A backward step for the Town Belt

By David Lee
The Wellington City Council launched its proposed Town Belt policy and legislative changes with a statement about “renewing its vows” on the Town Belt and having a “civic union” with the people of Wellington. That hype however turns out to be pure spin. The proposed changes will give the council more power over the Town Belt and will mean less protection for its remaining open space.

While Action for Environment welcomes the return of former Town Belt land to TB trust status, the radical changes also being proposed in the legislation raise the question of what sort of Town Belt this land will be coming back to.

The governing document of the Town Belt is the 1873 Deed which gifted the land to the citizens of Wellington, in trust. While the Wellington City Council has the sole right to manage the Town Belt under the Deed, it does not have beneficial ownership of the land. This not only prohibits encroachments and alienation of the Town Belt by individuals and enterprises but also by the council. The legislation’s drafting instructions give lip service to the Deed but downgrade it. If the legislation follows these instructions it will:

• Prevail over the 1873 Deed (in the event if inconsistencies with it)

• Abolish restrictions on the council pursuant to the Deed.

• Provide the council with “flexible powers” on the Town Belt. Under the proposed legislation the council will have the right to construct or authorise the construction of buildings that the council “considers desirable. ” The council will be able to authorise “for profit/commercial use”. It will be able to restrict public access, not just for safety, but for ‘temporary activities’ .

• Allow the council to include “any other land” in the Town Belt that it “considers ought to be legal Town Belt…” (The Town Belt is not just any reserve but has historic and heritage values from its reservation by the founders of Wellington. Adding land not historically part of the Town Belt diminishes its heritage status.

• The legislation will interpret the Deed’s public recreation ground “as applying to circumstances as they arise”. The words “will not be frozen so that they mean whatever they did when first used in 1873.”

• It will remove the Town Belt from being subject to the Reserves Act 1977. (Another layer of protection for the Town Belt is to go, further concentrating power over the Town Belt with the council.)

This legislation if passed would make the most radical changes to the administration and status of the Town Belt since it was gifted to the people of Wellington in 1873. It is akin to changing a will 139 years after it was written. It is difficult to understand how this has the approval of a Green mayor. Wellingtonians have seen how the council has exercised “flexible powers” on waterfront land. The council shouldn’t be given such powers over the Town Belt.

The council says Grant Robertson MP is “championing” this legislation. The owners of the Town Belt, the people of Wellington, should tell him not to do so if it follows the drafting instructions without substantial amendments.

The existing Town Belt Management Plan rightly states as its object: no additional land area be developed for organised recreation facilities (formal recreation) in the Town Belt, and ín keeping with that, has as its emphasis: outdoor informal public recreation. This reflects what the people of Wellington want for the Town Belt, as expressed in a 2009 public survey and in workshops in 2011: that no more buildings be put in the Town Belt and the land be retained as open space.

In contrast, the draft Plan’s objectives and policies refer to: ‘the development’ of formal sporting facilities and associated infrastructure; and to new sporting and club facilities. There is no longer to be an emphasis on outdoor, informal recreation. Instead the new plan will ensure a ‘diverse range’ of sporting and recreation ‘opportunities’ that satisfies ‘the needs’ of citizens and visitors. The failure to define recreation makes the Town Belt vulnerable to demands for more buildings on its remaining open space.

The essence of the Town Belt is surely its open space. This is its raison d’etre. The founders of Wellington with great foresight reserved the land which has become known as the Town Belt, stressing that it was to secure “the beautiful appearance of the future city..” and that it was “to be public property on condition no building be ever erected on it”. Recreation in the Town Belt should fit in with its open space, not the reverse as the policy and legislative changes are proposing.

Submissions on these changes are due at the council by the 10th December. The draft Town Belt Management Plan and proposed legislative changes document can be viewed at the Central City Library, or information of these may be viewed on the Wellington City Council’s website.

David Lee is chairman of Action for Environment


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