New rules, new future for Auckland’s volcanic cones

Alexia Russell looks at whether requirements stemming from the change in guardianship of Auckland's 14 volcanic cones are too onerous for the small community groups leasing properties on them

Community groups located on the volcanic cones of Tāmaki Makaurau are discovering a new set of rules are in place when it comes to their rights to occupy. Their leases will become more expensive and are being restricted to one or two years - and they're being asked to contribute to the wellbeing of the maunga. But before there's any panic about the mountains being cleansed of scouts and tennis clubs, taihoa: there is a plan, and the end result will be good for all Aucklanders who love their unique landscapes. 

The Tūpuna Maunga Authority took over the guardianship of 14 volcanic cones in 2014, when they were returned to mana whenua and put into a co-governance arrangement. The Authority is equally split between iwi representatives and Auckland Council, to represent all Aucklanders. Many of the mountain's Māori names lost from official use were restored, but it wasn't until a plan to ban cars from the tihi (summit) of Maungawhau/Mt Eden was announced that controversy over the change erupted. The ban will eventually be extended to all five maunga that have roads. 

Tūpuna Maunga Authority chair Paul Majurey says there was a lot of pushback on the Maungawhau pedestrianisation plan, with people who'd been driving to the summit all their lives questioning why it was being done. "I don't know if we ever convinced folk it was the right thing to do .... but it wasn't a ban for the sake of it," he says. Now it's been in place for a year and a half, he says many people have told him it was the right move. 

"They have reclaimed it for themselves again. You go up there in the weekends now and it's heaving with people, it's wonderful to see prams, kids and foreign visitors who've walked up.

"Change can be not always the most comfortable of things, especially when arrangements have been in place for a long time," he says. 

On the surface it seems unfair to force a bunch of scouts to focus on cultural issues, but Majurey reveals there was more to it - the den had been sub-leased out in the past to a number of activities not appropriate for the sacredness of the mountain - parties and raves. 

Now the next stage in those changes is rolling around, with groups operating from properties under the TMA's guardianship having to apply to the authority for lease renewals. Any arrangements made previously with legacy councils are void; the applications are being treated as new, even if occupation has been for a considerable amount of time. 

The Pakuranga Tennis Club, on what used to be called Pigeon Mountain but is becoming known now as Ohuiarangi, is one of the first applicants. It has a healthy and growing membership of around 430 people, owns and maintains the buildings at the site it has occupied for 92 years, and has plans to spend $10,000 upgrading its courts - as long as it has a future there. At a TMA hui on June 19 it was resolved to publicly notify intention of granting a lease until June 2019, with a right of renewal for another year. A market rental, to be determined by a registered valuer, would also be set. In addition a Maunga Outcomes Plan would be drawn up. This would follow the direction set by the Tūpuna Maunga o Tāmaki Makaurau Integrated Management Plan, which places the "health and well-being of the Tūpuna Maunga at the heart of all decisions". All lessees are are expected to contribute this way, and how exactly they will do it depends on the particular activities of the group involved. 

All the money from leases will go directly back into conserving the maunga. No actual figures have surfaced yet as the first valuation isn't due for a few weeks. 

The tennis club has a stated purpose "to promote tennis as a sport". But it takes great pride in its place at the foot of the mountain, and members see themselves as informal caretakers of their surrounds. They actively campaigned to oppose the quarrying of the mountain, and are keen to plant native trees. The draft outcomes plan also asks that only "cultural, environmental and socially appropriate activities are conducted from the facility" - wild parties are inappropriate. The group's website will also incorporate a section designed "specifically to acknowledge the mana of the tūpuna maunga", new signs are to be erected about the significance of the site for visitors, formal open days should include provision for local orators to take part, any promotion of tennis in local schools should be seen as an educational opportunity as to the mountain's historical value, and its proper name should be used. 

Mt Wellington/Maungarei volcanic cone in Auckland. Photo: Getty Images

That's a bit more involved than just "promoting tennis", but club president Jenny Richardson is confident they can work through anything that comes along. The club has a strong committee and last year won Auckland's "facility of the year" - the year before it won an award for administration. What is more concerning is the short lease, and how much the rent will end up being. Since 1981 it's been at peppercorn levels - $1 a year, if called on. But "how much it will go up is purely speculation", she says. 

Majurey confirms it will be set at commercial rates, but that land is zoned recreation, so it won't be absolute top dollar - and there will be further discounts depending on how far the club is prepared to go to look after the mountain. While Richardson says they're "a little bit in no-man's land" at the moment, she feels "quite secure in that the council is on the management board as well. They're keeping everybody abreast ... we're waiting till the lease comes through". In regards to the club's tasks under the proposed outcomes plan, she says "at this stage we're not into the nitty gritty". But she believes a lease arrangement will come through, and "if that becomes part of what we need to do, if the rent is fine and the lease is all fine, if we hold working bees three times a year and plant native plants then that won't bother us at all. It depends on the key outcomes; how much they want us to do and how much it costs. Until I have it in writing I don't know ... since we first started talking to them coming up three years ago it's all changed.

"We are the guinea pigs. I don't blame them for that. (The maunga) is the focus and a little tennis club is probably not the major be-all and end-all. It takes a bit of understanding, but if I see a lease that's ugly .. there are other options."

Majurey says, however, the sole reason for the short leases being offered is that although a management plan has been agreed on, there are two other sets of policy documents still in train. Until those strategies are set, all leases coming up for renewal will be for one or two years. "When those policies are in place we will look at longer leases - I can't say definitely yes or no now because I can't pre-empt those decisions." He admits that makes it challenging for community groups when it comes to situations such as applying for grants. But "we have very much the long term in mind. We want to make good decisions," he says. 

"We are not trying to get people off the maunga."

The only club that hasn't had its lease renewed so far has been the Mt Richmond Bowls Club from the northern side of the Otahuhu-Mt Richmond domain, which had very few members left and had already been earmarked for closure by the sporting body. 

The next to go will be the St Barnabas scout group in Clive Rd, on the side of Mt Eden. A recommendation for the small (34 member) group to be evicted was tempered by a decision to extend the lease until June next year, to give them time to make other arrangements. A Maunga Outcomes Plan was drafted for the scouts to follow, but the June hui agenda states "it was not completed and no activities were carried out. No planting has been done at the site and the scouts have not yet fostered any cultural awareness about the maunga". The report says the scouts wouldn't attempt to try to grow their numbers without a secure tenure, and there was room for them to be absorbed into an Epsom branch. 

On the surface it seems unfair to force a bunch of scouts to focus on cultural issues, but Majurey reveals there was more to it - the den had been sub-leased out in the past to a number of activities not appropriate for the sacredness of the mountain - parties and raves. 

"In relation to entities that want to be on the mountain, it's very much a privilege not a right. What does concern us is where entities lease out their premises for activities that don't respect the maunga. But there is no intent to move current activities away." 

- Tūpuna Maunga Authority chair Paul Majurey

Are the cultural requirements too onerous for such groups?

"We don't think so," says Majurey. "It all comes back to proportion in terms of putting back into the maunga. It's going to vary in each case. Small groups will be bonded on that proportion; for groups numbering in their thousands it will be different. We have people to help them." Five people are available to travel around the 14 maunga from the North Shore to the former Manukau City to offer cultural advice. 

As an example of an engaged community group, he cites arts collective The Depot on Devonport's Mt Victoria/Takarunga. Initially when their lease came up and the spectre of market rents arose the group thought it may have to close, but that hasn't been the case. As with all renewals, a rent figure hasn't been set yet, but the group has embraced the change of landlord. Other Devonport residents aren't so convinced - local board member Mike Cohen says Mt Vic hosts a number of small community organisations running on a shoestring. He fears when rents go up these groups will come cap-in-hand to the council, sparking a money-go-round. 

"With The Depot, ratepayers are already this year paying for repairs and maintenance."

Cohen says every group on the mountain values the maunga immensely. But he believes the TMA has issued "these proclamations from on high", and has called for some inclusiveness, "rather than putting the burden onto very small organisations run by volunteers and parents that don't have the capacity" to do what they're being asked to do. 

The TMA's Integrated Management Plan says: "A lessee can look to the unique attributes of their organisation and their work to identify how they can contribute to the health and well-being of the maunga. They may consider their practices and how this relates to or impacts the Tūpuna Maunga, their existing connections with the local community and identify the opportunities to help develop a deeper understanding of the maunga and values guiding their care and protection. In other words, how a lessee can give back to the Tūpuna Maunga in some way. For lessees whose work is based in education or the creative sector, opportunities will be many and varied."

Majurey says the community groups on the mountains care for and love them. A number of the cones have been run down over the years, and the lease money won't go into the general council pot - it will be spent on the maunga. This week the TMA signed a five-year contract with Recreational Services Limited for maintenance, saying the contract was unique and required an approach that was different to other open spaces in the Auckland region. Recreational Services won the job because the company "is committed to a genuine partnership and their firm grasp of the unique values underpinning the care of the maunga stood out immediately."

"In relation to entities that want to be on the mountain, it's very much a privilege not a right," says Majurey. "What does concern us is where entities lease out their premises for activities that don't respect the maunga. But there is no intent to move current activities away." 

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