Wellington Scoop

An end to four decades of defending the city’s environment

by David Lee
With great regret, Action for Environment’s residual committee has decided that our organisation can no longer continue to effectively operate.

There is no replacement for me as president/chairman, nor for the treasurer, Lorraine Smith. We are both standing down. Our loyal membership is literally dying off and we have failed to get new members. Our funds all went to pay costs resulting from the loss of our 2012 appeal to the High Court against a Badminton Hall extension into the Town Belt – which still hasn’t been built. A proposal to get younger membership by amalgamating with the Victoria University’s environment group Gecko regretfully didn’t go ahead because Gecko itself had wound up.

When Action for Environment (A for E) started in the early 1970s, it was the first and for a while, the only ‘activist’ environmental group in Wellington. This meant dealing with all manner of threats to the environment: everything from air and marine pollution, quarrying, power projects, destruction of native forests, loss of the Queen’s Chain and the Old Coach Road, inappropriate subdivisions and the loss of open space.

We have had a very commendable record; including three successful appeals to the Environment Court, namely: the Northern Landfill, the former Owhiro Bay Quarry, and retaining a special zoning for the Town Belt in the District Plan. A for E has always ‘punched above its weight’ in protecting the environment. At one time we even had the honour of the writer/comedian Spike Milligan volunteering to be our patron.

‘The A for E era’ however has sadly passed. One consolation we have is that there has currently been a trend for single-issue groups to be formed to deal with environmental threats as they arise (for example ‘Save the Point’) and this now seems to be a more effective way of galvanising public support against those threats

Fittingly, our last action was a defence of Wellington’s Town Belt, the issue which was instrumental in A for E’s founding over four decades ago. Sadly unlike then, we weren’t successful this time.

A for E’s records are being donated to the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Town Belt Act gives “unbridled power” to Council bureaucrats

Five years of attending workshops, writing submissions, making representations to the mayor and council committees, lobbying MPs and appearing before parliament’s Local Government Committee, to express our concerns over this legislation, came to nought in 2016, when the Wellington Town Belt Act was passed without any of the amendments we had lobbied for.

With great foresight, the founders of Wellington set aside the land for the Town Belt “to be public property on condition that no buildings be ever erected upon it” and to secure ‘the beautiful appearance of the future city”. Such foresight is sadly lacking in the Town Belt Act. It radically changes the Town Belt’s protection and status, overriding the governing document, the 1873 Town Belt Deed. It inexplicably removes the land from the protection of the Reserves Act 1977, and gives what the Wellington City Council, described as “flexible powers” to its officials.

Those powers mean that under the Town Belt Act the council has the “full capacity to carry on or undertake any activity, do any act, or enter any transaction …with “full rights, powers and privileges (our underlining). It’s no wonder a submitter to the parliamentary committee described the Act as giving the council “unbridled power”! Under it council officials have the automatic legal right (after “consultation”) to allow buildings in the Town Belt, making it in effect a permitted activity. An appeal to Environment Court against a proposed building in such a case would have a low probability of success.

So much for the council’s claim of “better protection” for the Town Belt’s open space and the public’s democratic right to defend it! On the contrary, under the Deed and Reserves Act it was already one of the best protected, if not the best protected, urban reserve in New Zealand. Power over the land was wisely limited by the aforementioned instruments. Now that power is concentrated in a development-minded council.

The right to allow buildings in the Town Belt totally ignores the consensus of the public workshops on the council’s so-called Town Belt “Guiding Principles”, which were precursors to the Act. The report from those workshops stated that there was “most agreement” that “No new buildings or built development on the Town Belt with the land to be retained as green open space”.

The then Mayor Celia Wade-Brown promised us that the guiding principles (which came out of a “high level” review) would be “subject to and consistent with the Town Belt Deed” (letter 9 November 2011). They weren’t and neither is the subsequent Wellington Town Belt Act which overrides it.

A disturbing lack of even-handedness (and outright duplicity) by the council was revealed during the public consultation process . The officers’ report dismissed the submissions critical of the principles as being “cut and paste”, despite them being individually written and argued – unlike the majority of supporting ones which were on the council’s leading-questions form. The brochure inviting public submissions also stated the principles would be subject to the Deed, so those who submitted in support of the principles would have presumed that they were going to be.

Regarding the Reserves Act, it is ludicrous that the first land to be reserved in New Zealand (and the most prominent open space in Wellington) is now no longer deemed one under the Reserves Act. Also gone is the right of objection to the Minister of Conservation regarding the Town Belt – a further restraint on the council has been removed.

The Town Belt Deed conveyed the land to the citizens of Wellington in trust and made them trustees of the land, (along with the mayor and councillors). The Town Belt Act on the other hand, refers only to the council as “the” trustee. The Town Belt’s trusteeship, granted under the Deed, was the rightful inheritance of present and future Wellingtonians. Removing that trusteeship is akin to changing a will 142 years after it had been executed.

When lobbying MPs we were very hopeful that then Green Party environmental spokesperson Eugenie Sage would support our amendments. She seemed to very much share our concerns in our meeting with her. We put her failure to do so down to the workings of ‘realpolitik’ at the time – the Greens had just formed an alliance with the Labour Party and the legislation was sponsored by Labour’s Grant Robertson.

Just before the draft Town Belt Bill went to parliament, A for E’s chairman asked Mayor Wade-Brown if he could address the council before voting on it. The mayor refused us permission to speak, with the result that the full council never heard a first-hand critique of the proposed legislation.

A for E quoted in the Basin Bridge decision

Along with many other groups and individuals, we made a submission to the Board of Inquiry in 2014 against New Zealand Transport Authority’s Basin Bridge Proposal (a flyover around Wellington’s Basin Reserve).

A for E’s chairman also made an oral submission to the Board, which declined consent for the proposal, a decision that was subsequently upheld by the High Court. In our submissions we emphasised the negative effects of the proposed flyover on such an important heritage area (which was an important factor in the decision). Our following statement was quoted in the BOI’s Report and Decision of 19 July 2014 (P.216):

“Would the British equivalent of the NZTA consider building a flyover near Buckingham Palace or one next to Lords Cricket Ground? It needs to be stressed that Government House and the Basin Reserve are our equivalents….the result will be heads of states, ambassadors and even the Sovereign of New Zealand being confronted with an ugly, graffitied monstrosity whenever they went to Government House ….NZTA is showing a complete lack of respect for Wellington as the nation’s capital”.

Although there was much said and written about the costs/benefits of the proposal, we raised the issue of value. Scenes of the Basin Reserve, projected to millions of viewers around the world during internationally televised test matches, have a priceless value in promoting Wellington’s and New Zealand’s image overseas. A flyover would ruin that image, we said.

We pointed out that although the Basin and Canal Reserves were not part of the original Town Belt they were added as schedules to the 1873 Town Belt Deed (we included a copy of the Deed in our submission).. We told the board that what we can tell from NZTA documentation, the proposed flyover went over the Canal Reserve, and one its massive support columns goes smack right in the middle of it. This was clearly a contravention of The Deed, which states that “no thoroughfare shall at any time be created across the said lands or any part thereof”. We added that proposed route of the flyover would also contravene the Reserves Act 1977, under which the Canal Reserve is held as a recreation reserve. In response, Judge Gordon Whiting, heading the inquiry requested a facsimile of the original Town Belt Deed. Fortunately we had a copy on file and were able to deliver it to him within two hours.

Footnote: We were saddened to hear that Judge Whiting had passed away in November – a youthful 76. The Head Judge who spoke at his funeral said Judge Whiting liked to make everyone in court feel comfortable and their evidence relevant, which was so true of the Basin Flyover inquiry. On the first day of the hearing he quickly dismissed a request from NZTA’s barrister that he should only listen to evidence from “experts”. He said the Board would consider the views of all submitters important in making its decision. Judge Whiting was a very honourable person and a thorough gentleman. We extend our sympathy to his family for their great loss.

More loss of open space and public ownership on the Waterfront

In 2015 A for E opposed the granting of consent for a private office building on Site 10 North Kumutoto, the former motor home park on the waterfront (which earned the council over $400,000 per annum). We did so because it would mean the loss of open space and, with a 125 year lease for the land, an effective loss of public ownership. While cities of note around the world are creating more open public space on former port land, the Wellington City Council is doing the opposite.

The applicant, Willis Bond (owned by Mark McGuinness, whose company also has an option for a building on site 9) applied for ‘direct referral’ consent application to the Environmental Court – one of the Key Government’s RMA ‘reforms’. In our submission to the Court we stated that granting consent for the proposed building on site 10 would not achieve the purpose of Section 6 (f) of the Resource Management Act.: The protection of historic heritage from inappropriate subdivision, use and development. We submitted that Section 6(f) should apply to Site 10 as well as to the heritage listed Eastbourne Ferry Terminal building and Shed 21. In support of our contention on this, we drew the Court’s attention to the decision and report of the Board of Inquiry into Basin Bridge/flyover proposal which then had recently been upheld by the High Court.

The BOI stated that:

“The primary means for giving effect to the recognition of historic heritage is to include items of historic heritage in the District Plan under Schedule 1. However, even if a place or area is not scheduled, the requirement of 6(f) will bite” [610].

“The protection given by Section 6 (f) extends to the cartilage of the heritage item and the surrounding area that is significant for retaining and interpreting the heritage significance of the heritage item. This may include the land on which the heritage building is sited, its precincts and the relationship of the heritage item with its built context and other surroundings” [610]

The Environment Court approved consent for the building on site 10, despite it exceeding the height limit set in the decision by the same Judge Thompson, with regard to Waterfront Watch’s successful appeal against the council’s District Plan Variation 11. The court did not respond to A for E’s submission about section 6(f) in its decision.


  1. Tony Jansen, 1. February 2019, 10:19

    I am sad to see you go. But clearly in a time where none of our politicians listen to us nor can be trusted, it is no surprise really to see you worn out and beaten down. I hope someone in the near future picks up where you have left off. Thanks for all your hard work over the years.

  2. Anabel, 1. February 2019, 11:50

    Environment is thought of by politicians as just something to exploit (and poison) for profit.

  3. Victor Davie, 5. February 2019, 13:57

    Action for Environment was incorporated in 1976 and served the Wellington community admirably during those 42 years. David Lee (not the city councillor) and Lorraine Smith are to be commended for making this difficult decision to dissolve the society.