A Parisian visitor once asked to see Auckland's historical centre so I showed them the essentials. I pointed out the Town Hall, Civic Theatre, Smith & Caughey's premises and the jumble of post-1970s shopping malls, finance buildings and the casino that comprise the city's heart.

The visitor was polite, but unimpressed by the CBD. Instead it was Auckland's traditional timber houses intermingled with trees and sleepy gardens, the city's distinctive volcanic cones, and the uninterrupted views of two splendid harbours from these cones that enchanted my guest and made the long trip worthwhile.

Just two weeks earlier, the independent hearings panel set up by the Ministers of Environment and Conservation to consider submissions to the Auckland Council's proposed Unitary Plan delivered its interim assessment that the plan's provisions to protect these buildings and landscapes left them vulnerable.

Auckland's special features are not sentimental - they are important, not just to the individual visitor who passes through, but to the generations of citizens who have shaped these communities, value them and are proud to live in them.

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Such values are at the core of the city's collective memory, identity and future, with very real economic, cultural, social and environmental benefits. After extensive community consultation, these values were identified and included in another Auckland Council document, the Auckland Plan, adopted three years ago.

The Resource Management Act requires the council to recognise and provide for historic heritage as a matter of national importance and to have regard to "amenity" values which include "character".

The council set up a heritage advisory panel of experts and community representatives to provide it with independent advice during the development of the Unitary Plan.

It did this as a response to community outrage about the non-notified demolition of cherished buildings in Auckland's older suburbs. The heritage panel was not opposed to intensification and quality urban redevelopment (in the right place) but it was concerned about the lack of evidence on which the Unitary Plan was based.

As an interim measure, it placed a restriction on the demolition of pre-1944 buildings to allow time for proper assessment and the introduction of protection measures for appropriate sites, while the Unitary Plan was further refined.

These current controls are hardly onerous - they offer minimal protection, with a notified resource consent required only if more than 30 per cent of a heritage building is to be demolished. They are a stopgap measure that falls far short of permanent and more comprehensive measures already in place in liveable, competitive, new-world cities such as Brisbane.

So it is a travesty that the independent hearings panel's interim guidance says that special character is not historic heritage, that the pre-1944 restrictions are unduly onerous for property owners, and that there is insufficient evidence to justify them. This untimely guidance contradicts the RMA, undermines the approved Auckland Plan, and pre-judges the panel's final report to the council next year - before the hearings process is complete and all the Unitary Plan submissions have been heard.

Apart from the issues of legality and democratic process, there is the more profound problem of how Auckland safeguards the special qualities of its natural and built heritage in a political environment that is shoring up well-heeled self-interest at the expense of community values and economic benefits.

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Why live in Auckland if you can live in Brisbane? Why visit Auckland if you can visit Paris? Genuine world-class cities venerate heritage. Unless we get real about protecting our heritage, Auckland is in danger of becoming a fake.

Dr Elizabeth Aitken-Rose is head of the University of Auckland's School of Architecture and Planning