Blanket bans are rarely a good idea. Far more often than not, it is better for cases to be decided on their merits fairly and openly. Therein lies the substantial flaw in the proposal being considered by the Auckland Council for a region-wide ban on demolishing tens of thousands of heritage homes unless owners can prove they are beyond repair. In one swoop, all houses built before World War II will be deemed to have special merit. Never mind that in any period a mixture of good, average and awful homes are built.
It is easy to see why the council is contemplating such a policy as part of its unitary plan. Public anger has been aroused by the inappropriate bulldozing of many fine old homes. People have made it clear they want better protection for genuine heritage buildings before yet more are lost. In particular, the Character Coalition, a grouping of more than 50 Auckland-wide heritage and residents groups, has been pressing for a Brisbane-style blanket ban. This would apply to 23,344 houses in the existing character zones of the inner-city suburbs, Devonport, Birkenhead and Northcote, plus thousands more pre-World War II houses being identified in other parts of the city.
Such a ban would be a step too far, however. Aside from ascribing a frequently unwarranted mythical status to these buildings, it ignores the fact that the cost of repairs to them can often outweigh the expense of building new houses. More importantly, it misinterprets the source of most of the public outrage over the loss of many of the heritage homes.
This relates to much of the demolition being done under a shroud of secrecy. As much was highlighted in the bulldozing six years ago of Coolangatta, a 90-year-old Remuera homestead. Its destruction ran directly counter to the then city council's statements about involving communities more actively. At the time, the prevailing view was that too many developers' consent applications were being granted a non-notified status, and decisions were being made without reference to the neighbourhood.
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Subsequently, developments such as the bulldozing of a set of 1930s art deco houses in St Heliers two years ago have served only to reinforce the view that communities are being ill-served. As much was again underlined when local boards were denied powers that would have given them a strong hand in heritage protection.
One part of the Brisbane model actually answers this concern by dictating that every application to demolish or remove a house in a character area must be publicly notified. That is as it should be. Public notification, followed by an open hearing, would allow the views of the community, and those of heritage experts, to be heard case by case. People's wish for a more active voice in their neighbourhoods would be recognised, as would the importance of transparency.
When warranted, houses will be protected. When they are beyond repair or of no particular merit or value, they can be replaced by a new and better house. That would be a victory for common sense, as well as acknowledging the reality of planned intensification, which also counts against a blanket retention of decrepit housing.
The ambition of the council, and those keen to preserve the city's finest old homes, is worthy. Intensification need not mean the destruction of older neighbourhoods. But that aim must be matched by an equally laudable policy. The parts of Brisbane's approach that promote community involvement and openness should be adapted to Auckland's needs. There is no need, however, for the type of protection offered by an arbitrary contrivance.