Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a Herald columnist looking at Auckland and national issues

Brian Rudman: Whose land is it anyway, KiwiRail?

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KiwiRail chief executive Jim Quinn. Photo / Natalie Slade
KiwiRail chief executive Jim Quinn. Photo / Natalie Slade

With state-owned KiwiRail and its gentleman debt collector, Steven Joyce, demanding a trebling of the rent Auckland pays for access to the region's rail tracks, now might be a good time for the new council to try a bit of hardball in return.

To point out to them, for instance, the history of the former piece of Auckland Domain the rail track operator is trying to dispose of to the highest bidder.

Amid all the excitement of the coronation of Super City mayor Len Brown, news that KiwiRail had buckled to widespread opposition and abandoned plans to lease two hectares of Parnell land to New Zealand Bus as a depot for Link and other city buses got rather lost.

Also lost was the news that KiwiRail, while bloodied from the exercise, had not given up plans for commercial exploitation of the site. In a letter to former Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee - now Auckland Council transport chairman - KiwiRail chief executive Jim Quinn said the ongoing occupancy of the old railway workshops by the Mainline Steam Trust was "dependent on any other commercial developments in the area and its suitability".

The trust runs a maintenance workshop there for vintage charter trains. Last Friday, Mr Quinn told the East and Bays Courier KiwiRail was "looking for other commercial options". He said he supported public plans for a "destination station" but that Auckland Council or the local business group, Parnell Inc, "need to come up with a commercial proposal to lease or buy the land".

Another option would be for Aucklanders to go back to Parliament and ask for this land, which was sliced off Auckland Domain in 1865 to accommodate the new train line to Onehunga, to be returned to its original owners. After all, if KiwiRail no longer wants it for railway purposes, why should it be allowed to hold on to it?

If the MPs want the short version, they need only check reports to Auckland City's finance and corporate business committee in December 2005 and March 2006. For further details, former Auckland City councillor Richard Simpson, I'm sure, has files and old maps coming out his eyes and ears.

In June 1840, soon after signing the Treaty of Waitangi, Governor William Hobson joined Ngati Whatua chief Apihai Te Kawau in the new capital of Auckland and, among other things, proclaimed a large "Government Domain" east of Grafton Gully. In 1860, the Public Domains Act defined the domain. Five or six years ago, and concerned about the blocks of flats popping up on former railways (nee Domain) land below his former Parnell home, Mr Simpson started delving, and concluded that 4.3ha of Domain land had been nibbled into private ownership over 160 odd years. He eventually convinced Auckland City to investigate further.

Putting aside the various bites elsewhere, the council inquiry makes it clear that in 1865, 2.0584ha on the eastern boundary of the Domain "was taken from the domain for railway purposes". It says that subsequently, more land to the east of the original parcel was added to the railway corridor. An accompanying plan clearly shows most of the old railway workshops building lies inside the 1860 Domain boundary. In other words, at least part of the land KiwiRail has up for grabs is part of Captain Hobson's and Chief Te Kawau's Government Domain.

This time round, KiwiRail has responded to public pressure and canned its incredibly gauche proposal to allow 100-plus bus movements through this historic, steep-sloped and narrow-laned neighbourhood each day. It even supports Mr Lee's dream of siting the historic old Newmarket Station - dismantled and in storage - as a destination station next to the workshops. The catch is, Mr Quinn has no other plans and is waiting for other commercial options. He says "Auckland Council or Parnell Inc need to come up with a commercial option for the site".

He needs reminding that the site he is talking about was once a park, part of probably the first officially declared Domain in the country. It was sacrificed to make way for the pioneering first railway to Onehunga. It took an act of Parliament to make that cut. What's to stop some Auckland MPs from moving to repeal that act, at least as far as the old workshops are concerned? If nothing else, this would embarrass KiwiRail and Mr Joyce into rethinking their bottom line.

- NZ Herald

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