The BulletinOctober 27, 2023

Wellington Council struggles to get out from under its heritage trap


Some say heritage regulations are too strict; others say earthquake risk ratings need a rethink. Either way, critics say something needs to change, writes Catherine McGregor in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

A big, white and empty albatross around Wellington Council’s neck

A little over a decade ago, Civic Square was a very different place. The central library was thriving, as was children’s activity centre Capital E. Across the concourse, the town hall was home to classical music performances, council offices, and meeting rooms for the mayor and councillors. All three buildings now stand empty, and the square will remain a much less lively place until the planned reopening of the library and new Capital E premises in 2026. As for the town hall, it will reopen someday too, after the council this week agreed to fund a $147m cost overrun, bringing the total cost of earthquake strengthening for the building to as much as $330m – more, Joel MacManus notes this morning on The Spinoff, “than the construction of Spark Arena and the new Tākina Convention Centre combined”. MacManus looks at the troubled history of the largely unloved building, described in 1978 by leading architect William Toomath (yep, that name again) as “inexpressive and insignificant” and which only made sense to leave standing as “a sad joke”.

The traps and tradeoffs of protecting heritage buildings from earthquake risk

As has been widely observed, the town hall is a victim of the so-called heritage trap – it’s considered too historically important to tear down, but bringing it up to seismic code is proving ruinously expensive. It’s the same issue that ultimately doomed the Toomath Building to an ashy grave and, as MacManus wrote earlier in the week, is the reason that a slew of buildings in prime central city locations are currently standing empty. It seems clear to many that something has to change. Economist Eric Crampton is among those who think the heritage regulatory framework needs a rethink. Others say earthquake ratings are too strict – or, at the very least, they should be accompanied by a grown-up conversation about risk tradeoffs. Veteran earthquake scientist Hugh Cowan told Stuff’s Nikki Macdonald last year that he thought the community should have a greater say on the use of at-risk buildings: “Accepting that you can’t have everything overnight, what risks or impacts are tolerable?”

Auckland says no for now on Māori council seats

Staying with local government, this week saw a series of votes on the question of Māori seats around the council table. Greater Wellington Regional Council voted to establish a Māori constituency in time for the 2025 local elections, while Auckland Council voted down a similar proposal 11-9. That doesn’t mean the council has completely abandoned the idea – it’ll now be considered by a council governance working group that reports back in December 2024, meaning it’ll be 2028 at the earliest before Auckland Māori can vote in Māori council wards. There are currently 35 councils with Māori wards or constituencies; 32 of those were newly established ahead of the 2022 elections. Councillors received a barrage of emails leading up to the Auckland vote, part of a Hobson’s Pledge campaign against the seats. “Manurewa councillor Angela Dalton said she’d received 1247 of these emails over the past five days,” Newsroom’s Matthew Scott reports.

Dunedin pledges to open council doors following Ombudsman’s report

A Chief Ombudsman’s report criticising the widespread use of secret council workshops has prompted a swift response from Dunedin City Council, which has promised to open its workshops to the public from next month. While Dunedin wasn’t one of the eight councils investigated in the report, it said it would be stepping up its transparency efforts by immediately opening meetings to the public wherever possible. Meanwhile Crux’s Peter Newport reports that Queenstown Lakes District Council, also not one of the eight councils covered by the Ombudsman’s report, has held 86 secret workshops in the last two years “with council staff unsure whether any records were kept”. QLDC says it will consider the Ombudsman’s position but did not commit to changing its policy on behind-closed-doors meetings.

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