Former regional parks chair Sandra Coney says a purchase of the disputed land at Ihumātao by Auckland Council would be entirely in keeping with historical precedent and the actions of local government in preserving open spaces for future generations.

With various claims being made about the Government stepping in to return the disputed Wallace block at Ihumātao to mana whenua, or at least to some form of public ownership, oppositional narratives are emerging from the leader of the National Party and various media commentators. According to Simon Bridges such an act would be bowing to Maori protesters and would undermine the Treaty settlement process.

Bridges’ view shows considerable ignorance of history, and not just of our colonial past, but recent history. The land at Ihumātao was ear-marked for purchase by the Manukau City Council at least 12 years ago, if not earlier, with other land surrounding the Ōtuataua Stonefields. It was the Environment Court and changes in local government, not the least the upheaval of the amalgamation into Auckland Council, that stymied that intention. Protesting mana whenua are literally the “last man standing” of what was once a widely supported plan to acquire a large piece of the Manukau coastline as open space, linked to other sites of geological and heritage importance.

Protecting the land at Ihumātao from development is critical to retaining what is left of a unique nationally, if not internationally, important geological and cultural landscape. This is part of the last large lava field in Auckland that had not been built over. It is neighbour to the longest continuously occupied papakainga in Auckland.

This could be celebrated as one of the founding places of Auckland, calling a halt to the shameful trashing in the name of progress that has gone on in the south for the past 70 or more years. Ancestral maunga have been quarried away, land levelled for airport runways and farming, motorways rammed up against marae, craters used as speedway tracks, lava features destroyed by tunnelling and pipelines, container loads of koiwi extracted from old battlefields and trucked out, and fishing grounds destroyed by sewerage ponds.

The protection of the Wallace block would not just satisfy the desires of the protesting mana whenua, but the many Pākehā who have supported the kaupapa, and would go some way to fulfilling the intentions of earlier local and regional government. The open space would be protected as an extension of the magnificent Ōtuataua Stonefields, and provide a present-day lesson in our history, bringing the consequences of our colonial history, with its land-stripping agenda, right into the heart of Auckland city.

This remote but city-fringe part of Auckland holds in its volcanic forms and dry-stone walls the formative story of Auckland. This was where, 600 years ago, long before Pākehā arrived, Māori fashioned volcanic stones to create prolific gardens, nurtured by the retained warmth of the sun. On its shores, the first Wesleyan mission station in Auckland was founded and a flour mill was established by local Māori which fed the town of Auckland. It was where the Kingitanga was founded at a meeting in 1857. Māori here cooperated with the mission and Pākehā settlers grieved to see them driven out, leaving behind their stock and possessions, on the brutal edict of Governor Grey.

Tragically, it became known as the “Rebels Reserve”, a small shrunken space to which Māori returning from the Waikato after the Waikato War were directed. Pakeha settlers used the volcanic stone to de-mark farm boundaries on their newly acquired land, and stayed there for an extraordinarily long time, so that in the modern day, they were still there. The view down the harbour to the Manukau Harbour entrance is sublime and wandering on the protected Ōtuataua Stonefields you gain a palpable sense of the original people living here and the layers of occupation in a way that is available in only a few places in the world. It is a miracle that this fascinating place still exists slap-bang up against the most high-tech industries of a modern city.

Most Aucklanders knew nothing about the land until the recent protest, but that does not mean its purchase is a new idea. Some of us in local government have hoped for a long time that it would come into public ownership. This land has been on the acquisition list for a long time.

Protectors of the land come to Auckland central to present a petition to Auckland Council. Photo: Sandra Coney

My first visit to Ōtuataua was at the opening of the stonefields in 2001 and despite having grown up in Auckland, having lived here all my life, I had never before been there.

Aucklanders have a bit of a biased view of landscape. Basically, they think “north” is the way to go for sun, beautiful beaches and awe-inspiring landscapes. But here it is! In the backyard of Auckland, southwards, you need to deviate only slightly from your journey to the airport to find it. The existence of the wastewater treatment plant and the airport have protected it over long decades, though perversely doing their own damage by noise, pollution, and reshaping of the land. The voraciously expanding airport has eaten into what was once a much larger landscape, bringing noise and industry. Nothing has stood in the way of this, even the lovely Westney Church and its graveyard of early settlers was shifted away. Meanwhile Puketutu Island – Te Motu a Hiaroa to Mana Whenua – first permanent home to the Tainui waka – is now barely an island, its cones quarried away, its shores hemmed in by wastewater ponds, its land used to process green waste.

Apart from the people living there, the settler descendants and Makaurau marae and its papakainga, only a few archaeologists, geologists and planners knew about this. Alarmed at the post-war development of the area, which involved the quarrying away of volcanic cones and a destructive creep of development into the area, in 2001, Manukau City Council led by Sir Barry Curtis, purchased 100 hectares of the stonefields from the original settler Wallace, Rennie, Ellett and Mendelssohn families, with support from the Auckland Regional Council and the Department of Conservation.

This was a magnificent acquisition, it still left large areas vulnerable, including the site of the mission station and old Ihumātao village. Since the 1980s there had been serious discussion on the future of all the land, but the stonefields were the priority for purchase as the owners planned to quarry it. The currently disputed Wallace block lay directly behind the stonefields, but was being farmed, so was at that time under no immediate threat.

The Ōtuataua Stonefields were a treasure in their own right but also had the added value of being linked geologically, culturally and historically to a good number of other volcanic features and landmarks of Manukau. Puketutu Island, the magnificent two-coned Mangere Mountain, Ambury Regional Park are also on the lava field and packed full of middens, stone structures and lava caves. Like  Ōtuataua, the Ambury land was confiscated after the New Zealand Wars. It came into public ownership as part of the Manukau Sewerage Scheme which carved a large sewer through this landscape, then 30 years later, a petroleum line.

There are fossil forests at the end of Renton Road and geologists can show you the easily-identifiable fossilised remains of rimu leaves that were stripped off the trees when Maungataketake (Elletts Mountain) erupted 80,000 years ago. Further east are Pukaki Lagoon, an explosion crater once used, in the way of Auckland, as a speedway. In 1993 the crater floor was vested in the Pukaki marae committee and in 2007 the rim was purchased by MCC. The watery beauty of Crater Hill is still in private ownership and is still being quarried. In public land on the foreshore at Puhinui are still more craters.

Beginning in 1992, MCC began developing what it called the Mangere Gateway Heritage Programme focused on the area north of the airport and west of George Bolt Drive, the main access to the airport. It was aimed at providing a tourism destination, building iwi capacity and stimulating economic activity. While there were some odd faux aspects, such as alternate groves of exotic and native trees on the Gateway route, everything appeared to be heading in the right direction.

In the early years of the 21st Century, MCC went feral. In 2006 it came out with a suite of radical changes to the regional and district plans. It asked the ARC to move the MUL or Metropolitan Urban Limit, the planning line that marked the boundary between urban and rural. At that time the MUL stopped short of a large swathe of land on the Manukau. MCC’s proposal meant that the MUL would end at the coastal edge or Ōruarangi Road, while an area of 85.5 hectares would be rezoned as Mangere Gateway Business and would be available for business development, right up to Ōruarangi Creek. The much-touted food bowl idea, predicated on the premium quality of the soil, now included a proposal for Lion Nathan to move its brewery and bottling plant from Newmarket to Ihumātao. Over 100 hectares of airport designated land was to be brought within the MUL.

Archaeologists and landscape architects consulted by the ARC were aghast at the scale of the proposal. With regard to the Wallace block, which was initially proposed for some residential housing, they said it was “very evidently an extension of the stonefields landscape. They have the same patterns of settlement and allow views to and from the reserve…” Development would sever the connection between papakainga and the stonefields. MCC’s own consultants said it should be kept as open space or rural.

The Mangere Gateway Heritage Area had now shrunk to the four blocks of land surrounding the stonefields. In its suite of planning changes MCC initiated Notice of Requirements for the four blocks. A NOR is a planning tool that protects land for future stated purposes – in this case, for passive public open space and landscape protection – preventing other development. MCC accepted by doing so it had an obligation to buy the land. But the designation constrained the value of the land and some of the owners, including Gavin H Wallace Ltd, owner of the Wallace block, appealed to the Environment Court.

In 2011 the Environment Court began hearing the case, with Auckland Council taking over the roles of the legacy MCC and ARC. Makaurau Marae Maori Trust Board also appeared supporting the NOR and stating it wanted no development on the Wallace block.

To the considerable shock of Council planners and archaeologists, Environment Court Judge Whiting and his team came down on the side of Gavin H Wallace Ltd, agreeing with their argument that the zoning obstructed their economic needs and wellbeing. Judge Whiting argued “sensitive development” was possible, and, to add insult to injury, the Environment Court subsequently awarded $57,000 costs against the Council. In terms of the original vision for a large heritage area, this was a discouraging development.

The following history is well known. The Wallace block was sold to Fletcher Residential for housing and the Auckland Council designated it a Special Housing Area. Makaurau Marae Maori Trust Board and Te Kawerau a Maki Iwi Authority negotiated with Fletchers for an area of open space and further papakainga housing, and basically, at this point, Auckland Council threw in the towel.

Auckland Council should have stepped in to purchase the property, but unlike its legacy councils it has been unfailingly weak on the purchase of large areas of open space that are important for cultural, landscape or environmental reasons. As chair of the Council’s Parks Forum 2010-13, I recall asking the staff to bring to the committee for purchase one of the blocks on Ihumātao Road that was on the market, only to be told by council officers the mayor’s office did not want to pursue it. I could not get it on an agenda.

Manawhenua presented a petition to Mayor Phil Goff, with councillor Penny Hulse, in April 2019. Photo: Sandra Coney.

While Auckland Council can point to a few purchases outside small urban parks, most of these were set in train by the legacy Auckland Regional Council, and its performance goes nowhere near approaching the track record of the ARC before it was subsumed into Auckland Council. In the six years before amalgamation, the ARC acquired 1794 hectares of parkland and 12 kilometres of coast, including five new large regional parks on the Kaipara and Hauraki Gulf. The 185-hectare Pakiri purchase included the Tuaman property and Arrigato subdivision and cost the ARC $20 million.

By contrast Auckland Council, with a far larger funding base, paid $32 million for some Auckland University sportsfields at Tamaki, most of it under lease to a rugby club. Purchases of land at Mahurangi and Glenfern Sanctuary on Great Barrier had commenced under ARC. When mana whenua and supporters brought their petition for purchase of Ihumātao to Auckland Council, the Mayor dashed their hopes, pleading lack of funds. The Council, showing an abject understanding of the unique values of the area, said Mangere did not need any more parks.

Post the Auckland Council’s Unitary Plan almost all has been lost at Ihumātao. Apart from the stonefields, none of the land is zoned open space or even rural. All the old farm blocks around the stonefields including the Elletts’ land to the south are now future development zones and the Wallace block is zoned mixed housing with a small area of open space adjoining the stonefields. Only the tiniest sections of any of these sites are protected for their heritage. The RUB or Rural-Urban Boundary, Auckland Council’s replacement for the MUL, surrounds only the stonefields. Everything else has been offered up for development.

This is a tragedy of local government and reveals a very Auckland flaw – the triumph of economic greed over everything else: indigenous rights, heritage, landscape, open space and the legacy we leave for future citizens. If the protesting mana whenua at Ihumātao can achieve the rescue of the Wallace block, we and future generations will all be in their debt, for they will have accomplished what others more powerful and greatly more resourced have not.

As can be seen from this history, which spells out the intention of local government over many years to acquire the Wallace block, this clearly shows that the land was on a trajectory to become publicly owned before changes in the planning rules and in Auckland’s local government stymied it. This has nothing to do with the Treaty of Waitangi, so the argument that this undermines the settlement process is specious. This is about Auckland and Aucklanders and protecting a landscape that contains the early story of Auckland in its rocks, landscapes and pastures. Who owns and manages it is not critical as long as it is protected as open space in perpetuity, but there would be a sense of justice and security in its ownership and management lying with mana whenua.

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