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PoliticsApril 14, 2021

Tired of renting office space, parliament considers investing in a new build

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

For many years, New Zealand’s parliament has been in the unusual position of renting much of its office space. The speaker says it’s now time to stop being renters and build. Justin Giovannetti looks at the plan.

While most legislative precincts around the world are owned by the public and serve as national symbols, New Zealand has held the dubious distinction of leasing one of its core parliamentary buildings from a foreign-held company. Among major countries, it’s an unheard of arrangement.

Bowen House is the 22-storey tower that looms over the Beehive. Ministers, MPs and their staff had been in the building for over three decades before they vacated last year.

Parliament’s relationship with its landlord had been acrimonious in the end. The rent was extortionate, the landlord wasn’t very communicative and the building was unsafe. It’s a near-perfect metaphor for Wellington’s wider rental market.

After a delay admitting to parliament that the working space of many of its MPs was earthquake prone, the building’s German owner is now strengthening the tower. Speaker Trevor Mallard said parliament has no plans to return.

“It’s fair to say that the relationship with the landlord is not the best,” said Mallard. He cited the high rent and the landlord’s decision to delay giving parliament its earthquake rating for months as examples of the poor relationship.

Instead, Mallard has released a programme to build three new buildings behind parliament to bring all its workers back to the precinct – many of them are now housed down Lambton Quay in the TSB building as a temporary measure until something permanent is worked out.

The project doesn’t have a price tag yet, but the speaker wants all three buildings to cost less than a 30-year lease back at Bowen House. The rent was disclosed last decade as around $6 million annually, which would put the cap at around $200 million. The initial plan has cross-party support, according to Mallard.

Parliament had previously approved a similar plan in 2016, but Winston Peters made scuppering the idea part of his coalition agreement with Labour. He dubbed the plan a “parliamentary palace”. At the time, New Zealand First said parliament should keep renting the building rather than spend money on a new build.

With Peters gone, Mallard said it’s time to move ahead. If NZ First were to come back to parliament in three years and try to stop the plan again, the speaker said he’d hang a portrait of one of its MPs on a half-finished construction site.

The main building would be erected on a car park behind Parliament House and would be plain looking. The plan is for the six-storey structure to be built from wood and be carbon neutral, with the highest green star rating possible. It’s hoped the entire project would be completed by 2026.

“It’s a pretty basic series of buildings. They’ll look good, they’ll be functional, but they won’t be flash,” said Mallard.

The building would also be built to a high seismic resistance, so if for whatever reason the Beehive became unsafe, the government’s executive branch would have somewhere to work. However, most of the time it would be home to backbench MPs.

The inside of the building would be designed for quick remodelling, with walls that could be easily removed and revamped in a week. Every three years, most of the offices would change as election results move in. The moves after elections currently take months in heritage structures that weren’t really designed for the vagaries of MMP.

The second building would require the demolition of an annexe built behind the Beehive. Previously occupied by the press gallery, the building is earthquake prone and is unoccupied. It does still house parliament’s gym and pool, but the gym would be rebuilt elsewhere. Rebuilding the pool is still up for debate.

A new three-storey structure would be built on the site to host nine ministers and their staff. The construction would mean all of cabinet would be in the greater Beehive, which is helpful for security and ease of work.

The annexe is technically a heritage building, which could make getting consents tricky for parliament. If it can’t get a demolition permit, the new building would instead be built on an adjacent sculpture garden, said Mallard. That would leave parliament with a nearly useless and unsafe building, as well as the loss of one of the only parcels of nearby green space used by staffers from parliament and nearby Defence House.

“Many people are surprised that the bit out the back is regarded as iconic,” said Mallard, speaking with reporters in his office about the annexe. “There’s also a tree out the back that’s been around about as long as parliament. It’s not the big oak, it’s the half-dead thing in the carpark.”

The plan calls for both trees to be relocated somewhere.

The third building would be a new centre for secure deliveries at the edge fo the precinct. The current delivery building is between the Beehive and parliament. A boffin on the security team recently concluded that receiving deliveries between the two spaces you’re trying to protect is a poor idea. “If you think about it, it’s not that bright,” said Mallard.

Mallard said that the committee behind the project had considered getting ministerial fast-track authorisation to build without years of consents, but decided against it after the finance and environment ministers suggested it wasn’t great optics.

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