The Ministry for Culture and Heritage has spent more than $1 million on a national Erebus memorial even though it does not have building approval.

The budget for the memorial, Sky Song, is $3.5 million. The ministry wants to install the memorial in Dove-Myer Robinson Park in the inner-Auckland suburb of Parnell but has encountered stiff opposition to its choice of location.

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An Official Information Act request revealed $1,065,216 - more than a quarter of the total budget - has been spent by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage (MCH) before construction has begun.

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The ministry said $524,662 had been spent on consultants including engineers and architects, $202,093 on project management and surveyors and $126,961 on the design and consent process.

Some $211,500 had been spent on stainless steel construction materials.

The Erebus Memorial, Te Paerangi Ataata - Sky Song, which is to be constructed in Parnell. Image / Supplied
The Erebus Memorial, Te Paerangi Ataata - Sky Song, which is to be constructed in Parnell. Image / Supplied

After talking to several of the Waitematā Local Board members who have the final say on the fate of the memorial's Parnell location, the Weekend Herald found little support for the park site.

One member said the board had been 6 to 1 against granting landowner approval for the memorial's location.

Board chairman Richard Northey said the decision by Auckland Council to issue consent for the memorial, without getting public feedback, weakened the project's validity.

In March, the council granted resource consent for the memorial without any public notification for submissions and feedback from residents and interested parties.

"The resource consent wasn't as credible as it could have been for the local board because it wasn't notified," Northey said.

"It was disappointing it can't be as conclusive as it could have been if people had been able to be heard directly on it.

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"So the granting of resource consent won't be decisive in the decision the board makes."

An artist's impression of the Erebus Memorial Te Paerangi Ataata - Sky Song, which is to be constructed in Parnell. Image / Supplied
An artist's impression of the Erebus Memorial Te Paerangi Ataata - Sky Song, which is to be constructed in Parnell. Image / Supplied

If the memorial was to get rejected by the board when it votes - the date for which has yet to be set - the $1m design, consultation and planning spend will have been wasted.

In December 2019, the ministry's Erebus Memorial project leader Brodie Stubbs confirmed the 95 sq m structure, entitled Te Paerangi Ataata - Sky Song, was specifically designed for Dover-Myer Robinson park.

The memorial incorporates a stainless steel walkway projecting out to the horizon on a lawn overlooking Judges Bay. The memorial acknowledges the loss to the families and the nation arising from the Erebus disaster.

On November 28, 1979, Air New Zealand flight TE901 crashed into Mt Erebus in Antarctica, killing all 257 passengers and crew. It remains the worst civil accident in New Zealand's history.

"The design is specific to the site and it is not as if we can just take that design and plonk it somewhere else," Stubbs said.

"If it doesn't go ahead here, to a large extent we are back to square one, for finding a new site, for restarting a design process."

Stubbs said the spend on the Erebus memorial so far was "standard process for a project of this kind".

"It is necessary for a certain portion of a project budget to be spent in order to progress the design to the stage that it can be considered for the various regulatory consents and approvals required for the memorial to be built," Stubbs said.

"These include resource consent, archaeological authority and landowner approval. With any project there is a risk that approvals won't be granted."

Annie Coney and Jo Malcolm have reservations about the proposed Erebus Memorial in the Parnell Rose Gardens. Photo / Michael Craig
Annie Coney and Jo Malcolm have reservations about the proposed Erebus Memorial in the Parnell Rose Gardens. Photo / Michael Craig

Jo Malcolm, from the Save Robbies Park residents' group which opposes the park location for the memorial, said the $1m spend smacked of desperation and arrogance.

"I think it's an absolute obscene amount of money to have spent on something that you don't even have permission from a landowner [the local board] to build," said Malcolm, who also belongs to an Erebus family.

"We're horrified at the cost. It's an incredible waste of money when you don't have landowner approval.

"It shows they [MCH] believe they are getting it and nothing would stop them. I don't think they would spend that money otherwise."

But Stubbs said MCH had taken steps to minimise the risk of the project getting shot down at the last hurdle.

"The ministry sought landowner approval in principle from the Waitematā Local Board before committing to the development of a memorial in Dove-Myer Robinson Park," Stubbs said.

"Waitematā Local Board granted approval in principle in November 2018, subject to a number of design and regulatory conditions being met."

This "in principle" support was not given by the several Waitematā board members the Weekend Herald spoke to.

An artist's impression of the Erebus Memorial Te Paerangi Ataata - Sky Song proposed to be constructed in Dove-Myer Robinson Park. Image/ Supplied
An artist's impression of the Erebus Memorial Te Paerangi Ataata - Sky Song proposed to be constructed in Dove-Myer Robinson Park. Image/ Supplied

A number of local board members referenced Auckland Council submissions from Waitematā residents, collated in October 2019, which revealed 77 per cent opposed the memorial being constructed in the Parnell park.

Despite the uncertain prospects of MCH obtaining land owner approval, the ministry is pressing ahead. Its next move is to obtain a second archaeological investigation of the site.

"The ministry will shortly submit an application for archaeological authority to Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga," Stubbs said.

"If that is secured, the next step would be to work with Auckland Council to prepare an application for final landowner approval for the Waitematā Local Board's consideration."

Heritage NZ is expected to take at least another seven weeks to make a decision on whether Dove-Myer Robinson Park is suitable.

Ministry did not inform Ardern of report suggesting against Parnell location

New documents obtained under the Official Information Act reveal Ministry of Culture and Heritage staff did not inform their minister of several key papers when briefing her that Parnell's Dove-Myer Robinson park was the recommended location for the Erebus memorial.

The Save Robbies Park residents' group have obtained all the documents which were used to brief Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern - who is also the Minister of Culture and Heritage - before she endorsed the design and location of the national memorial.

In particular, MCH confirmed they did not directly inform Ardern of a report by environmental planning and design consultants Boffa Miskell, from August 2018, which assessed the park as a poor location.

Boffa Miskell reported the park was noisy, would struggle to "develop a new memorial identity" and had no connection with the ill-fated flight which departed from Auckland Airport and flew over the Manukau Harbour.

Of nine criteria rated from poor to excellent, the assessment found the park was "poor" or "adequate-to-poor" in four. It was not judged to be "excellent" in any criteria and to be "good" in only one.

The ministry confirmed in its May 1, 2020, OIA response to Save Robbies Park it did not inform Ardern of the Boffa Miskell report.

"Generally, it is only major decisions that are taken up to the Ministers for their approval and it is not typical to include all material which contribute to recommendations on those decisions," the ministry said.

"The Boffa Miskell report was one of several pieces of work that informed the ministry's recommendation on the preferred site for the National Erebus Memorial. Reports of this kind, which are inputs to inform decision-making, would not typically be elevated to the ministerial level.

"In this instance, ministry officials reviewed the Boffa Miskell report and considered it alongside all the other relevant information before making a recommendation that Dove-Myer Robinson Park was the preferred option as the site for the memorial.

"The Prime Minister was briefed on this recommendation, as Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage."

In November 2019, Ardern said she was "very comfortable" with planning for an Erebus memorial in the Parnell Rose Gardens despite the controversy surrounding it.