Auckland councillors’ narrow vote against widening the criteria for a house to be categorised as special character will now go before independent commissioners.

A motion to include houses with four special character qualities (rather than ensuring they have to meet 5 to 6 of them) in the mix when weighing up if neighbourhoods should be given special protections was shot down 11 votes to 10 late on Thursday, with one councillor abstaining.

It was a decision after hours of consideration during yesterday’s 12-hour meeting of the Council’s planning committee, with accusations of politicking and time-wasting flying around the chamber.

Special character areas – the zoning overlay which will prevent rezoning for greater intensification once new central government-enacted rules come into play in August – have proven to be one of the crucial battles in the war for Auckland’s future.

Councillors largely fell into two groups, with ideologies that aren’t by their nature in opposition – a sense of history and aesthetic versus equity, affordability and climate action.

Councillor Pippa Coom said it wasn’t a binary issue, saying “It’s not special character areas or affordable housing, it’s not climate action or special character, it’s not equity or special character – I think we can address all of these and more”.

“We’ve enabled and maintained entire communities in centrally-located areas to operate as gated communities without the gate.”

– Waitakere councillor Shane Henderson

However, the rhetoric from most of her fellow members tended to fall quite clearly to one side of the debate or the other, with little appetite for the space in the middle.

Councillors like Wayne Walker and John Watson were gung-ho in their desire to stop the removal of protection for character areas like Devonport, Northcote and Birkenhead.

“We are on this earth for a limited period of time, there aren’t too many occasions where we have the opportunity to make a decision for Auckland’s long-term heritage going forward,” Walker said. “The modernist stuff, that’ll be gone in the future. It’ll be bowled. But the heritage will remain, as it does in so many places around the planet, and is so loved.”

Many councillors on the pro-special character side pointed out the Peter Siddell painting on the wall of the council chambers, which depicts a group of Victorian villas with the maunga of the Devonport peninsula in the background.

The artwork became a symbol for keeping the old Auckland fully intact, with several councillors and local board submitters saying that special character areas create a “buffer zone” around important cultural and ecological sites like maunga.

Councillor Christine Fletcher said the painting had hung in the office of former mayor Dame Catherine Tizard, who had told her to look at it as a reminder of why they do the job.

Fletcher said the destruction of Auckland’s beauty was “happening on our watch”.

“Auckland is a beautiful city,” she said. “We should be unapologetic about retaining the beauty of Auckland.”

Meanwhile, councillors who want to see less protection for these areas to allow more intensified development in inner-city suburbs said it was an issue of letting people back into the housing market and the council putting its money where its mouth is in terms of emissions reductions.

Waitakere councillor Shane Henderson was strongly in favour of allowing more development, saying “We’ve enabled and maintained entire communities in centrally-located areas to operate as gated communities without the gate”.

He said the bulk of intensified development and housing construction had been in areas like West Auckland, where working class families often live long distances from their places of work or education, and implored the inner-city suburbs to “do your bit”.

Fellow Waitakere councillor Linda Cooper said the whole thing was like a “groundhog day” of the discussions around the Auckland Unitary Plan, the rulebook being addended by the Government’s national policy on urban development.

She said adding less opportunity for density is not a defendable position.

“People say they want compact urban form but when it comes to the hard decisions they go ‘Oh no, I want to vote for my area’,” she said. “We are regional councillors – you have to vote for the regional view.”

Cooper also wondered at the lack of thought to the colonial history of the city and the ‘special character’ lost after European arrival.

“The people who live in Ōrakei now forget that the heritage of the people who lived there was ripped away and no one thought anything about it,” she said. “They drove them out and took their whare away and their pā. We say it’s heritage, but it’s pretty young heritage. It’s Pākeha heritage.”

Cooper was echoing an earlier speech from Independent Māori Statutory Board member Tau Henare, who wondered why he hadn’t heard the words Māori or tangata whenua all day.

“Just imagine what your ancestors were doing in 1840 looking over this beautiful city and what a special character it was then,” he said.

Outside walkable catchment zones near rapid transit, special character protections will be given to areas where 66 percent of properties are seen to have five or six special character qualities.

The amendment to this that was voted down would have seen houses scoring a four included in the category to get protection.

Councillor Desley Simpson supported widening the protections to the four-scoring houses, as that would be “the best compromised outcome” that might actually be put into the legislation once the issue goes to the independent hearings panel.

She said going any further, to protect more special character areas might not be accepted by central Government.

“There are those in Wellington who are directing us to remove all development constraints and there is a risk here that we are not going far enough in removing those constraints,” she said. “If we do not meet what the legislation requires then we lose control of the process and we potentially lose more than we can hold onto.”

The independent hearings panel will look at the council’s proposed changes to the legislation in August after public notification.

Voting for the submission (to expand the character areas to include houses scoring 4) were councillors Darby, Coom, Fletcher, Mulholland, Newman, Sayers, Simpson, Stewart, Walker and Watson.

Voting against (and thus to retain the threshold at 5-6 qualifying heritage characteristics) were councillors Bartley, Casey, Cashmore, Cooper, Dalton, Filipaina, Goff, Henare, Henderson, Taipari and Young.

Councillor Richard Hills abstained from voting, while mayoral candidate and councillor Efeso Collins was absent, having left to go to a campaign event earlier in the evening.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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