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New life in fight for historic Auckland land

A controversial and historic piece of land earmarked for 340 new houses could have a different future under a Labour-led Government. Teuila Fuatai looks at the modern-day battle for South Auckland's Ihumātao.

Some fights are inherently one-sided, and the one for 33 hectares of beautiful, albeit under-utilised, farmland skirting Auckland Airport on the Ihumātao Peninsula reads like that.

Ownership of the land, which has been home to both Māori and European settlers, has been contested over the years. At the moment, Fletcher’s Residential — a wholly owned subsidiary of Fletcher Building — owns the piece referred to as the Oruarangi or Wallace block. If the company has its way, about 340 homes will stand on it.

The development will severely alter the landscape of the area. It will also disturb any Māori remains buried in the earth — which various archeologists have acknowledged is a likely scenario.

Locals like Pania Newton, whose connection to Ihumātao is recited as part of her whākapapa, are determined to prevent this. After two years of bouncing between the Auckland Council, electorate MPs, local ward members and various regional and national authorities, Newton and protest group 'Save Our Unique Landscape' — made up of tangata whenua and community members — are now preparing for a hearing before the Environment Court. Specifically, SOUL is challenging the legitimacy of the Heritage New Zealand process that approved the Fletcher’s build.

Furthermore, the group are also waiting on a claim before the heavily backed-up Waitangi Tribunal over problems with how the land — previously earmarked to be part of the adjacent Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve — came to feature as a Special Housing Area in Auckland’s Unitary Plan.

“Pro-development” laws

It’s in that process, which began as far back as 2009 — two years after lawmakers first began referring to Auckland’s housing shortage as a “crisis” — the uneven nature of the fight for Ihumātao emerged.

“It’s unfortunate because the ways in which our laws are set up are pro-development,” Newton told Newsroom following a failed mediation with Fletcher and Heritage New Zealand last week.

For SOUL, which last year had its efforts recognised by the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, that “pro-development” set-up appeared to be one of the major and perennial adversaries in its struggle.

Its case in the Environment Court is based on what it believes to be a crucial flaw in the protection process administered by Heritage New Zealand.

“We’re asking the court to overturn the archaeological authority to destroy the archeological sites based on the inadequacy of the archaeological assessments that [were] done by Fletcher,” Newton, a law graduate, said.

For places like the Oruarangi block — which has significant heritage value due to the lava caves and wāhi tapu on it — Heritage New Zealand must approve any earthworks that will destroy known and potential archaeological sites on the land.

Pania Newton in action at the UN. Photo: Supplied

As part of its application, Fletcher provided the authority with information about historical sites, a plan to manage impact on the land, sites and the wāhi tapu. While the application was granted, a raft of conditions — including further “archaeological investigation and recording” of known, and yet-to-be discovered, historical sites on the property were attached.

SOUL, which did not expect to find common ground during last week’s mediation, believes Fletcher should complete all archeological assessment and investigation prior to any application approval for earthworks from Heritage New Zealand.

“Heritage New Zealand can’t order Fletcher to provide that evidence, even though they had requested the [archaeological] analysis, but Fletcher did not feel it was needed,” Newton said.

Notably, Heritage New Zealand declined two applications from Fletcher before granting permission to the company.

“Fletcher actually threatened to take Heritage New Zealand to court if they didn’t approve the third application — they were stuck in a hard place in my eyes,” Newton said.

“It was a choice of going to court against the little fish, or going to court against the big fish. It is a bit disheartening that Heritage New Zealand can acknowledge this site as so significant, yet are unable to protect it because of the law which they are governed by.”

When asked about the process, Heritage New Zealand said in a statement it would not be appropriate to comment due to the pending appeal — likely to begin in May.

Fast-moving Fletcher

The peculiar Heritage New Zealand process, which is due to be re-examined in the Environment Court, seems to be representative of the overall progression of the Oruarangi Road development.

Beginning in 2009, a wholly different appeal in the Environment Court was made over the land by then-owner Gavin H Wallace Ltd. Back then, the owner wanted protections placed on the land because of its proximity to the Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve removed, and re-zoned to be made available for residential development. 

While documents made no mention of Fletcher at that point, less than four months later, and only a month after the Auckland Housing Accord was signed by then-Housing Minister Nick Smith and Auckland mayor Len Brown in October, the company sent a letter to Auckland Council outlining its intention to build a housing development at Oruarangi Road “potentially in the order of 400 or more dwellings”. A director of Gavin H Wallace was also copied in on the communication.

Meanwhile, the issue of a possible housing development was brewing among Ihumātao locals. Reflecting discontent in its community, the Māngere-Ōtāhuhu local board passed a resolution to show it did not support a special housing area. The next day, March 20, 2014, Fletcher and vendor Gavin H Wallace entered into a sale and purchase agreement conditional on approval from the Overseas Investment Office (OIO) for the sale. As a majority-owned overseas company, Fletcher’s major land purchases in New Zealand must be ticked off by the OIO.

It then took 11 days for the company to submit its application to the OIO. The application stated that the land “is expected to be included as a ‘Special Housing Area’ under the Auckland Housing Accord”. At the same time, Auckland’s housing crisis continued to be a hot topic, with increasing house prices and unaffordable living circumstances in the City of Sails dominating news headlines.

Key players: Auckland Council and Overseas Investment Office

The next major development happened at Auckland Council level — behind closed doors. Like all potential special housing area developments, a panel of elected members received a report from the council’s housing project office, which sets the suitability of sites as a special housing area.

Newsroom obtained a copy of the confidential report for the Wallace block. Included in the eight-page report were “major concerns” at both hapū and iwi level about the potential Fletcher’s development, as well as information that Fletcher’s was dealing with two individuals representing one of the hapū involved.

Despite this, the Council recommended to Housing Minister Nick Smith that the site — along with 40 other properties — be classified as a special housing area.

“At every stage, objections have been unsuccessful and the various authorities have found the development to be legitimately zoned and consented after considerable consultation.

- Fletcher Building

Government weighs in

At the end of July, Oruarangi was formally established as a special housing area. At that point, the Fletcher’s application was kicked to Ministerial level, where then-Associate Minister of Finance Jonathan Coleman and Minister for Land Information New Zealand Michael Woodhouse approved the overseas purchase on September 9. Ministerial sign-off was required because of the size and historical significance of the Oruarangi Rd land.

At the community level, Ihumātao locals — with backing from some Auckland councillors — continued to fight the development. Opposition became so significant a motion was tabled for an upcoming council meeting to revoke the earlier recommendation made to Government for the Oruarangi Rd special housing area.

When news of this reached Wellington, Housing Minister Nick Smith decided to lay down the law, sending a letter to Auckland Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse highlighting the powerlessness of Auckland Council. The letter was shared at the council meeting.

In a setback for SOUL, the motion failed five votes to 12. Among the in-favour minority were the chair of the council’s Heritage and Advisory Panel councillor Mike Lee, now-retired Manukau ward councillor Arthur Anae, and Cathy Casey, a ward councillor for Albert-Eden-Roskill. Casey, part of the original council-appointed panel which recommended making Oruarangi Rd a special housing area, has since spoken out about her regret and confusion over the site, and its value to the Ihumātao community.

“This was an entirely new process and we were just learning by doing,” she said of the special housing area approval process in a 2016 Listener article.

“You can see how, right across Auckland, especially if the local councillor is not there to guide you, it’s really hard to pick up the nuances.”

Fletcher’s view

By May 2016, Fletcher was a step closer to building its development — some three years after it first engaged with Auckland Council. With permission from the council to build on the land, the company then began the process of gaining approval from Heritage New Zealand.

After two rejected applications, Fletcher received the archeological authority for Oruarangi Rd. In a letter from Heritage New Zealand to the company in September, destruction of existing archeological sites on the property as a result of the intended work was acknowledged, as well as any sites yet to be discovered.

When asked about the development, Fletcher issued a statement maintaining the legitimacy of its processes.

“The development’s legitimacy has been tested in a number of arenas, including the SHA [special housing application] hearing, through a Heritage NZ application, and the Māori Land Court,” the company said in an email.

“At every stage, objections have been unsuccessful and the various authorities have found the development to be legitimately zoned and consented after considerable consultation.

“Furthermore, we understand there is a Waitangi Tribunal claim relating to the wider area, but this farm is not covered because it is private land. As with other claims across New Zealand, private land cannot be used as compensation for confiscations.”

Photo: SOUL Facebook page

The statement shows Fletcher did not consider SOUL or any of its members to represent local iwi — recognising Te Ākitai Waiohua, Te Kawerau Iwi Tribal Authority and Makaurau Māori Trust as authority for the tāngata whenua of Ihumātao.

Documents reviewed by Newsroom show the existence of tension between iwi members and tribal authorities over the development since it became common knowledge. As the development progressed, and its construction seemed inevitable, authority bodies eventually came on board with the project — generally with a view that it was better to be part of the process than locked out completely.

Fletcher: “Fletcher Building is working closely and positively with the local iwi, who have informed Fletcher Building that they are the only ones authorised to represent their people on matters associated with cultural, social, political, economic and Treaty matters. We have also been advised that the iwi with mana whenua over this land do not accept attempts by a protest group known as SOUL to speak on behalf of the local iwi or community.”

The current Government

Long-standing Mangere MP Aupito Su’a William Sio, as well as Housing Minister Phil Twyford, have been steady supporters of SOUL in the past few years.

The pair’s election to Government, as part of the Labour-NZ First coalition, certainly lifted the spirits of Newton and her fellow SOUL members.

“They’ve been really good in opposition — especially Su’a. He’s been out here a bit,” Newton told Newsroom in early December.  

“We’re really hoping something will happen now there’s been a change in Government.”

Fast-forward into the New Year — with its 100-day deadline looming — and support for SOUL in the Labour Party seems a lot less clear-cut.

Twyford, who as housing minister has the mandate to revoke the classification for a special housing area, refused to be interviewed on the issue, instead sending a written statement through his spokesperson.

“The Minister is giving consideration to the issue around the Oruarangi Road Development but is not in a position to comment on it at this time,” the email said.

The site of Fletcher’s Oruarangi Rd development: Special Housing Area 62 at Ihumātao. Source: SOUL

Sio, who has said he “can’t talk on behalf of the Government”, maintains his support for SOUL as the Mangere electorate MP. Prior to the Christmas period, he had been in contact with both Twyford and Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage regarding the pending development, he said last week.

“The local community and SOUL are not opposed to the housing development — we just believe there should be other alternative sites where that housing development takes place and free up that land to become a protected heritage site," Sio said.

When asked whether he had approached Twyford about revoking the special housing area classification at Oruarangi Rd, Sio said it had been discussed as an option while Labour had been in opposition. However, it hadn’t been brought up since as “both Ministers needed to get advice from their officials” on the site.

For SOUL, which will continue to object to the development through the “somewhat frustrating” legal process, the right way forward is clear:

“They need to purchase the land back and make this a historic reserve as they promised,” Newton said.

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