With the Government's announcement that it will contribute $10 million in addition to local funding to assist with the repair, restoration and strengthening of heritage and character buildings in the Canterbury region, comes news that three buildings on Wellington’s Willis street—all over 100 years old—are being demolished, without any public notification.
“Why is it that even in the midst of the devastation caused by an earthquake work is being done to save buildings in Canterbury, but in Wellington bulldozers are ready to knock down historic buildings without any consultation?” asks Labour Arts, Culture and Heritage spokesperson Steve Chadwick.
“It is ironic that Wellington wants to be considered the artistic capital of New Zealand, but there is no thought given to protecting architecture in the city.”
The buildings due for demolition are owned by Singaporean Grand Complex Properties, which plans eventually to build a multimillion-dollar high-rise on the site, reports stuff.co.nz.
The move comes as no surprise to New Zealand Historic Places Trust’s senior heritage policy advisor Robert McClean.
“That’s one that’s not surprising. They could have done something but at the end of the day it’s the owner that calls the shot and unless there’s regulation to protect the buildings, nothing can be done. The council had decided not to protect them.”
When it comes to the tearing down of heritage buildings, he says the issue is often tied to opportunistic development: “People take the opportunities to get rid of the old and build new.”
He estimates that about 80 percent of New Zealand’s 10,000-plus heritage buildings are privately owned, but he’s quick to point out that private owners shouldn’t solely carry the onus of maintaining heritage properties.
“There are a massive percentage of residential, commercial or industrial properties in private ownership. The private owners carry the costs of maintaining these buildings and until there’s some sort of incentive, like a grant scheme or tax incentive for example, it’s not going to get better.
“Because there’s a public interest in this issue there should be a publicly funded incentive. Some council’s do have funds—like Wellington city and Christchurch— where owners can apply for assistance in maintaining and strengthening buildings. But it’s very uneven across council’s. Some council’s don’t have the funds.”
Central government, he says, needs to get involved in supporting owners. “There is public interest in private owners carrying out strengthening work but they need support to do that.
“We’ve been raising this issue for years now. We’ve been making noises and hopefully now in light of the Christchurch earthquake there will be action."
When it comes to protecting our heritage buildings, he says it’s quite simple. “It comes down to value, significance and the contribution of heritage buildings towards New Zealand’s identity.”
Strengthening and preserving buildings ahead of time also saves the country money in the long-term. “If you can strengthen buildings prior to disasters happening, that means there will be less impact on the public purse following a disaster. You won’t have as many claims to the Earthquake Commission. You won’t need a huge $10 million dollar grant form Government. If you can sort it before it’s always better.”
Auckland’s Britomart and Crown-owned properties like the Beehive and the Wellington Railway Station, McClean says, are all good examples of buildings that have been strengthened and well preserved.
The New Zealand Historic Places Trust has put together a guidance series (though it’s currently in its draft stage) to assist local authorities, owners of heritage places, iwi and hapū and other stakeholders in the protection and conservation of historic heritage under the resource Management Act 1991 and other related resource management and planning legislation. Comments and feedback on the draft guide are encouraged.