Auckland council plays by different rules

Roughly a year ago it was publicly unveiled that the Auckland City Council had approved a party room addition to the Auckland Art Gallery at the corner of Kitchener and Wellesley streets in the CBD.  They ballyhooed the splendor this would add to the City’s image, that only 0.2 % of the land belonging to neighbouring Albert Park would be commandeered and only 4 trees in the park sacrificed.  The move was considered a slam dunk as it had the backing of some of Auckland’s most powerful party-goers.  Calls for a review were curtly ignored.  Fundamental data was suppressed in favour of demonstrations by the Council on how thorough the evaluation process had been undertaken before the project was approved.

Fast forward to last week, and the tucked-away confines of the Environment Court on Kingston Street in Auckland, where Justice L J Newhook was presiding over a formal appeal brought by Auckland Mayoral Candidate Ms. Coralie Van Camp, Mr. & Mrs. Chris Van Ryn and Ms. Hilda Jamieson to the approach taken to this project by the Council.  Not a news reporter (other than Kiwisfirst) or member of the public to be found, but a turnstile would still have been useful to accommodate the parade of Council lawyers and witnesses that at one point prompted a light-hearted joke from the Judge.

With the irreversible risk to Auckland’s public resources and heritage at issue – in particular the popular Albert Park, which is the closest thing Auckland has to a Central Park and acts also as a nature commons for students and faculty of surrounding Auckland University – the apparent lack of public interest in the proceedings was somewhat surprising.  That said, even this reporter expected the environmental impact testimony to prove as excruciating as listening to a dentist’s drill.  Not so.  As interesting as the testimony was from both sides, it was equally troubling that, despite the ‘thorough approach’ claimed to have been taken by the Council to the environment and heritage issues, their effort fell far short of what they would expect from any other party had the roles been reversed.  Testimony revealed that ground water issues were dismissed, the Auckland Regional Council had not been consulted, safety, vandalism and security issues had been largely ignored, the aesthetic view from within the park negated and, at the end of the process, Albert Park was granted the heritage value of the Venus De Milo – only to the perverse extent that, like the loss of arms to the famous Greek sculpture,  loss of park land would seemingly make Albert more memorable.

Already in the proceedings the Council has been forceful in making it known it does not like to be challenged.  It will be interesting to see how much of ratepayer’s money they spend on lawyers in the end – and one cannot help but lament how much better spent this money would have been seeking the appropriate public consultations at the start.  Ms. Van Camp has assumed most of the financial burden in the plaintiffs’ claim to protect the Park.  The judge appears to be mindful of the tremendous cost Ms. Van Camp has incurred and seems determined to ensure the proceedings are conducted efficiently and do not become unruly as a result of tactical motions by the Council.

Barrister Alan Webb is acting for the plaintiffs and Chapman Tripp for the Council.  Justice Newhook is assisted on the bench by Environment Commissioners Mr. R. Dunlop and Ms. H. McConachy.  After five days of testimony, the proceedings were adjourned until 9 July 2007 due to scheduling conflicts between the judge and the assisting commissioners.    Stay tuned.

Expressions of support for Albert Park can be directed to Ms. Van Camp at cvc@slingshot.co.nz