Monday 30 October 2023

Just make it easy to delist buildings

My column in the weekend papers:

There is one other alternative. It is an alternative Wellington officials downplayed. But it is one that the council should take or that central government could progress instead.

Why not make it easy to remove buildings from the district plan?

A council needing legislation to address a local issue can propose a local bill. The Parliamentary Counsel Office can assist in drafting. An MP, who need not necessarily support the bill, puts their name to it. The bill is introduced and has its first reading on the third sitting day after introduction.

Wellington City Council could propose a local bill enabling the council to remove buildings from the district plan, or to pre-empt their listing, by a simple majority vote. The bill would make delisting nonjusticiable, with no opportunity for appeals or challenge. It would deem the delisted building to have no special value for any other consenting process.

Officials worried this option could take years, but local bills can be very fast. If an incoming government is a bit frustrated by a council that seems able to find hundreds of millions of dollars for everything other than its water network and is not too annoyed by shenanigans around Let’s Get Wellington Moving, it could well shepherd this bill quickly through committee.

The Michael Fowler Centre and the Opera House were listed as earthquake-prone in August. The Opera House is listed on the district plan. The Fowler Centre is covered by the Civic Centre Heritage Area. Heritage New Zealand has also received a nomination for Fowler’s inclusion on the New Zealand Heritage List.

Wellington’s officials are still exploring local bill options, championed by councillor Ben McNulty and a 9-7 vote in favour, with councillors John Apanowicz, Tim Brown, Ray Chung, Sarah Free, Iona Pannett, Tamatha Paul and Nicola Young opposed.

If the council proposes this kind of local bill, a newly formed government should let Wellington get on with the job.

Or it could find time to add a government bill to the agenda. How many towns and cities face similar problems, where cost-effective approaches to mandatory strengthening are just too hard?

A National-led government might also support increased accountability the option would bring. If a council chose not to delist a building, it could not blame others for the cost.

Easy delisting doesn't solve the underlying problem. The underlying problem is a heritage preservation system that foists incredible cost onto the owners of heritage buildings, particularly if they are in need of earthquake remediation, while providing little support. A comprehensive fix would flip the system - abolishing the regulatory restrictions and instead providing annual payments for provision of the public good. 

But easier delisting would ease some of the worst pressures in the interim. 

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