Janet McAllister: Our heritage is going, going, gone

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Campaigner Allan Matson on Fanshawe St. Photo / Dean Purcell
Campaigner Allan Matson on Fanshawe St. Photo / Dean Purcell

Heritage hero Allan Matson hasn't read the heritage policy statements in the draft Unitary Plan. This is a surprise. When I ask him to comment on them, the tireless thorn in the side of soulless developers says he'll have to call me back. He does, but he still hasn't read them.

Funnily enough, the heritage statements read as if he wrote them: "We need active stewardship to protect [heritage] for the future... [Heritage places] are unique, non-renewable resources that require protection and conservation for present and future generations."

Amen to that. But Matson has skipped over such niceties in his haste to chase the devil in the plan's dense and confusing detail. Plan platitudes don't matter - rules do. "I think we're going to lose a hell of a lot of heritage," he thunders.

He points to three reasons why our built heritage - character streets as well as individual significant buildings - is under threat: ignorance, not enough carrots, not enough sticks.

In other words, much heritage remains unidentified; building owners will struggle with the cost of rapid earthquake reinforcement; and the Unitary Plan calls for massive intensification, which means money for those willing to cut through red tape, demolish their old houses and build blocks of flats instead.

And once one villa or bungalow on the street is gone, there is less reason for neighbouring property owners to hold on to theirs. It is harder to bulldoze a pre-1944 building in certain areas, but that just slows the rate of heritage loss, it doesn't stop it. Matson warns that what the Unitary Plan allows won't happen overnight, but it will happen.

All three reasons boil down to one: money. Keeping old buildings is expensive - and the council isn't planning to share the cost with the owners (Matson suggests a rates discount for a while for those who've paid for earthquake reinforcement).

Identifying historic buildings and areas is expensive too. Happily, the plan policies, the ones Matson hasn't read, talk a lot about identifying heritage. But, unhappily, that means little if those polices are not adequately resourced.

Other heritage campaigners are also concerned by the "blunt tool" of the plan and its blanket statements. Local boards are complaining that communities are not getting a proper say at the right time about precisely where intensification can take place in their neighbourhood. For example, would it be better to build up to four storeys all the way along Dominion Rd, or have different height restrictions, between two and eight storeys, in different places? Should we preserve the historic character of a few entire streets in Sandringham and allow all the rest to be changed willy-nilly, or keep a few villas and bungalows on all of the suburb's streets?

Still, at least heritage is prominent in the plan. In contrast, the plan shows no skerrick of interest in ensuring that the quality and quantity of cultural facilities intensifies with the crowd. A whole section of niceties? The arts should be so lucky.

- NZ Herald

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