“There is no alternative” is a powerful framing if you want your alternative to prevail – even more so when regulations make it too easy for other options to be far too hard. Wellington’s Council got a dose of it over the past week. But similar stories play out across the country as deadlines for earthquake strengthening on listed buildings come due.
Creating some alternatives may be a good idea.
Two weeks ago, Wellington council officials presented Wellington’s councillors with an offer they were not meant to refuse – and a short fuse for deciding.
Councillors this week decided to spend $70 to $147 million to finish strengthening works on Town Hall. The all-up cost could be $330 million for a city of 216,000 people.
If Town Hall hosted ten sold-out shows every week for the foreseeable future and set a $19 surcharge on each ticket, the collected surcharges would cover the cost of the works. In other words, the hall will never cover its cost. Ratepayers will be on the hook for almost all of it.
But the other alternatives presented were made to seem even worse.
Halting works while assessing options would incur penalties on contracts already signed and increase costs if works later continued. Closing off the building to make it safe would cost almost as much as finishing.
Demolishing the building would somehow cost even more than closing off the building and only $20 million less than finishing the works.
Officials put the cost of demolition on top of the cost of closing off the building. Spending a year on critical structural works and reinstating heritage fabrics for a building facing demolition, as recommended by officials, is absurd. But if the courts refused to allow demolition, Council could well be required to spend even more to undo damage caused during the years of legal challenges.
Because Town Hall is listed on the district plan, no reasonable alternatives exist. Who could blame the Council? They apparently have no alternative but to spend another hundred-million while the pipes fail.
Removing the building from the district plan would make everything simpler. Officials noted that as works progress, the risk of cost escalation shifts from geotechnical to heritage issues. The Council could choose more cost-effective alternatives if the building were not listed.
But delisting would also be tied up in the courts for years, and officials warned the Council could lose that battle too.
There is one other alternative. It is an alternative Wellington officials downplayed. But it is one that Council should take or that central government could progress instead.
Why not make it easy to remove buildings from the district plan?
A council needing legislation to address a local issue can propose a local bill. The Parliamentary Counsel Office can assist in drafting. An MP, who need not necessarily support the Bill, puts their name to it. The Bill is introduced and has its first reading on the third sitting day after introduction.
Wellington Council could propose a local bill enabling Council to remove buildings from the district plan, or to pre-empt their listing, by a simple majority vote. The Bill would make delisting nonjusticiable, with no opportunity for appeals or challenge. It would deem the delisted building to have no special value for any other consenting process.
Officials worried this option could take years, but Local Bills can be very fast. If an incoming government is a bit frustrated by a council that seems able to find hundreds of millions of dollars for everything other than its water network and is not too annoyed by shenanigans around Let’s Get Wellington Moving, it could well shepherd this bill quickly through committee.
The Michael Fowler Centre and the Opera House were listed as earthquake-prone in August. The Opera House is listed on the district plan. The Fowler Centre is covered by the Civic Centre Heritage Area. Heritage New Zealand also has received a nomination for Fowler’s inclusion on the New Zealand Heritage List.
Wellington’s officials are still exploring Local Bill options, on championing by Councillor McNulty and a 9-7 vote in favour, with Councillors Apanowicz, Brown, Cheung, Free, Pannett, Paul and Young opposed.
If Council proposes this kind of local bill, a newly-formed government should let Wellington get on with the job.
Or it could find time to add a Government Bill to the agenda. How many towns and cities face similar problems, where cost-effective approaches to mandatory strengthening are just too hard?
A National-led government might also support increased accountability the option would bring. If a council chose not to delist a building, it could not blame others for the cost.
The country’s approach to heritage preservation needs a fundamental overhaul. Rather than use regulation to protect buildings, why not pay owners for the heritage amenity their buildings provide?
In the meantime, letting councils quickly delist buildings would provide some welcome alternatives.
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