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Unanimous, historic decision: more protection, special status for Town Belt

by Helene Ritchie
The Wellington City Council this week unanimously made an historic decision to advance the Wellington Town Belt Bill. This specific and focused Bill, intended to last 100 years (or so) when enacted by Parliament, gives higher protection to the Town Belt, guards its special status, and gives a far greater say to the public.

The purpose of the new Act is to impose responsibilities on the City Council and provide powers to protect, manage and enhance the Town Belt as a public recreation ground for the inhabitants of Wellington.

I am confident that, if the Bill remains as it is and is enacted, the Town Belt will have far greater protection and enhancement and access as a public recreation ground for future generations.

In the words of the Queens Counsel who provided a legal opinion: “the Bill better expresses in a complete way the basis upon which the Town Belt is to be made available and managed, better defines Council’s powers and provides for improved transparency in its decision-making.”

The Town Belt is that extensive crescent shaped landscape of trees and tracks that clothes our Capital City, is the green backdrop to our harbour and the lungs of our city. It fosters growth, health, public recreation, and the natural heritage in the coolest little capital in the world.

Since 1873 the Town Belt Deed, (along with the more recent 1977 Reserves Act), has been the tool of governance. It is written in archaic language in one sentence over two pages. During this period, the result has been significant loss of land – multiple buildings on the Town Belt in various states of repair with a variety of sizes, uses, and “architecture”, randomly scattered through the Town Belt.

And, a significant amount of land has been removed from the Town Belt. In 1841 624 hectares were reserved for the Town Belt by early settlers. By 1995 one third of the land had been taken by the Crown, or “lost”, leaving just 424.5 hectares. Today, through the Bill, we will have clawed back and defined the extent of the Town Belt as 520 hectares. In future the Council will have the ability to add more land.

Significant gains for the people of Wellington and their Town Belt have been fought for and achieved in the Bill .

In summary:

. Greater protection of the integrity of the Town Belt land

. Clear and legal definition of the extent of the Town Belt.

. The ability to add land to the Town Belt in future

. Clear and legal protection (and definition) of the Town Belt as a public recreation ground for the inhabitants of Wellington.

. Clear expression of the entitlement of “inhabitants” to freedom of entry and access to the Wellington Town Belt

. Significant restriction and controls on any, if any new building(s)

. Greater and clear powers for the “inhabitants” to be consulted regarding any/if any new building/structures

. Greater powers for the “inhabitants” of the City, regarding eg. any new building or structure, if any

. Greater powers for the inhabitants to have standing (in the Courts) to object if any compulsory acquisition of land by the Crown were ever to be again proposed

. A clear statement that the Council “has no power to sell, exchange or use as security any part of the Wellington Town Belt”

. A clear process for the Council to be able to fight for the appropriate level of compensation, including a grant in land, should the Crown over the next hundred years ( or so) ever again use its powers of compulsory acquisition to take land from the inhabitants of Wellington and from their Wellington Town Belt.

. Significant clawing back on the amount of Town Belt land allowed to be leased at any one time, to 8 hectares (Without the Bill, the 1873 Deed alone says “it shall be lawful for the Corporation to demise or lease all or any part of the lands”… (of the Town Belt), and 1908 legislation allowed 40 hectares to be leased)

. The retention of two large and critical pieces of the Town Belt which were nearly “lost/exempted” during this process now remain-the Exhibition grounds, (John Street) and the Canal Reserve (from the Basin Reserve along Kent and Cambridge Terrace)

. A sound, transparent management regime through a Management Plan reviewed every ten years and requiring extensive public consultation

. Clarification and differentiation of the roles of governors and of officers

This is the culmination of four and half years’ work, and a great public contribution from hundreds of constructive, passionate Wellingtonians. As Portfolio leader leading the process, I have endeavoured to ensure meticulously word by word that through this Bill/Act the Town Belt is and will be protected to the highest possible level for current and future generations. It has been one of the most rewarding, and sometimes challenging, roles in my time on the Council.

The Wellington Town Belt Bill will now be forwarded to Parliament to be introduced by Grant Robertson, the local Member of Parliament, as a local Bill.

Council’s work will continue as submitters to the Select Committee.

I repeat, I am confident that if the Bill, remains in its current wording, as an Act, that the Wellington Town Belt will have far greater protection and enhancement and access as a significant public recreation ground in the Capital City, for future generations.

We look forward to the day the Act receives the Royal assent.

Wellington City Councillor Helene Ritchie is the council’s Natural Environment Portfolio Leader