From the global stage to the neighbourhood battle: Former Prime Minister Helen Clark fronts the Eden Park planning hearing and warns of an unpleasant and expensive PR campaign to sway a decision on rock concerts. Tim Murphy looked on.

It didn’t take long for Helen Clark to let a hearings panel into Eden Park’s concerts application know that it was failing in its task to appear independent.

As she sat before three commissioners who will decide on the bid, she pointed out five Eden Park promotional banners sitting behind the panel in the semi-judicial surroundings of the Auckland Town Hall council chamber.

“I see Eden Park publicity around the walls of a formal hearing, and that surprises me, to be honest.”

She was right to be surprised. She would have been right, as a submitter to an independent panel, to regard that as a WTF moment.

After her evidence and that of two other residents, the panel chair Kitt Littlejohn, made aware of the pro Eden Park banners behind him, asked the park trust board’s lawyer “to think carefully whether it is appropriate in a forum such as this …. which has to present an independent face”. Russell Bartlett QC suggested he’d already said they should be removed, but hearings officials did not seem to be aware of that request.

Clark is not one to ignore subliminal power plays or inappropriate optics for an independent body adjudicating a controversial dispute.

Littlejohn said of the banners’ removal: “It is more about justice being seen to be done.”

The small but symbolic point went to Clark’s wider argument before the panel about what she called Eden Park’s heavy investment in “a public relations campaign to push its case”.

“An unpleasant atmosphere has developed which is not only bad for social cohesion in the area,” she said, “but also intimidates people from making their concerns known through processes like that in which we are engaged here today.

“There is also a clear imbalance of resources between the proponents of the concerts and the opponents.”

Helen Clark makes her submission to the panel, with the Eden Park concert promotional material behind them, in the Auckland Council chamber. Photo: Tim Murphy

Clark said when she and her husband Peter Davis bought their home 350 metres from the park in 1980, they were aware of its traditional use as a rugby and cricket ground.

“There is no doubt in my mind that attempts over the years by Eden Park to broaden its range of permitted activities represent a significant threat to our residential amenity. We did not choose to live 350m from a major entertainment venue hosting concerts which generate large crowds, disrupt traffic flows and cause major noise issues.”

She said she had been subject to public abuse since taking a stand on a past plan for a concert, and the Eden Park Neighbours’ Association had been denigrated as “some kind of fringe element” as the trust tried to “pit neighbours against neighbours”.

The former local MP said the dense residential zone around Eden Park had been recognised in past decisions by hearings commissioners or the council as unsuitable for the types of activities proposed in the current application to hold six concerts with crowds of up to 60,000 people, as-of-right, in a year. Eden Park has only once, in modern times, had a crowd that big and that was during the Rugby World Cup of 2011.

Clark said she had worked for that successful Cup hosting bid when Prime Minister and had been pleased with the way the Eden Park Neighbours’ Association, government, council and the park trust board had worked together to make the major event a success.

She told the panel Auckland Council had facilities which already successfully held concerts. “The events which Eden Park would seek to stage would likely be events diverted from existing stadia to a private one. The economic benefits Eden Park Trust asserts would occur would be benefits to it, rather than to the region.”

From a personal standpoint, as a neighbour of the park, Clark said: “It is now apparent that the noise level experienced at my property [during concerts] could be up to an average of 70 decibels.

“That represents a home invasion of noise, severely affecting residential amenity. One’s home is one’s sanctuary. When that sanctuary is transgressed by the activities of others, one’s way of life is severely impacted.”

Her work with international bodies, including the global review of the initial handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, often occurred at night by phone and online video calls and would be affected by sustained noise. To a question on whether she could schedule her calls on nights not impacted by concerts, Clark scoffed that international organisations and forums would not alter scheduling for a music concert.

Asked by a member of the panel if she received in her letterbox advance notifications of events, Clark said: “I do not have a letterbox, for security reasons.” Would she sign up for an email alert? “I do not want to be bothered by emails or publicity.”

Neighbours with young children, the old or disabled would be profoundly negatively affected by the “cacophony of sound”.

She appealed to the panel to “look beyond the public relations campaign mounted by the Eden Park Trust and administration and give careful consideration to the actual effects on the neighbourhood, which could not be mitigated. “I submit the application should be declined in its entirety.”

Other park neighbours

Another resident, Dr Julie Martin, submitted that she and her husband moved to a house across from the park 15 years ago and she was a member of The Hood, a community group seen as stimulated by Eden Park. They backed big rugby and cricket events but “I do not support concerts. I’ll leave it to others to debunk the myths or spin from Eden Park.”

Martin objected to the application on noise, traffic and the interference with community life of six more big and loud events. She, too, claimed Eden Park had conducted an expensive PR campaign aimed mostly at “non-impacted individuals” in Auckland. As a medical professional who peer-reviewed journals, she poured doubt on Eden Park’s surveys and statistics cited to back its application, which attempted to carry what she called “the veneer of scientific exactitude”.

“I live across from Eden Park and was never given such a survey.”

She challenged the panel: “I require and request that you look deeper” at the statistics.

Martin said the Eden Park chief executive, Nick Sautner, had visited her home last week to discuss the issues in her submission. “I have to say, he did not have adequate grasp of the issues and I did feel like it was a token visit.”

Nearly 3000 submissions to the panel backed Eden Park’s application, against just 180 against. But Martin said those directly affected did not support it and she felt many were put off submitting because they felt worn down by the repeated attempts by Eden Park to win the approval. 

“There’s literally a palpable fear that this might yet get past,” she said.

Valley Rd resident Astrid Modrow, who lives 600m from the stadium, said moving concerts from the publicly-owned Mt Smart to privately-owned Eden Park would take money from ratepayers. “I feel like a private trust is making money out of my pocket, which I think is not fair.”

Modrow’s objections focused on crowds, traffic and parking issues, and with concerts there would be the added week of setting up and packing out, which would see convoys of traffic affecting local residents. 

After she spoke of previous experiences with Eden Park attendees parking and behaving badly in her street, the chair, Kitt Littlejohn, said: “I have a confession to make. I have parked on your street. But I can assure you I was incredibly well behaved when I returned to my vehicle.”

Those in favour

Two other submitters Wednesday morning backed the park’s application.

Derek Nolan QC, on behalf of his daughter who is overseas but a landlord for a house in the same street as Helen Clark, told the panel Eden Park was a major part of the city and country’s heritage, world class and world famous and deserved the nation’s support.

While submitters such as Clark heralded the area’s heritage residential status, Eden Park “is heritage too”, Nolan said.

“This application for six concerts is exactly what is needed. It makes perfect sense.”

His family’s experience was the trust appeared to manage large events well for the neighbourhood. A young couple renting his daughter’s house had a baby and backed the concert application. “They have no issue with concerts.”

His daughter wanted to go to her local stadium not just for sports, seeing a significant benefit of living in the district being access to events at the stadium.

During his evidence, Nolan mentioned the band Six60, which has publicly come out in favour of the Eden Park bid and wants to perform there. He was stopped by Littlejohn, saying Six60’s members were sitting right behind him. “Mr Nolan, Six60. Six60 … Mr Nolan.”

When Nolan concluded that his daughter supported the application by Eden Park with the proposed conditions, he added he hoped Six60 was the first act to perform there.

Littlejohn asked, jokingly: “Are you seeking a condition to that effect.”

Members of the band Six60 listening to submissions at the hearing into Eden Park’s concerts application. Photo: Tim Murphy

Another local resident of 15 years, Daniel Newcombe, supported the application.

He saw real benefits to seeing more people use the same space for more events. “That will necessarily have disruption and noise but there are provisions for mitigating that.”

Newcombe praised the trust’s community outreach and events held at the park for neighbours. “I did not see that as a PR exercise but as a good neighbour.”

His only condition would be controls on the use and noise of fireworks.

Concerts would, he agreed with an Eden Park submission, add to the hustle and bustle of a growing city.

The hearing continues until Friday.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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