There have been more than enough examples of inappropriate demolition and development in Auckland over the past few years to severely undermine confidence in the council's planning processes. Now, toing and froing over a 130-year-old cottage in Freemans Bay has supplied even more ammunition to critics. Even the belated decision to stay the wrecking ball will have done little to assuage those who believe some in the planning department remain quite happy to allow developers to destroy heritage buildings. Nor does this case supply any reason to suppose these same people are any closer to acknowledging that local communities' wish for a more active voice in their neighbourhoods must be recognised.
The architectural significance of the Paget St cottage is not the real issue here. Nor is its historic importance. What is at issue is the process by which the council's planning department decides on the fate of such buildings. In this instance, resource consent to demolish the cottage was granted by a consultant planner, who was given the case at the 11th hour. He replaced a council planner who had been working on the application for five months, and supported the view of the council's conservation architect, Stephen Curham, that the application should be declined.
According to the council's resource consent manager, the switch was made because the case was complex and the consultant planner was more experienced. The consultant planner, for his part, has acknowledged that he was not a heritage expert. That is hardly a ringing endorsement of the council's own officers, let alone the consistency of its processes.
Council files show the cottage owner's planner had vigorously challenged Mr Curham's view that the application should be declined because it did not meet the criteria for Residential 1 heritage zone controls. Such divergence of opinion would be part and parcel of the consent process in many instances. Nothing too much should be read into it. What is important is the planning department's reaction. The chain of events does not, on the surface at least, cast it in a favourable light.
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Arguably worse still was the decision not to notify the Waitemata Local Board about the case, despite an Auckland Council decision that local boards should be involved in "contentious" resource consents, such as the demolition of heritage buildings. This is a barely believable lapse given the furore a year ago over the levelling of three Spanish mission-style houses in St Heliers. While the council had subsequently chosen to limit the local boards' regulatory powers in such matters, it seemed that only a foolhardy planning officer would not err on the side of caution and advise boards of any controversial applications.
The council is now doing its best to retrieve the situation. A full peer review of the consent decision is to be carried out this week. "This is a sensitive issue and the council is acutely aware of the value and importance of our built heritage," a council statement said. But any marked change in attitude does not seem to have fully permeated the council's planning department. If there remains a view that developers should be allowed to destroy heritage buildings with as little fuss as possible, that must be addressed once and for all.
In its place must be a culture that recognises that the fate of buildings such as the Paget St cottage should be decided in the public arena. The views of interested people, especially those in the immediate community, should be sought, as should those of heritage experts.
Only once that broad voice has been heard should a decision be made.