zone
The organisation responsible for protecting New Zealand’s heritage sites will today begin a three-day Environment Court hearing examining its competency. At stake, a 480-strong housing development planned for Auckland’s Ihumātao Peninsula. Teuila Fuatai reports.
Lawyer Cameron Hockly operates out of a portable-cabin office at his Māngere Bridge home. Not a bad spot in the continually sprawling super-city, Hockly counts Māngere Mountain, Ambury Regional Park and some of the best walkways for taking in the Manukau Harbour among his local hangouts.
Just down the road - closer to Auckland Airport - are the Ōtuataua Stonefields. Bordering those, are 33 hectares of farm land, which Fletcher Residential is gearing up to build 480 homes on. Hockly - who represents the Save Our Unique Landscape [SOUL] collective - is preparing the latest legal challenge to that.
He says the Heritage New Zealand process, which essentially green-lighted Fletcher to start building, was flawed.
Speaking to Newsroom in the lead up to today’s Environment Court appeal hearing in Auckland, Hockly points to a lack of crucial information that he believes Heritage NZ needed for it to make an informed decision over the “archaeological authority”.
Any organisation or person wanting to undertake an activity “that will or may modify or destroy the whole or any part of any archaeological site or sites within a specified area of land”, must lodge an application with Heritage NZ for archaeological authority.
Even with three application attempts made by Fletcher to Heritage NZ - with approval granted on the third in September last year - Hockly says the “leading national historic agency” let itself down over its failure to identify a lack of essential infrastructure and planning information it should have had. That information - like so many other points in the battle for Ihumātao - is not directly related to the proposed Fletcher housing development process. It requires backpedalling a number of years to another Environment Court case and the direction given to Auckland Council to create a “structure plan” for the Ihumātao Peninsula.
In that June 2012 court decision, Auckland Council is instructed to carry out a “future structure planning process” for the Ihumātao Peninsula. By doing that, it can “further” identify and recognise significant characteristics in the area, determine “the location and density of urban development development selectively”, and provide for a public transport plan. While the Council was supposed to report back with the plan in September that year, it appears that never happened. Information requests to the Auckland Council for the plan have turned up nothing, Hockly says. Newsroom also requested the information, and has received nothing.
“A structure plan is a local government turn of phrase that basically says you look at the whole area that you’re dealing with, and then you do your overlay of all the layers that are interested and applicable to that particular place,” he says.
"The particular structure plan to accommodate all of these things didn’t go through. The Court hasn’t been complied with. [The plan] was supposed to be filed with the Court, and the Council was supposed to basically embed that information with these careful things allowing some protection in their policies as it progressed.”
As a result, the unitary plan, and subsequent regional policy statements involving Ihumātao have been developed without the considerations that a structure plan would have identified, Hockly says. For Heritage NZ to claim a robust approval process, it needs to review not only a structure plan for the Ihumātao area, but also have access to city development plans that take into account information identified in a structure plan, he says.
“Heritage [NZ] didn’t even pick this - we’re really surprised that they haven’t identified it,” Hockly says.
The Crater Hill decision
In April, Auckland Council celebrated a different Environment Court decision that essentially halted the development of up to 575 houses at Crater Hill and the Pūkaki Peninsula. Only 15 minutes drive from the Ihumātao Peninsula, the area - like Ihumātao - is known for its fertile soil, cultural significance to local iwi and historic sites.
In Judge Jon Jackson’s decision, Auckland Council’s early work in ensuring the historic and cultural value of Crater Hill and Pūkaki Peninsula were recognised, then preserved through its unitary plan drawings, is credited as key in his rejection of the rezoning proposal that would have led to a housing development on the land.
“Crater Hill and Pūkaki Peninsula are part of a cultural dimension to the area which is very important,” Judge Jackson says.
“The importance lies not only in the individual sites (both identified and as yet unlocated) but in the area as a whole, as identified as sub-precinct H in the Puhinui structure plan.”
Auckland Council’s Chris Darby commented on the outcome: “At the time the unitary plan was introduced, we were acutely aware of the need to protect the ‘green lungs’ of Auckland and ensure that the natural and cultural landscape of Auckland would be safeguarded”.
“Council is committed to maintaining this as a priority and the Environment Court’s decision shows that we’ve been successful in protecting what we consider to be a remarkable part of our unique volcanic landscape.”
For Hockly and SOUL, the Crater Hill decision demonstrates how essential a structure plan is to the protection of historic land. It also shows why Ihumātao should get a second chance to stay as is.
“Before we look at the core role that Heritage [NZ] had, we have to establish what the situation was on the ground that they were supposed to be coming into: they were supposed to be coming into a situation with a structure plan, that recognised the Schedule 12 [places of significance to mana whenua] listings, and the directions of the Courts,” he says.
“They don’t have that. They also don’t have the policy framework which the unitary plan was supposed to provide but they’re apparently still working on.”
Government keeping tabs
Meanwhile, the Government - who has several members that were vocally opposed to the Fletcher development while in opposition - appear to be monitoring the situation.
Two weeks ago, Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage visited the proposed development site and met with SOUL representatives.
“I acknowledge the concerns SOUL and others have that the Fletcher’s development proposal will adversely impact on cultural and conservation values at Ihumātao,” she says. “The change in land use from pastoral farming to dense housing….will alter the rural and open landscape setting of the adjacent Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve, and encroach on its cultural and historical landscape by allowing development of land that was once also used as gardens.
“I am committed to exploring what options may be available to safeguard these values with the department and colleagues.”
When contacted, Heritage NZ did not want to comment, citing the ongoing court case. Auckland Council did not respond to Newsroom’s request for comment before publication. The case has been set down for three days in the Environment Court.
New life in fight for historic Auckland land
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Fletcher Residential was planning to build 340 homes. The correct number is 480.