Len Brown promises to protect heritage, but protesters remain sceptical

In the face of public uproar over the demolition of three 70-year-old buildings, Auckland Mayor Len Brown has promised to do his utmost to avoid a repeat.

Amid tears, minor scuffles and cries of "shame", three Spanish mission-style homes in St Heliers were toppled yesterday morning. In a last hopeless act, a frustrated protester knocked the hat off a demolition worker.

It was the new mayor's first test of character on heritage issues.

Earlier in the week, Mr Brown said, "We will do everything reasonable in our power to ensure this doesn't happen again."

The mayor yesterday said the council will use devices like the Auckland plan "to do everything practical to protect Auckland's built heritage".

He stressed that the new council was working to put in place strong rules and district plans protecting heritage.

Some heritage campaigners were sceptical. Though the council faced an uphill task in saving the cottages, campaigners said its mishandling of the case was worrying.

The Save Our St Heliers group felt the new council showed no change from previous councils in halting the erosion of Auckland's architectural heritage.

Spokeswoman Dorothy McHattie said the cottages were the latest victims of neglect by a city council, citing the lack of attention for the downtown Yates Building, the demolition of the 95-year-old Coolangatta house in Remuera, and restructuring of the Jean Batten Building.

"If this is a litmus test for the Super City, we may as well go and live in the desert," she said.

Councillor Sandra Coney said the council faced a difficult task in protecting the cottages, because it was bound by the previous city council's decisions.

"But people feel let down. There are a whole lot more cases lined up, and the council has to do better going forward."

Heritage experts said council officials showed a worrying lack of understanding on the St Heliers demolition.

When pressed by protesters for intervention at Turua St, Mr Brown said the council had exhausted its legal options and could not afford to purchase the land.

Heritage consultant Allan Matson said councillors were led to believe they would have to buy the site if they made a heritage order.

"This is wrong. There is never the need to buy the property - that is a conscious choice of council, which can be discussed after a temporary heritage order."

"At the first hurdle for the Auckland Council, they were informed about their powers and came to the conclusion they were impotent."

After the council's handling of the Turua St case, he was concerned about important heritage challenges in coming weeks.

"There will be similar decisions that council are confronted with, and I'm not confident on the basis of their apparent understanding that they're going to handle these upcoming ones in a satisfactory manner."

The Turua St demolition went ahead after a last-ditch appeal to the Environment Court failed. In the hearing, the Auckland Council submitted that the buildings did not rate protection under the District Plan.

Ms McHattie said yesterday that the council's assessment was rushed and superficial.

" What's another two weeks for a proper heritage report? "

She said her team had unearthed hard evidence that prominent architect William Jaine designed the buildings, which would have bolstered their heritage rating.

Auckland Councillor Cameron Brewer, who represents the area, hoped that the public response to the demolition would signal a turning point in Auckland's protection of its heritage structures.

"Turua St has really been a metaphor of a wider public mood.

"[The protesters] might not have saved these particular houses but they've given the new council a huge wake-up call."

He is working with Ms Coney on heritage reforms, such as the potential use of external, independent heritage advisers.

Reflecting on the five-year tussle with heritage campaigners, Glendowie developer Michael Markham said he could have had a better relationship with St Heliers residents.

"We've tried to do everything properly. If there's a criticism that could be levelled it is that we could have communicated ideas more fully and that's what we'll be doing over the coming weeks."

He said the community would be consulted on the design and scale of the new Turua St development, which will include offices, shops and apartments. "Then people can judge what we're doing."

Ms McHattie said residents' input would be crucial, given the ill feeling the demolition had stirred. "St Heliers is a small community, it's a village".