Disputed 'h' up for national debate

By Eloise Gibson

Whether to put the "h" in Wanganui is up for national debate after the board in charge of place names decided to put the question to the country.

The New Zealand Geographic Board wants to hear from the public before it decides whether to change the city's name to its correct Maori spelling, Whanganui.

The move is likely to prolong differences between residents - both Maori and non-Maori - who want to see the city's name restored to its rightful spelling and the majority who believe long and popular usage has made the current name part of the city's identity.

The Geographic Board decided on Friday there was a valid case to change the city's name, 170 years after it was misspelled by European settlers.

Chairman Dr Don Grant said the board acknowledged the name "Wanganui" had a long history of local usage, but said early settlers clearly intended the name to refer to the Maori name of the nearby Whanganui River.

"This is about correcting a mistake made more than 150 years ago."

The river's name was changed in 1991 to include an "h" and the name of the local iwi also carries an "h".

Wanganui Mayor Michael Laws, who is on leave, and Acting Mayor Dot McKinnon have promised to fight a name change for the city after councillors voted seven to five against changing the spelling last month.

Ms McKinnon said the council was considering taking another poll updating a 2006 referendum which found 82 per cent of residents did not want the "h".

Mr Laws said the board's decision to consider submissions was a "direct attack" on the city and its citizens.

Te Runanga o Tupoho spokesman Ken Mair, who is part of the Whanganui iwi group that petitioned the board to change the city's spelling,
said the ruling was a major step forward.

Mr Mair said it was a simple issue of correcting an error - "if I spelled your name wrong you would want it corrected" - and the community was by no means united against the change.

Tariana Turia, the MP for Te Tai Hauauru, said the board should be commended for its genuine desire to correct the mistakes of the past and do the right thing.

Public submissions open in six weeks and stay open for three months.

- NZ Herald

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