Who will guard our heritage?

Looking after New Zealand's heritage, particularly at a local level, will soon become a more challenging proposition.

Legislation is pending that will amend the Historic Places Act 1993 and significantly affect the role and make-up of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT). This follows recommendations of a review led in 2009 by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage - which had been signalled as part of the National Party's arts, culture and heritage policy in the lead-up to the 2008 election.

The most dramatic effect of the impending legislation - with a Bill expected to be put before the House in the next couple of months - will be to disestablish the local branch committees of the trust. The advocacy role of such local committees, bearing the imprimatur and thus the weight of legislation, will cease. For anyone who cares about heritage this is a pressing concern.

The NZHPT is an autonomous Crown entity that regulates the destruction and investigation of archaeological sites, maintains a register of historical and cultural heritage, and manages a portfolio of 48 heritage properties. It has a paid workforce of more than 100 people. The Crown appoints six of the NZHPT board's nine members, with the remaining three elected by the national membership, which numbers about 23,000.

It also appoints four members of the eight-member board of the associated Maori Heritage Council, which has its own functions relating to Maori heritage.

The preliminary findings of the 2009 review were announced in January 2010. They mooted the disestablishment of the local branch committees, and the reduction in the number of board members, replacing the three elected by the membership of the trust by two to be appointed by the Minister of Culture and Heritage.

The logic for this move, as proposed by Arts and Culture Minister Christopher Finlayson, was to help focus the trust "on its significant regulatory responsibilities". The trust would, he said, remain a mass membership organisation "providing access to heritage sites and education" but the new arrangement would "clarify the respective roles of the trust and its membership".

More directly, the new legislation is intended to avoid the situation whereby paid staff formulate a trust position on a heritage issue under the Resource Management Act contrary to views advocated by a particular local branch committee - and to avoid confusion as to the position of the trust. Likewise, the removal of the three elected members, who at least in part defer to the views of the membership that has elected them, will reduce potential tensions around the board table.

Finally, it will rid the organisation of members' "disproportionately large influence relative to their funding contribution".

At one level there is a degree of logic in this: he who pays the piper calls the tune. The moves will certainly remove ambiguities in authority and responsibility. At another it could be seen as the dismantling of a local and engaged heritage sector. Herein lies the danger - the creation of an authoritative advocacy vacuum in which the developer's wrecking ball might thrive while those committed to identifying and preserving heritage regather their forces and their energies.

Branches of the trust, of which there are said to be 20 active nationwide including, for example, the North Otago branch in Oamaru, are now making preparations for this transfer - contemplating the guise in which they might continue to exist; and exploring the general ramifications of the proposed new legislative framework. To combat the loss of local "eyes and ears" it is envisaged a new national organisation, Historic Places Aotearoa, consisting of a federation of independent incorporated societies, might take the place of the NZHPT in its advocacy role.

Unconstrained by the statutory responsibilities which perhaps hampered opposition of the trust to inappropriate development, or peremptory demolition, the new organisation might perhaps in time grow bigger and better teeth.

Heritage is an underrated commodity. It exists as the physical manifestation of a country's history and culture. It is also invaluable infrastructural element for the tourism industry. It is one thing to strengthen regulatory functions relating to heritage, but the advocacy role must not be lost.

Under the current proposals, there is the likelihood the latter will at the very least be seriously weakened.


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