Editorial: Justified annoyance at 'dangerous' heritage rule

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The council notes the requirement for cultural impact assessments has been around for many years. Photo / Dean Purcell
The council notes the requirement for cultural impact assessments has been around for many years. Photo / Dean Purcell

People usually reserve their greatest annoyance for things they believe have been imposed on them in a stealthy manner. So it is with a new rule requiring Auckland property owners to seek iwi approval to work on sites of cultural and heritage value to Maori. The rule followed feedback a year ago on the initial draft of the Unitary Plan, which said there was not enough protection for cultural heritage. Only now, however, have it and its implications found their way into the public spotlight. Predictably enough, the response has left Auckland Council with much repair work to do.

Its predicament became the more difficult when Labour's Maori affairs spokesman, Shane Jones, said the rule was dangerous, an extra compliance cost, and could leave the community with a jaundiced view of Maori heritage. He harked back to his involvement in the core group that wrote the Resource Management Act in 1988-89, saying that never in its wildest dreams did it imagine the status it accorded iwi could lead to 19 new consent authorities over the Tamaki Makaurau area.

The potential parallels do not end there. The resource management law was soon the subject of criticism, commonly overstated, that it was being used by iwi as a source of large sums of money for providing obligatory reports of little environmental benefit. Similar complaints and the fostering of ill-will are possible outcomes of this rule.

That prospect is heightened by its scope. It requires applicants carrying out work - ranging from air discharges and boring for water to removing mangroves and native trees - on 61 sites of significance and 3600 sites of value to mana whenua to obtain a cultural impact assessment from one or more of 19 iwi groups. The cost will range from $300 to $1500, but may go higher for more complex proposals.

The resentful reaction over the past few days has brought a hurried response from the council. It says that it will contact iwi on behalf of applicants whose resource consents may need an assessment. That, says the council, will remove one of the key areas of concern. Many others, however, are still to be addressed.

There can be no quibble with a heightened emphasis on heritage, whether that involves sites or values of importance to Maori or historic buildings. But involving 3600 sites said to be of significance or value to mana whenua based on archaeological records smacks of over-reach. The net should be cast only over sites of real value.

The rule would be less forbidding also if Aucklanders were reassured that they would not face a substantial extra consent cost. This could be done through a statutory guideline that dictated the charge that could be made by iwi. If this is not done, financial demands by iwi will, inevitably, spark claims of extortion.

The council notes the requirement for cultural impact assessments has been around for many years. That is true, but the former rule related only to consulting iwi for carrying out work on 61 sites of significance. There is now an urgency to work being done on the new rule by council officers in conjunction with the Independent Maori Statutory Board and iwi. This is designed to develop a standard process with triggers to identify where an assessment is required.

The outcome must be a more reasonable balance that provides protection where it is genuinely required but reduces the impact on property owners. In reality, that will be achieved only through a streamlined procedure, a limiting of scope and assurances about the cost. If heritage warrants added protection, it is not through a rule developed in haste and without adequate consultation.

- NZ Herald

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