The decision to give Ihumātao the highest heritage listing available sends a strong signal to the Government and Auckland Council, write Dr Frances Hancock and Nicola Short

Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga (HNZPT) has upgraded the heritage listing of the Ōtuataua Stonefields Reserve and included adjacent and long-contested land at Ihumātao, owned by Fletcher Building.

This decision, made by the Board and Māori Heritage Council of HNZPT, followed a huge number of public submissions on the upgrade of the heritage listing.

The HNZPT report, issued to submitters on Wednesday, states what the campaign to #ProtectIhumātao has long argued. That the land at Ihumātao is an outstanding example of heritage because of its historical, educational, and community esteem, social and technical values. The report identifies the land’s importance to Tangata Whenua and as part of the rare and unique cultural heritage landscape of the wider area. All of this amounts to the highest heritage listing available − the same status attributed to the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi.

In making its decision, HNZPT was clear its report informs an assessment of this place under the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014 and is not “a definitive history” of the area. It recognises Tangata Whenua histories, and stories of this historic place could encompass wide-ranging values not fully appreciated in the review. This recognition will strike a chord with the Ahi Kaa, those who have known this special place longest and best. It creates space for them, in time, to further share their rich knowledge of this area. The decision is likely to be especially heartening for those who whakapapa to Ihumātao and have withstood huge pressure to protect the whenua.

It is telling that this review produced an unprecedented public response. A record 1551 submissions, including from people across the country and internationally, even London, demonstrates the intense interest in this place and its heritage. To put this in context, in 2015 Heritage New Zealand received just over 50 submissions for its new policy and Auckland Council received just 202 submissions for the heritage chapter of the Unitary Plan.

According to HNZPT many of those making submissions advocated for the long-term protection of this land, which has significance for them and their whānau. They wanted the outstanding significance of this historic place appropriately recognised on New Zealand’s Heritage List. Some submissions noted concerns about possible impacts on Treaty Settlement negotiations and other processes.

HNZPT was careful to explain its primary purpose is to inform the public about historic places, advise owners about the significance of their heritage place and provide information about heritage places for the purposes of the Resource Management Act 1991. In a Newsroom comment in November 2018, we explained that HNZPT is significantly constrained by the nature of the legislation that created it. The HNZPT Act 2014 sought to make development easier and strengthen private property rights at the expense of public values like Te Tiriti o Waitangi obligations, heritage and environmental protection. These changes significantly constrain HNZPT, limiting the agency to primarily “promoting” the idea of protecting heritage.

The real teeth of heritage protection sits in the RMA and therefore with councils. Heritage places like Ihumātao must be scheduled in district plans to ensure any meaningful protection. But Auckland Council failed to identify the contested land at Ihumātao as an important heritage place because it is on private land. In 2016 the Unitary Plan Independent Hearings Panel recommended withdrawal of all Māori heritage sites on private land from the heritage schedule. The intention was to add them later, a recommendation that the council accepted and which has recently begun to happen, but not in time for Ihumātao.

Heritage New Zealand points out the new heritage listing does not change the status of the Special Housing Area designation or curtail existing resource consents. These decisions still enable Fletcher Building, a transnational corporation, to commercially develop the land.

But – and this is a big but – in the context of resolving the current crisis at Ihumātao, the HNZPT decision sends a strong signal to the Government and Auckland Council to take immediate action to protect this precious cultural heritage landscape for future generations. That means ensuring its heritage values are properly protected and managed, not side-lined.

The Government can take action through a ‘heritage order’. While the role of HNZPT is largely advocacy and focused on documentation, this agency, and the Ministers of Conservation and of Māori Development can act as ‘heritage protection authorities’. They can apply to Auckland Council to have the land protected through the RMA if they believe it is of particular value, historical or of special significance to tangata whenua, and can include the surrounding area. Ihumātao meets this criteria, and research in the HNZPT report proves this beyond doubt. A heritage order process can take as little time as 20 days.

So why hasn’t the Government placed a heritage order on Ihumātao? Perhaps, in part, because heritage orders have not been used in almost 10 years. Only 18 exist; mostly from the 1960/70s with the last one issued in 2013. The main argument against using this mechanism is the risk of compensation – in other words, a council would have to buy the land covered by a heritage order.

In another context, this option might be considered too hard or complicated, but in the case of Ihumātao it isn’t. There is a willing seller, a proven public good endorsed by the government agency with the recognised expertise, and a desire by affected parties and thousands of New Zealanders to positively resolve the issue.

While some people are concerned about a possible infringement of private property rights, this decision makes it clear that some places in our country are so special they require protection for the benefit of all citizens and future generations. These cases are rare.

On the heels of Sandra Coney’s enlightening Newsroom comment this week, which traced the planning background to the current crisis at Ihumātao, the new heritage listing provides a compelling reason to ensure this whenua does not become a housing development.

Leave a comment