Historic Places changes questionable

Artbeat column no 467 by Peter Entwisle

Published in the Otago Daily Times, 8 February 2010

The government is going to restructure the New Zealand Historic Places Trust which might be all right but looks the opposite.

Before the election the National Party spokesman for heritage and culture, Christopher Finlayson, now the Minister, said the party was thinking of changing things because of tension between the Trust’s staff and its membership. His party was thinking of looking at the National Trust in Britain, or perhaps one of the Australian bodies, as a guide. Mr Finlayson also expressed concern about the New Zealand Historic Places Trust’s lack of powers in regard to archaeological sites. He said relocating that function to the Department of Conservation could also be looked at during the review.

I commented on these proposals in this column (ODT 3/11/2008) providing background about the British arrangements and pointing out that past experience here has shown DOC isn’t good at handling human heritage.

On the 29th of January the government announced the results of a preliminary review. The changes it plans to the Historic Places Act will help the Trust focus on its regulatory responsibilities “while providing opportunities for more effective advocacy in local communities”. The Trust has about 23,000 members. It will retain a mass membership but the local branch committees “which are involved in advocacy by members, would be disestablished”.

“Separating the local advocacy interests of branch committees from the regulatory functions of the Trust along the lines of the British model means better outcomes for both,” Mr Finlayson said. “For example, local activists will not be constrained by having to work within the priority-setting framework of a Crown entity.”

The Trust’s governing board will be reduced from nine to eight and all members will be government-appointed. At present three are elected by the members.

Archaeological consenting processes are also under review although what direction that is taking we haven’t been told.

A letter has been sent to members by the Trust’s Chief Executive Bruce Chapman which also describes these developments. It doesn’t add much apart from saying a bill to replace the existing act is expected to be before parliament in the middle of this year and would take effect in 2011.

What is worrying about this is that it looks set to muzzle local activists rather than enhancing their advocacy as promised. While before the election Mr Finlayson had said he was thinking of remodeling our Trust to be more like the British National Trust, what seems to be being contemplated is making it more like English Heritage.

That is a small government agency inside the British Department for Culture, Media and Sport which registers historic places and advises on their management. It has a modest membership but the members have no say in running the organisation.

By contrast the British National Trust has a whopping 3.5 million members, very deep pockets and its own act of Parliament giving it considerable powers.

If our National Government was really interested in emulating the British it wouldn’t just close down the local committees but would establish a new body, with rich endowments and its own enabling act. It would ask the Historic Places Trust’s present members if they would like to join this exciting new body.

I may be mistaken. The government may shortly announce plans for just such a thing. But somehow I don’t expect it.

It’s true that in the past there have often been tensions between the local committees and “head office” with the local committees characteristically being more active and vocal than the staff. The local committees also sometimes have different priorities from the agency’s. There is also confusion among the public about who speaks for the Trust, the staff or the local committee? For these reasons having two separate bodies for regulation and advocacy is a good idea. But having only one, for regulation, is not.

Among developed countries New Zealand has one of the weakest heritage protection regimes in the world. There are people, such as Earl Hagaman of Christchurch, an American hotel owner and property developer, who regard the New Zealand Historic Places Trust as an out-of-control bureaucracy wielding Stalinist powers strangling the nation’s development.

That’s a caricature and perhaps I’ve over-stated Mr Hagaman’s certainly intemperate views. But really the Trust is under resourced to perform its present regulatory role and existing regulations are few and lax compared with other countries’.

The deficiencies might be partly mitigated by local authorities if they were more active in heritage protection but often they are not. Last year we lost William Mason’s Bank of Australasia and Boldini’s old Butterworths building in High Street, demolished by Mr Hagaman’s company, basically because the city hadn’t given them protection.  An interim decision about the buildings at 372-392 Princes Street, issued last week, anticipates their demise, partly for similar reasons.

The future for heritage looks dim.

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