Auckland’s latest human rights issue: Ihumatao and the Otuataua Stonefields

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Ihumatao and the Otuataua Stonefields: A very special area

By Geoff Chapple


The 33ha subdivision site. Photo/Google Images/Composite

Dawn on May 20, 2016, at Ihumatao Village, Mangere. It’s Auckland’s oldest settlement, alongside a coastal estuary, just north-west of the airport. A Maori village, population around 120. A woman is walking back to the village from her job of unlocking the public toilets at Oruarangi Reserve. The woman lives alone here with the ashes of her husband, dead eight years, but she never feels afraid. You can hear te reo spoken on the streets, there’s a Black Power shed down the road and there’s a code: the village sorts its own stuff – you don’t ring the police, you don’t involve the law.

Except that today the law has come to Ihumatao anyway. It has landed soundlessly upon the fields beside the village, a planning judgment that gives Fletcher Living the right to begin the first 120 homes of its proposed 480-house subdivision on the 33ha Oruarangi Block alongside the Otuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve.

It was first mooted as a Special Housing Area (SHA) in November 2013, a confidential proposal, and the block only gradually emerged as the most controversial of the SHAs. Under the emergency conditions of the Housing Accords and Special Housing Areas Act 2013 (HASHAA) – intended to deliver short sharp boosts to Auckland’s housing stock – the Oruarangi SHA is real, and the city’s oldest settlement will be joined, more or less at the hip, to Auckland’s newest housing estate.

The local Makaurau Marae Committee reckons 76 of the 80 households in Ihumatao Village oppose the Fletcher development. As the village gets going on this first day of the new regime, as workers in high-vis vests drive out of quiet streets and head for jobs in Wiri as storemen, carpenters and road workers, it’s not hard to find that opposition.

“I’m blood,” says Tui Walker, when shown the Oruarangi Block decision. “My ancestors have been out here forever, and now things are changing. It’s bad. I don’t like it. We’re going to have a miniature Auckland on our doorstep, are we? Our rates go up and everyone gets slapped with bigger bills.”

“I support my marae, No 1” says a guy with dreads and a bandana, who shakes your hand like he’s throwing it back at you and withholds his name. “And I support our rangatahi.”

An 1890s photo of the Oruarangi Estuary. Photo/Mangere Historical Society Collection

Save our unique landscape

The rangatahi – the village’s young set – began a protest against the Oruarangi SHA in early 2015, under a Save Our Unique Landscape (Soul) banner. They know their 19th-century history: that Waiohua, the tangata whenua of this region, have close ties with Tainui and – in July 1863 by proclamation of Governor George Grey – were forced off this land to clear the way for General Duncan Cameron’s invasion of the Waikato. The Oruarangi Block then became part of a Government land confiscation in 1865. They know that their 20th century history in its own way is just as uncaring: the 1960s Mangere sewage ponds on one side blocking the Oruarangi estuary from the sea, the Auckland International Airport the other. The sewage treatment has been remediated and the estuary reopened to the Manukau, following a 1985 Waitangi Tribunal report on the Manukau claim, but now this.

Pania Newton is one of the Soul leaders. She knew as soon as she heard of the SHA that she was going to tackle it her own way. For the 25-year-old Maori law graduate, it was simple: “We’re part of the landscape, essentially. That’s where our whakapapa is. We have an umbilical connection to this land. When we go there, we connect back with our ancestors. When we recite our pepeha, we acknow­ledge Otuataua and Oruarangi awa; Te Puketapapa Hape is our maunga. Our tikanga and our mana is within this land.

“We’re running out of green spaces. So come on, let’s preserve them. When I do this campaign, I’m not only thinking of myself or my family or our community but also thinking about the generations to come. I want them to be able to look back and say: ‘They did everything they could to oppose this. They went right down to occupying or they …’ However it ends. ‘Look what they did manage to do.’”

Wander for an hour out here with archaeologist Dave Veart and the Otuataua Stonefields become something more than wandering spines of scoria and heaps of basalt. Every stone here has been turned by human hand and placed. Every structure has an agricultural purpose – windbreaks on the ridges, heat conservation in the depressions, plot division – 100ha of it, and unfortified. Thousands of Maori lived within this Ihumatao Peninsula, their borders secured by fighting pa, but here they lived in peace.

Neolithic organisation on this scale, says Veart, suggests a civilisation that will have spilled over into the softer soils of the Oruarangi housing area, would have crossed it also to get water from the nearby creek. He believes archaeological techniques will improve sufficiently in the decades ahead to light up this area without invasive techniques. Adding the Oruarangi Block to the Otuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve makes sense because it preserves the natural run-out slopes of the two volcanoes that border the park. It also allows the reserve’s expansion into South Auckland’s equivalent of Cornwall Park, with its archaeology preserved and waiting.

“The Maori story in this area is so interesting – and this’d be money in the bank in terms of the intellectual property of the planet really. But once you put houses on this land, that chance goes. There’s no going back. It’s like building houses on the fields alongside Stonehenge.”

Graeme Campbell, who as Auckland conservator for the Department of Conservation in the late 1990s negotiated and then amalgamated many of the Otuataua Stonefields properties, is just as unequivocal.

“This land should not be an SHA. What we’ve learnt in the past 20 years is that the Polynesian migration is a much richer story than we knew in 1999, and predictably we’ll have an even greater understanding of this in the next 10 or 20 years, if the land stays open. It’s not just Auckland, but New Zealand, and it’s international – one of the great migrations. It’s the end point of the Pacific migration. Mangere and Otuataua is a 5000-year-old story.

“You can say this is the place where Polynesians became Maori, and there were maybe 30,000 people living between Mangere and Wiri, a proto-Polynesian city.”


Soul leader Pania Newton. Photo/Geoff Chapple

Plans go awry

Part of the rage around the Oruarangi SHA stems from Manukau City Council’s decision seven years ago to do precisely what Veart suggests. With support from the Auckland Regional Authority, the council put a protective Notice of Requirement on the Oruarangi Block until it could be confirmed as Public Open Space in a proposed Manukau District plan change.

Planning commissioners then reviewed public submissions on the plan, balancing – as the Resource Management Act insists they do – the economic well-being of private land-owners against the broader public good, including historical and Maori heritage. The commissioners turned down the request by Gavin H Wallace Ltd, owner of the Oruarangi Block, to change its zoning from rural to business development. They confirmed the existing rural designation and the Notice of Requirement.

Three years later, in 2012, the Environment Court heard an appeal by Gavin H Wallace Ltd and decided entirely differently. The court’s decision saw the Oruarangi Block brought within Auckland’s Metropolitan Urban Limits and rezoned as a “future development zone”. The court favoured the private landholder interest over the wider good, but noted any development within the future zone should be sensitively done. The Notice of Requirement on the Orua­rangi Block was cancelled.

The block was set for a sale, and the time-line remains unclear, but it seems Manukau City, and then perhaps Manukau planners acting for the new Auckland City, sat down with the major Gavin H Wallace shareholder, Ailsa Blackwell, to negotiate a possible purchase.

“We offered it to the council, but the price was not satisfactory,” says the now 88-year-old Blackwell, a lifetime resident of the area and an ex-theatre sister at Middlemore Hospital. “They offered around $5 million, and after the court case they offered $6.5 million. The council never got beyond that. I’d have preferred the council if they gave us a good price, but they wouldn’t, and we’d already lost the best part of the farm.

“We sold the first 52 acres [21ha] to help the Otuataua Stonefields Reserve, for just over $1 million, I think, in the 1990s, so that was our contribution to the public good. It was all a matter of offering us enough money for this remaining section – that’s all there is to it. I think Fletchers are good. I think they’ve got great plans.”

Fletcher Living won’t reveal the terms of the sale agreement with Gavin H Wallace Ltd, but it was rumoured to be about $19 million, conditional first on Auckland Council, then the Government, accepting Oruarangi as an SHA and secondly on the HASHAA’s independent commissioners allowing a plan change within the Auckland Council’s Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan from “future development” to “residential”. Because the land adjacent to the Otuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve is regarded as sensitive, because of its wahi tapu sites and because Fletcher is 56% overseas owned, the company had to prove to the Overseas Investment Office (OIO) that it would bring benefits to New Zealand above and beyond the benefits any local firm might bring to the same land purchase.

Fletcher’s solicitor put forward a number of benefits, often to a lukewarm response from the OIO, but the one that did make it stand to attention was Fletcher’s capacity to help realise a stated Government policy: the company’s proven speed in building houses by the dozen.

With an SHA opportunity top of mind, the company was already making contact with two local iwi and building an alliance. It also commissioned Clough and Asso­ciates to do an archaeological assessment. Te Warena Taua, chairman of the Makaurau Marae Maori Trust, did a cultural assessment for the company. Both Rod Clough and Te Warena Taua had given expert evidence before the Environment Court of 2012, seeking preservation of the Oruarangi Block in its pristine state, and lost the case, but both now accepted the new commission. It was better to be inside the tent than out.

Clough’s report noted the change: “The approach must now be to mitigate the effects of development on the heritage landscape as far as possible.” Taua did not respond to requests by the Listener for an interview, but is understood to be happy with the conditions Fletcher has agreed to, including protecting the wahi tapu lava caves in an 8.5ha open space next to the stonefields reserve, Maori theming in park and street furniture, and affordable housing that might bring some of the Waiohua diaspora back into the district.

Archaeologist Dave Veart: It “just seems like a bit of an unfair deal.” Photo/Stephen Robinson

‘An entirely new process’

In early 2014, the Oruarangi SHA came under direct scrutiny at Auckland Council. Cathy Casey, ward councillor for Albert-Eden-Roskill, says the process began for her with a workshop in early 2014 when about 40 proposed housing areas came through in a single tranche. The assessments from the council’s Housing Projects Office were no more than six pages apiece, and unless they were local to a councillor’s ward, they were hard for councillors to figure out.

In a high-pressure environment, the elected members often relied on a five-­colour coding system to assess the proposed SHAs, red serving as an alert to a potential problem, and green as good to go. Orua­rangi SHA’s requester, engineering and design consultancy Harrison Grierson, got a green. So did Oruarangi SHA’s developer, Fletcher Living. Oruarangi’s iwi status was listed yellow. That meant not perfect but okay. The Otahuhu-Mangere Local Board was noted as a red flag, but local board opposition to the SHAs wasn’t particularly unusual, and to her ongoing regret, Casey let it go through. “This was an entirely new process and we were just learning by doing,” she says. “You can see how, right across Auckland, especially if the local councillor is not there to guide you, it’s really hard to pick up the nuances.”

She didn’t understand Oruarangi’s heritage aspects then or suspect the division between the Makaurau Marae Committee, which looks after day-to-day running of the marae and supports Soul, and the Makaurau Marae Maori Trust, whose warrant is the marae’s outside issues. The Oruarangi SHA progressed onward through council in strict confidence, until the council finally signed off 41 SHAs, including Oruarangi, on May 1, 2014. Those went through to Housing Minister Nick Smith to await approval by the Cabinet and to be finally ratified by Orders in Council.

Later, as Soul began its programme of contacting politicians to protest about the inclusion of the Oruarangi SHA, Casey would become their champion within Auckland Council. Mortified at having missed a number of chances to at least oppose it intelligently, she brokered meetings to get Soul in front of the deputy mayor, the mayor and Ken Lotu-Iiga, general manager of Fletcher Living, which would be building the houses. She went further, getting sufficient names on a petition and sufficient votes from sympathetic councillors that she could force a full council meeting on August 27, 2015, to vote on her notice of motion revoking the Oruarangi SHA.

Councillors dealing with HASHAA were on a learning curve, and Auckland Council got another lesson that morning. Appended to the council’s agenda was a letter from Smith. The SHAs were activated by Orders in Council, wrote Smith, and as such could only be revoked by him as Housing Minister. Even if he wanted to revoke, he would have to justify his action against set criteria that seemed unlikely to occur in Auckland – for example, a sudden collapse in housing demand.

Five councillors voted to revoke Auckland Council’s original decision anyway. They included one member of the Mangere Ward, Arthur Anae, as well as the chairman of the council’s Heritage Advisory Panel, Waite­mata and Gulf councillor Mike Lee. Some of Lee’s anger is apparent when asked why he voted on a notice of motion that had no chance of changing anything.

“The HASHAA legislation is draconian and largely suspends the rights of people and communities to exercise traditional common-law rights to input on planning decisions affecting them. Also, council’s Heritage Advisory Panel was not consulted on this SHA and requests for a briefing were denied.”

Noisy protest

The independent commissioners appointed to hear the plan change sought by Fletcher for its SHA and the necessary resource consents met in the old Manukau City Council offices on February 3 and 4, 2016. Outside on the steps, Soul mounted a packed and noisy protest. Inside, the only submitters technically allowed to present under HASHAA rules should have been able to demonstrate that their property boundary ran alongside the proposed SHA, but Soul managed to get its experts to address the commissioners anyway. The commissioners’ report perhaps acknow­ledged their submissions by noting the effect on cultural heritage would be “more than minor” but outweighed, they immediately added, “by the purposes of HASHAA and the measures to be employed to recognise and provide for iwi values …”

Fletcher came to the table with a welter of reports, from consultants in every relevant field. There were a few gaps. The commissioners, in their report, demanded a number of new conditions, including an authority from Heritage New Zealand to be in place before any earthworks begin. They noted: “There is a strong possibility that heritage values and archaeology might be discovered through the earthworks and construction phases of this project.” There were other mitigations, but Soul’s attempt to stop the development – under HASHAA rules at least – had failed. The development would go ahead, and under HASHAA legislation there could be no appeal.

“Prior to the 1860s, Maori who lived here had a windmill and they grew wheat and they produced flour for Auckland,” says Veart. “Then their land gets confiscated, and it’s part of this ongoing story where this area goes from being one of richest parts of early Auckland to a rubbish tip, courtesy of the European settlers, then a sewage works.

“Then that gets remediated and ‘oh, we’ll have that now – it’s all nice and clean’. Which just seems like a bit of an unfair deal to me. You can have it when it’s shitty, but as soon as it’s clean, we’ll come back and confiscate it again.”

On May 20, the same day that the ­villagers at Ihumatao first saw the ­commissioners’ decision, Fletcher’s Lotu-Iiga issued a statement, saying the company remains committed to delivering a residential community, with high-quality environmental outcomes, that is respectful of the history and the existing community.

“We know there is local opposition to developing this land as was evidenced through the SHA process. With these rulings in place, we look forward to further engaging with relevant stakeholders to enable increased understanding of our plans.”

Soul’s Newton was in Hawaii at a Native American and Indigenous Studies conference when the commissioners’ report came in. So what now for Soul?

“I think you know the answer to that,” she emailed back.

“The fight isn’t over yet, not until I do everything in my power to oppose the ­development. We’re only just getting started.”


Fletcher Living says comprehensive preparations and planning have been undertaken to protect the culturally significant geological features of the Oruarangi Block, including consulting with “recognised Maori leaders who have the mandate to represent their iwi”.

It says a variety of impact reports have been commissioned, and comprehensive protection plans are in place, including:

• protecting lava caves in the development as part of this buffer zone.

• creating a buffer zone to protect the Otuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve on the western boundary of the development (about a third of land in the development area will be public space).

• protecting significant native trees, the historic Wallace homestead and other significant landmarks and geological features within the development.

• protecting many historic stonewalls, although some will be rebuilt and some removed.

• protecting public access to the adjacent reserve.