Proper process to identify valuable heritage must replace unfair scheduling of 3600 untested places.

Hopefully Alf Filipaina, chairman of Auckland Council's Unitary Plan committee, is right when he wrote in Wednesday's Herald that most Aucklanders want to protect our cultural heritage and values with rules "workable and fair to all". Unfortunately, the huge expansion of the Cultural Impact Assessment (CIA) process he is promoting is neither workable nor fair.

How can it be fair to single out 3600 sites across the city, the majority with no proven link to past Maori occupation, and require the property owner to go cap in hand to the local iwi for a CIA, as part of the resource consent process Auckland Council proposes for any new building or other earthworks on the site?

Last week, I quoted Unitary Plan manager John Duguid admitting the 3600 additional sites to be added to the plan had been identified by archaeologists over many years, but were poorly mapped and some were simply wrong.

In response, the NZ Archaeological Association (NZAA) sent me a copy of its submission, which underlines just how wrong and untested the "new" sites are. They've been "effectively scheduled without any prior assessment and in many cases without confirmation of the presence, exact location and extent of the sites".

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The archaeologists further warn that if the new sites are included in the final plan, it will "impose considerable (and for the most part, unnecessary) costs on landowners and land managers and because of this will erode public support for archaeology". And, one surmises, heritage. Which is just the reverse of what Mr Filipaina is hoping for.

The new sites were lifted from the NZAA's historic index of archeological sites relating to Maori occupation. It's a grab-bag of sites built up over many years but, apart from a few exceptions, the entries "have undergone no evaluation process".

In addition to pre-1900 archaeological sites it includes "sites that have been destroyed since they were recorded, possible rather than proven archaeological sites, botanical sites that may or may not indicate early settlement, historically reported sites that may have no physical remains or where the precise location is not known, and sites post-dating 1900 that have archeological value".

The NZAA complains that in the majority of cases, no investigation was made by an archaeologist or mana whenua representative before a site was included on the proposed Unitary Plan list.

If they had checked, they would have found that "many of the sites are small shell middens, most of which do not appear to have any associated settlement remains. They are generally of low to moderate archaeological significance and would not meet the historic heritage criteria for scheduling in the proposed Auckland Unitary Plan."

The NZAA says that on past experience, small isolated shell middens have not been seen as having high cultural significance by mana whenua.

The association also complains that despite most of the 3600 sites being small middens, each becomes the centre of a 300m-diameter heritage circle, potentially affecting dozens of adjacent properties. Each would, if planning redevelopment, have to go through the hassle and expense of seeking out a CIA.

Planning law expert Professor Ken Palmer is also raising doubts about the legality of the proposed reforms. Hopefully they will be abandoned before the lawyers get to test them. An additional piece of red tape is the last thing home-owners and developers need as they "intensify" the city. Spare a thought for mana whenua, too, as they are forced to scrabble around in other people's backyards on some cultural lucky dip.

The NZAA proposes an alternative, something that should have occurred decades ago - a full process of consultation with all mana whenua groups in the Auckland area to identify sites of high cultural significance to them. Sites that merit scheduling should then be included in the Unitary Plan in a future plan change - not just archaeological sites but others of cultural significance which have no archaeological remains.

Auckland politicians have been notoriously lax in preserving the past. Old buildings, even our precious volcanic cones, have been no match for the God of Progress, so it goes against the grain to knock any signs of a change of heart.

But the present stunt of drawing 3600 new heritage sites out of an old filing cabinet - the vast majority of which will prove to be false alarms - won't advance the heritage cause. It will succeed only in reviving the bad old anti-heritage instincts.