The planners at Auckland Council are once again having to explain to Aucklanders why another piece of the city's diminished heritage stock should be destroyed. Events surrounding the consent to demolish the 130-year-old cottage at 18 Paget St in Freemans Bay expose a peculiarly Auckland story - the planning department's ongoing reluctance to respond to Aucklanders' vision for their own city.

The cottage may appear a small, unimpressive example of our past not worth the fuss, but it has revealed the questionable processes and values at work in this city for decades. At the bottom of this saga is the undemocratic nature of the city's planning processes and a self-perpetuating culture of high-handed exclusion.

At any one time there are groups and individuals around Auckland struggling to be heard on local development issues, shut out of a process the council would have us believe is inclusive. The common denominator for them is the council's unseen, unaccountable planning department.

Chief executive Doug McKay's strong words to his planners last week about heritage protection amount to an admission something's very wrong there. His promise of a new culture at the Super City is encouraging, but it'll take more than that to dislodge entrenched "we know what's good for you" attitudes and stop the planning tail wagging the council dog.

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Over time, the department has made Auckland an arena for developers to make money using our built heritage as the commodity. The city is littered with the evidence - the meaningless facadism of the Jean Batten building and the Edwardian Queen's Head pub; Ponsonby's old vinegar factory flattened instead of being renovated for new uses; Fanshawe St's historic commercial buildings gone, with most of Newmarket's originality and much in Symonds St; grey and dismal Hobson St stripped of history and character.

Further back are the Bacons Lane and "Melba" enclave behind High St, Brown's Mill, the Regent cinema with its stunning staircase, His Majesty's Theatre, and uncounted individual buildings and houses, both small and large like Coolangatta, picked off across Auckland.

Communities are fed up with the use of non-notification rules which rob them of their right to be heard until it's too late. Paget St is but the latest example.

Every suburb has casualties. Not the least is the obliteration in St Heliers a year ago of seven buildings (including three Spanish mission cottages) spanning 120 years of local history for an inappropriate, non-compliant development in Turua St. It was fought to the last by a community enraged by what the process dished out to them. When publicly exposed, council staff take refuge in the regulations, citing them as the reason no other course of action is possible.

In Paget Street's case, an internal council report effectively found that even in the Residential 1 "protected" zone of Ponsonby, the application to demolish couldn't be notified because they'd decided on rules that say it couldn't be notified, and the discretionary override was not used. Catch 22?

In Turua St, the same consultant planner advised against notifying the second application for the development, even though the first application had shown clear public interest, drawing 90-odd objections.

Playing in the background were events surrounding the widely consulted council plan for St Heliers, which initially gave protection to the character buildings but was later challenged in the Environment Court. Turua St's buildings were a live issue.

But the second application went through non-notified, leaving objectors to the first application with no way of being heard. Silence is the developer's best friend in these cases, and planners have long used their considerable discretion in developers' favour. The circular legal arguments and moves that leave people feeling they've been had bring the system into disrepute.

How can you respect a system that gives you grief over extending a deck or shifting a bathroom but signs off on major heritage and character loss with ease, and in secret?

What's forgotten is that the purpose of regulations is to ensure the agreed vision for a city's development comes to pass - rules don't have a life of their own. It's time to admit Auckland's rules aren't delivering best outcomes and change them.

They don't have to look far for a model - the Brisbane and Adelaide councils have stricter, clearer rules about heritage/character classification, protection, notification and demolition. They put serious resources into researching and recording heritage inventory, and to an incentive scheme of grants and rates relief for building owners and developer transfer rights for property companies.

Nothing will change for Auckland until the planners are pushed to a new mindset, where our heritage and character buildings are valued as a finite resource that marks out our individuality, benefiting residents and drawing visitors.

There's a chance right now because the new Super City plans are being written. Unfortunately, recent decisions by the governing body to severely limit local board input on public notification of developer applications move in the wrong direction.

But if there's to be anything super about Auckland, and it stands any chance of becoming Len Brown's "most liveable city", it must adopt a clear strategy for identifying and protecting its finite heritage and character resource, backed by bottom-line controls (including new planning mechanisms) which can't be circumvented or ignored.

Sally Hughes is chairwoman of SOS (Save Our St Heliers).