Balancing good intent and private property rights

The Dunedin City Council is taking the wrong approach to the future of a heritage home on Stuart St, Gerrard Eckhoff writes.

One of the inevitabilities of life is just when you think you can retire with a good book, the front page and headline in the ODT spurs a sense of dismay at the actions of well-meaning folk who definitely should retire with a good book.

I refer to the saga of the 284 Stuart St house — starring the magnificent seven, sometimes known as Dunedin’s seven heritage protectors. Just why they are not all knighted for services to old things is a mystery.

Perhaps it’s because these old things — houses — belong to someone else so we deduce that a false ethos is lurking somewhere that precludes their elevation in our society. That ethos is likely to be "no sacrifice is too great for other people to make on behalf of our future".

The most disturbing aspect however is not the opinion of people who want to protect our heritage buildings which they are perfectly entitled to do but rather how they and the council go about that process. It is the response from councillor Sophie Barker, chairwoman of the strategy, planning and engagement committee, in the ODT that is even more disturbing.

As chairwoman of this policy-making committee, she appears to be using this authority to pre-empt the deliberations of the committee and the public.

Cr Barker is reported as saying "This is a wake-up call for us all ... to put our heritage action plan on steroids to protect the remaining treasures in our city".

Predetermination is usually a sacking offence when you are in a public policy-making position and not exhibit an open mind to alternatives that may present themselves. Some would suggest that it is not whether heritage is important or not but how do we ensure that the rights of ownership prevail over the well-meaning and often emotive desire to preserve our history.

Consider the value of old paintings. Should Cr Barker’s committee (as self-appointed arbiters of taste and value), determine what ownership rights really mean when it comes to heritage and private property.

Is Ms Barker saying that all issues of heritage and taste be transferred to her committee for decision, rather than the actual owner who presumably pays the rates and upkeep of their asset?

The real question is not whether this property at 284 Stuart St is worth preserving. It is really all about what is going to replace it. Developers in Auckland recently built a concrete block of apartments clad with green venetian tiles and it looks fabulous.

A well-functioning society is a result of getting the incentives right in the interests of us all. The Dunedin City Council (DCC) appears to believe that sanctions work better than incentives.

Could not Cr Barker approach the owner and simply say "what can we, the DCC, do to help you preserve this lovely home".

Try buying the development rights to the house and section Cr Barker. It really is not difficult.

No council should be allowed the authority that destroys the security of the private citizen, nor should they confuse an interest group’s attention with that which we all know and accept to be a genuine public good.

— Gerrard Eckhoff is a former Otago regional councillor and Act New Zealand MP.