Property rights are human rights

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
18 November, 2016

The government ran roughshod over property rights in the Christchurch rebuild. The New Zealand Human Rights Commission’s report urging the government to include property rights in the Bill of Rights now seems especially timely. 

It has been fashionable to pretend that property rights are something separate from human rights. For some on the left, property rights protections seem a way of thwarting egalitarian aims and preventing socially beneficial regulations. The reality is rather different.

The Human Rights Commissioner looked at what the government did to Christchurch after the earthquakes, with a focus on those pushed from their red-zoned properties. The report’s quote from one red-zoned owner is apt:

“I wondered what all this had to do with human rights. Now I realise that most New Zealanders own their own home so that no one can tell them what to do in it. Now everyone is telling me what to do with my own home.”

Without property rights protections, the politically weakest are most at risk when steamrollering over property rights is expedient. I doubt that the Government would have proceeded as it did if the bulk of land damage had occurred in richer parts of town.

But others were not immune. Outside of the red zone, downtown property owners’ rights were treated as playthings by planners determined to achieve government’s ever-changing vision.

Here in Wellington, the property rights of owners of heritage-listed buildings have been especially weak. Simultaneously required to make their buildings earthquake-safe, and prohibited from using cost-effective repair strategies, owners are left in an impossible situation.

After the September 2010 Christchurch earthquake, the owner of one listed heritage building saw demolition as the only viable option. Council disagreed, layering on paperwork delays that resulted in the building falling on a bus and killing people.

Last year, the Initiative jointly released a report with Deloitte recommending changes. I hope that this earthquake has not been the September to a February yet-to-come, but we cannot afford further delay. If Council wants to protect heritage buildings, it should help more in paying the extra strengthening cost – or de-list the buildings and let owners do what needs doing.

Property rights are human rights. The right to life is also a human right. Central government must strengthen the Bill of Rights. And Council must let building owners get on with the job at hand.

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