Heritage protection requires more effort

Artbeat column no 446 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 27 April 2009

There is a city council initiative to try to give things of heritage value better protection in the District Plan. Not all heritage is art but some is and ours is under continual erosion. I welcome the initiative and was pleased to attend a meeting last Wednesday about it.

The gathering was hosted by Debbie Hogan and Bruce Petry and Michael Findlay spoke to explain the initiative. A little opaquely it is called a “Thematic Study”. The idea is something like this.

In some parts of the world, for example southern England, a high proportion of all there is around is listed for one kind or another of statutory protection. In other parts, for example New Zealand, relatively little is. Also, people get upset when they discover that things they think should be protected aren’t.

One response would be to rush around trying to discover things which should be protected, document them and get them on relevant schedules. One reason why much is protected in England and little in New Zealand is because people have been at this longer there and have more information to start with. We could make a big effort to try to catch up with public expectations and also simply to extend protection to things which should have it even if at present the public is not particularly concerned.

Indeed there have been spasmodic efforts to do this sort of thing and suggestions they should be renewed. The trouble is, just because people don’t know very much about what’s around the efforts tend to result in lists of the obvious: an imposing church; a pretty cottage.

These endeavours tend not to pick up less obvious things: the patterns and vistas created by the street plan; the open spaces between buildings for example, which Ted McCoy recently pointed out are sometimes as important as the built things themselves. (That came up during the debate about building into Harrop Street.)

Countries such as Canada and Australia, finding themselves in a predicament rather like ours, have come up with this thematic idea as another way of trying to lift their game.  You write a sketchy but very long and wide reaching history of your area. (The one for us starts millions of years ago with our Geological history and doesn’t confine itself to key events or major players or anything so narrow.) Nevertheless the sketch history tries to identify some key themes. (In our case the gold mining industry might be one.) But then you also have subthemes, the idea being that nothing of importance, even though perhaps untypical, gets left out.

One point of the meeting was to see what suggestions people had to make about themes or subthemes which might have been overlooked in the work so far. Eventually you have a document which perhaps works like a sieve on the district plan catching things not simply listed.

People could also use it as a guide to finding things which ought to be protected but aren’t. Instead of driving around admiring old churches and pretty cottages you head off with this on the seat beside you trying to discover that last, elusive cast iron sewer vent – which I seem to recall is on Queen Street somewhere near the Albany Street steps.

All joking aside one can see that such a document might be very useful for intelligently directing efforts to get things protected, especially things which might be ordinarily overlooked. I do think this is important and support the initiative but would caution that by itself it’s not enough.

The example of the South Dunedin Baptist Church is a case in point. That is a church of robust character of obvious aesthetic and historic significance. It’s the kind of thing you’d have thought would be protected anyway. But it wasn’t. Now a demolition permit has been issued for it – which should have been conditional on its owners first raising the money for their iconoclastic replacement. Even when it comes to the obvious there is a recording and protection deficit.

Until the passage of the Resource Management Act in 1992 the primary responsibility for such work was thought to lie with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. Its tens of thousands of members could be its eyes and ears and its staff could do the necessary recording. Things didn’t always work out wonderfully then but now anyway primary responsibility for discovering, documenting and listing things for protection is said to lie with the local authority.

Perhaps it does but some authorities are more active than others. I understand that Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch each have a staffer who does this full time. We have no one and a lot of unprotected heritage. We still need someone, or maybe some two, whose only work is to tackle the deficit.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times  http://www.otagodailytimes.co.nz