The fight to stop a bill that will turn an Auckland reserve into housing sites has been lost – and now it’s become an election issue, reports Alexia Russell
Conservationists and east Auckland residents who have protested in vain at plans to put houses on the Pt England Reserve are shattered and despondent after the bill allowing the development was passed into law.
And while the minister behind it – Dr Nick Smith in his Building and Construction role – is touting the move as a victory for Auckland’s housing shortage, he appears to have run roughshod over his other portfolio – that of Environment. The bill also overrides the Reserve Management Act and the Reserves Act.
Auckland’s Friends of Regional Parks group calls it “panic politics”, and a travesty of democracy.
“Basically all of a sudden [Smith] has realised housing is a major issue in Auckland and the Government is desperate to get runs on the board … and they’ve come up with this half-baked thing,” says a committee member from the group, Rob Mitchell.
“Nick Smith is completely arrogant,” he says. “This is unprincipled, and creates an undemocratic precedent by saying the Reserves Act and RMA do not apply. It’s galling.”
The group accuses Smith of misleading Parliament by arguing the land in question is vacant and unused, saying it is used by thousands of New Zealanders every week for sport and recreation.
“Moreover he is wrong in science that the nesting places of the rare dotterels can be relocated. That is impossible. The nesting places of these endangered birds must not be destroyed.”
Also despairing is the Save Our Reserves group, set up specifically to combat the plan. Spokeswoman Julie Chambers says there are no options left for the group now the scheme is law – because Parliament’s power is absolute. “We feel shattered and despondent about what’s been done, and how it’s been done,” she says.
Rubbing salt into their wounds – in his official news release on the passing of the bill, Smith calls the Omaru Creek the Okura Creek, which is in Auckland’s north.
“We’ve been locked out, ignored, over-ridden … we are feeling bruised and shocked,” says Chambers.
She also detests the political nature of the move and warns National had better watch out for repercussions this election.
“Again we are being stood on by government and are being told what to do in our local reserve.”
The seat of Maungakiekie is held by National’s Sam Lotu-Iiga, with a 2348 majority. He is standing down this year after less than glowing results in Pacific and Corrections roles. Replacing him as a candidate is Denise Lee, currently an Auckland Councillor, who Chambers sees as having been complicit in the lack of consultation over the move. “There’s a lot of concern over the National Party’s behaviour over this,” she says. “And now National is standing a candidate who has a track record of failing to adequately consult with the community, and who has declined to attend public meetings on the issue.”
Labour, after initially supporting the plan as it was tied in with a Treaty settlement, has since campaigned against it. New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has turned out to protests. Both parties say they will reverse the decision if they get in this election.
Chambers sees the passing of the bill as “an example of arrogant, high handed behaviour from a third-term government intent on riding roughshod over communities, micro-managing councils and ignoring environmental concerns”.
“The removal of Point England’s Reserve status, preparing it for sale to private developers, is a significant loss for the people of East Auckland and all New Zealand. It sets a precedent for any other Reserve land to be taken by legislation and sold for housing without consultation. It leaves the status of the Resource Management Act in tatters.”
Chambers says this “high-handed, bungling law” takes much-loved sports fields and open park land from the community.
“This is a sad day for democratic participation, the environment, but most of all for those people who will only be left with fragmented, badly-designed sports fields and for the tiny birds who will return to find their nesting places gone.”
Smith’s moves have not only set up a flash-point for this election battle, but have set back relationships with the Auckland Council.
The local community board, which was not consulted, has criticised Smith’s lack of engagement on the issue.
Maungakiekie-Tāmaki Local Board Chair Josephine Bartley says the board opposed the bill because of the lack of consultation, and because of the “dangerous precedent it sets of circumventing legislation that protects reserves”.
“Again we are being stood on by government and are being told what to do in our local reserve. If this is the case, then what was the point of the Auckland super-city structure put in place by government to empower local decision-making?”
Smith, however, says the bill will benefit Auckland with additional housing, help resolve Ngāti Paoa’s Treaty claim and “improve the local environment and recreation facilities”.
He says the current Point England Reserve is not good use of public land, “with 18 hectares fenced off for over 30 years for grazing cows, the Okura [sic] Creek being one of the most polluted in Auckland and old, rundown recreational facilities.
“The bill requires the cows to be evicted, uses 12ha for housing, 2ha for a Ngāti Paoa marae and increases the recreational and amenity space by 4ha. All of the Crown proceeds from the housing development are to be invested in the local community, with enhanced recreational facilities, improved playing fields and for cleaning up the Okura [sic] Creek.”
Smith goes on to say the Government is “keen to engage” with the community, Council and Ngāti Paoa on the details of plans from now.
The community and the Council would have liked to have seen evidence of that keenness before the deed was done.