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Protecting the Town Belt, or not

by David Lee
The latest draft of the Town Belt Bill will go before the Wellington City Council on Tuesday. Promoted as offering better protection for the Town Belt, in reality the Bill would change the Town Belt’s long-standing status and give more power to council officials. This would make it easier for them to facilitate development projects in the Town Belt, compromising its remaining open space.

If passed into law, the Bill would allow those officials to carry out “any” activity, do “any” act or enter into “any” transaction with regard to the Town Belt. The council would have the automatic right to allow buildings in the Town Belt, seemingly without the need for a publicly notified resource consent (so much for the protection of the Town Belt’s open space!) Consultation with the public would be required where the effect “will be more than minor.” However if consultation on this Bill is anything to go by, submitters’ opposition to more loss of the Town Belt’s open space will be largely dismissed.

To the many individuals and organisations who opposed Variation 11 on the waterfront (and to Waterfront Watch which successfully appealed against it) the contents of this Bill will have an ominous ring. It would mean something like a Variation 11 for the Town Belt.

The citizens of Wellington (“and their descendants”) were made trustees of the Town Belt by the 1873 Town Belt Deed. However the Town Belt Bill would override the Deed and in so doing would therefore appear to deprive present and future Wellingtonians of their natural inheritance. This, in our view, would be similar to attempting to change a will 140 years after it has been executed. We question the right of the minority of the Town Belt’s trustees (the mayor and councillors) to do this without the majority trustees’ consent.

Furthermore, under this Bill, the Town Belt as a reserve under the Reserves Act 1977 is to be revoked, removing restraints on the council’s actions over the Town Belt. It seems ludicrous to us (as it would be to many Wellingtonians) that the most important and visible reserve in the city is no longer to be deemed one. This is all being done for bureaucratic convenience of what the council has described as a “one-stop shop” for the Town Belt.

Wellington’s Town Belt is arguably already one of the best protected urban reserves in the country. The Council’s protection claim for the Bill therefore doesn’t stack up. As intended by the donors of the land, the Town Belt’s status has meant that the council’s powers over it are limited. This is one of the Town Belt’s best protections. Unlike the Town Belt, the waterfront, where the Council does have broad powers over the land, is a salutary lesson of what is likely to happen if more powers over the Town Belt are given to officials by enacting this Bill. The council will be subjected to development pressures on the Town Belt’s open space, as it has been on waterfront.

The lesson of the waterfront saga is that the Town Belt needs protection from the council as much as it does by the Council.

The citizens of Wellington should not have to fight the Council to protect the Town Belt’s open space as they have had to do on the waterfront. Sadly we can see this happening with the Town Belt if this Bill is not amended to limit council powers. Wellingtonians who care about what is about to happen to our Town Belt should make their views known to the mayor and councillors before Tuesday’s meeting and also to Grant Robertson MP who will be sponsoring the Bill in parliament.

David Lee is chairman of Action for Environment Inc