John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Paradise lost from old Tamaki

State housing has made an urban backwater out of a once-glorious Maori town

The investment of Treaty settlement funds by Tamaki-area tribes could help recapture the glory befitting the area's pre-colonial significance. Photo / Janna Dixon
The investment of Treaty settlement funds by Tamaki-area tribes could help recapture the glory befitting the area's pre-colonial significance. Photo / Janna Dixon

If by some miracle of time-travel we could go back several hundred years and wander on the Auckland isthmus of that time, some things would be familiar.

The same volcano cones would be standing out amid the trees and fern, though some would be topped with palisades, and the gulf and the islands would be in view.

But in place of today's suburban landscape there would be bush with villages visible here and there, and clearings where gardens had been cultivated. And if we were looking for the busy centre of this place, the hub of its activity, the focus of its life, we wouldn't find it in the valley where Queen St lies today. The only feature greeting us there would be a creek dribbling down to a swamp at the harbour edge.

Up on the ridges of the isthmus we would notice well-worn tracks heading east, and following them as far as they went, we would come to a thriving town in the vicinity of Panmure. Or so I have read.

Maori called it Mokoia and if you go there today, it is obvious why it would have been the central business district of its day. It is the point where the Tamaki inlet narrows to be no wider than a river.

The inlet was the motorway of that time, the main route from north of Auckland to Waikato. With a short portage to the Manukau Harbour at Otahuhu and another from the south-reaching arm of the Manukau to the Waikato River, waka could travel all the way to Taupo.

Nothing would have passed Panmure without stopping to pay dues or at least respects, and no doubt to enjoy some hospitality and trade. It would have been a lively, prosperous Maori town.

I wonder if that heritage can inspire the urban regeneration project announced this week for Panmure, Pt England and Glen Innes.

Those places, with their eastern coastal blessings, should be among the grandest parts of Auckland. Look north from the summit of Mt Wellington on a sunny day and the suburbs below seem fine, with plenty of green space and the sea nearby.

The University of Auckland's detached campus looks so pleasant you wonder that the whole university hasn't moved out here.

The area has everything going for it. A railway line comes right past, courtesy of long dead designers who inexplicably decided the North Island main trunk should loop east from Otahuhu and come into Auckland across Hobson Bay.

The rail has brought so much industry to Mt Wellington that there must be plenty of local employment. So how did so much of that eastern side of Auckland become an urban backwater?

The answer, I suppose, is obvious: state rental housing. Last century's social projects have sorry legacies in other places too.

The Tamaki redevelopment plan jointly launched by Housing Minister Nick Smith and Mayor Len Brown this week is another attempt to design a more successful social environment.

To this end, Housing NZ and the Auckland Council set up a company last year. Its blueprint was not enthusiastically received by the residents on Tuesday.

Smith obviously wants the Tamaki plan to be a poster project for the Government's solutions to Auckland house prices that haunt the economy at present.

The Government wants to believe high prices are largely caused by a shortage of houses and has put a gun to the head of the Auckland Council to produce quick building consents in designated development zones.

The zones need not necessarily fall inside the council's desired urban boundary but Tamaki does, so the council is happy to be a partner in the project.

The density of the area is to be doubled, adding 6000 houses but fewer than 1200 would be owner-occupied. The vast majority will again be state rentals. With community centres, pool and health clinics in the plan, it sounds like another of those modern "projects" that never work.

Tenants in the worst parts of Glen Innes have been waging a long war of resistance against Housing NZ plans to demolish and start again. Hone Harawira got arrested in one attempt to block the access to a house last year.

This week he produced his own solution to house prices, at least for Maori. He wants 10,000 houses built by Maori for Maori at public expense.

"Let them pay for it with Treaty money," replied radio callers yesterday. That is a possibility. Pre-colonial Tamaki was the territory of tribes that straddled the Hauraki Gulf. It remained in their possession when Ngati Whatua from Kaipara had conquered the rest of the isthmus, just a century before Europeans arrived.

Descendants of about 13 iwi who were on the isthmus at that time are waiting for a Treaty settlement.

When it comes it could revive a corner of Auckland to its former glory.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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