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An attempted takeover of the town belt

by David Lee
Wellington City Council officials have had a Bill drafted which, if passed into law, would radically change the protection and status of Wellington’s Town Belt.

Why is a bill needed?

There has been a long standing desire (not just in the council) to legally return former Town Belt land to the Town Belt. However a simple bill to do this has morphed into something more ominous.

Council management has long had the agenda to “modernise” governance of the Town Belt (as if its current status is some sort of derelict building). It is claimed the aim of the Bill is to “strengthen” the protection of the Town Belt. But isn’t it already well protected? Too much so it seems for the council’s taste. The Bill would give the council what is described as “broad powers” over the Town Belt and would remove it from the Reserves Act 1977. The council claims the Draft Bill, if it is enacted, will “simplify” the Town Belt’s management and make what is described as a “one-stop-shop” for it.

Removal of the protection of the Reserves Act from the first land to be reserved in New Zealand for the sake of bureaucratic convenience, is quite frankly outrageous.

The reservation of Wellington’s Town Belt goes back to the very beginnings of European settlement in this country and it demonstrates the great foresight of Wellington’s founders (a foresight sadly lacking in current council thinking). The 1839 instructions on what is now known as the Town Belt by the NZ Company secretary to secure “the beautiful appearance of the future city…” and “to be public property, on condition that no building be ever erected upon it” are part of the founding documents of New Zealand as a nation.

From its origin, the Town Belt has been held in trust for the inhabitants of Wellington. It was gifted to us “in trust” by the Wellington Provincial Government with the Town Belt Deed of 1873. The Deed made the mayor, councillors and the citizens of Wellington (and “their successors”), trustees of the Town Belt. The Town Belt Deed, therefore along with the land itself, is the inheritance of present and future Wellingtonians.

Under the Deed, the council organisation manages the Town Belt on behalf of the trustees but it does not have beneficial ownership of the land. This is the Town Belt’s best protection. It prevents for example the sort of ‘rubber stamping’ of development by council officials that we have seen on the waterfront, which the council does have beneficial ownership of, and which has resulted in the loss of open space and privatisation of public land.

All this would change for the Town Belt if this Bill becomes law under the sponsorship of Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson. This legislation would override the Deed which gifted the land to us, with the result it will no longer be the governing document of the Town Belt as intended by the donors of the land. This would be akin to trying to override a will 141 years after it was executed.

The legislation would also allow the council to carry on or undertake “any activity or business, do any act or enter into any transaction” on the Town Belt and for the purposes of the above would give the council “full rights, powers and privileges”. It would give council officials the power to undertake “any” work in the Town Belt “the council considers desirable” including the “construction of any building” (so much for publicly notified consents and the protection of the Town Belt’s open space). It would allow the council to restrict access to the Town Belt by the public of Wellington (the owners of the land) not just for safety but also to facilitate “temporary activities” (presumably including commercial ones). Talk about “broad” powers over the Town Belt, this Bill would give council officials total power!

It seems the Bill would also change the trusteeship of the Town Belt. It refers to “the council’s trusteeship” and the council’s brochure describes it as “a trustee” (singular). While the mayor and councilors are trustees of the Town Belt, the council as an organisation is not. The citizens of Wellington, however, who are also trustees, are not referred to. We would be all losing our trusteeship if this bill goes through.

Wellingtonians should defend their and future generations’ inheritance of the Town Belt by opposing this Bill as it is currently drafted. Submissions on it to the Wellington City Council close at 5pm on 19 May.

David Lee is chairman of Action for Environment Inc