Heritage New Zealand is proposing to include the disputed land at Ihumātao in the Ōtuataua Stonefields heritage area and increase its status.

The Crown entity wants to expand the internationally-significant site at Māngere, and increase its heritage rating from Category 2 to Category 1 - the highest level, regarded as a place of "special or outstanding heritage significance".

The new area includes the site of a planned 480-house Fletcher Building development, which has been the focus of sustained protests from mana whenua over the past several years.

Those involved with the group Save Our Unique Landscape and various mana whenua have claimed the development would destroy the unique historical, cultural, spiritual, social and environmental values of the area, which was one of the country's first settlements.

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This has been disputed by Fletcher Building, which had proposed to include an 8ha "buffer" between the new neighbourhood and the existing heritage area.

According to Heritage NZ, the Ōtuataua Stonefields was a "a nationally significant ancestral Māori site that reflects the historical connections of Māori communities with the land or whenua in New Zealand over many centuries".

The proposal expands the heritage listed area from the turquoise line to the dotted red line, which would include the site of the proposed Fletcher housing development. Image / Supplied
The proposal expands the heritage listed area from the turquoise line to the dotted red line, which would include the site of the proposed Fletcher housing development. Image / Supplied

It also had international significance as part of the wider Tāmaki Isthmus recognised as the Auckland Volcanic Field, and with its rich volcanic soils held many stories about both Māori and later European agriculture in the area.

Heritage NZ Chief executive Andrew Coleman said their proposal was based on further research, and new criteria that placed more emphasis on Māori values to assess heritage value than was available in 1991 when the area was first assessed.

"When the new Act came in, in 2014, it brought spiritual, cultural and traditional values more to the forefront, as well as historical, archaeological and other values."

The expanded area covered the proposed building site, and included middens - historic rubbish sites, caves, and evidence of historical agricultural systems and Māori gardening practices, including kumara pits.

The proposed 480-home Ōruarangi development adjacent to the existing Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve. Image /Supplied
The proposed 480-home Ōruarangi development adjacent to the existing Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve. Image /Supplied

"Every area has its own stories, but this is a very unique and special one for New Zealand, and is why we think it is important to acknowledge this place as significant from a heritage perspective," Coleman said.

Coleman said their proposal would not have any legal implications for the current land dispute, and would not impact on the area's Special Housing Area designation.

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"It is more just a very well-researched document that Auckland Council and various landowners would need to take into account. It does not start or stop anything, just gives a view."

Protection of heritage-listed areas sat with local, regional and unitary councils, Coleman said.

While the 100ha Ōtuataua Stonefield Historic Reserve was protected, Auckland Council did not have the wider area of Ihumātao listed an important heritage place as it was on private land.

In 2016, the Unitary Plan Independent Hearings Panel recommended withdrawing all Māori heritage sites on private land from the heritage schedule with the intention to add them at a later date after they were more accurately identified and mapped.

But at Ihumātao this has not happened.

The Heritage NZ proposal had the support of the New Zealand Archaeological Association, with president Katharine Watson saying the area had "outstanding historical and cultural value".

Ihumātao has proven a lightning rod for Māori land rights issues across the country. Photo / Dean Purcell
Ihumātao has proven a lightning rod for Māori land rights issues across the country. Photo / Dean Purcell

The Heritage NZ proposal adds another layer to discussions around land's future, which erupted in July this year after those occupying the housing development site were issued an eviction notice.

Thousands of supporters soon arrived from across the country, and over a hundred police officers, with scenes likened to Bastion Point.

Amid escalating protests, on July 26 Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stepped in to call a halt to the development while all parties negotiated a resolution.

Soon the Māori King became involved, bringing the mana whenua groups divided over the development under the korowai of the Kīngitanga to find common ground.

In September Kīngi Tūheitia announced mana whenua had reached a consensus: they wanted the land, originally confiscated by the Crown in 1863, returned and wanted the Government to negotiate with Fletcher Building.

The protest at Ihumātao escalated after an eviction notice was served on July 23. Photo / Dean Purcell
The protest at Ihumātao escalated after an eviction notice was served on July 23. Photo / Dean Purcell

The Government met with Fletcher Building on September 20, but has been quiet on the topic ever since.

In the past, Government ministers have voiced concern purchasing the land could disturb Treaty settlements in the area - a view disputed by many Māori academics.

The heritage reassessment came after three public requests came through in late 2017, Coleman said.

There were about 5700 listed sites across the country, and just over 1000 of these were Category 1, he said.

Submissions on the review report can be made here.

Fletcher Building and SOUL have been approached for comment on the proposal.

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