The beautiful chapel at Erskine College has been cordoned off this week (as pictured above) because a new engineering report written for its owners says that it is now at risk of collapse, as a result of the November earthquakes. The spokesperson for Save Erskine College Trust (SECT), the organisation trying to save the chapel, as well as the other heritage buildings and gardens on site, is unsurprisingly rather sceptical, since the report was paid for by the owners, saying to Radio New Zealand in this report, “I’m not saying [the engineering report] is wrong, but often these things need interpretation”.
After many years of inaction at Erskine, the site has become into a fast moving chess game. SECT holds a Heritage Order over the building, which in theory means that any plan to make significant changes to the buildings or site should require SECT’s permission.
Nevertheless, the owner had applied for a consent to demolish the main school building and build 96 new townhouses, under the newish Housing Accords and Special Housing Areas Act 2013 (HASHAA), which aims to allow fast development of new housing to ease the current housing crisis. Both the council and the owner had not considered SECT to be an effected party of the consent, despite the Heritage Order, and nor did the owner ask SECT for permission to demolish under the provisions of the Heritage Order.
Just before Christmas, on 12 December 2016, SECT had asked the Environment Court to issued an Interim Enforcement Order, as it believed that the owner was about to be issued with the consent by Wellington City Council. Environment Court Judge C J Thomson duly made the Interim Order, stopping the owner from demolishing the buildings, even if he did get the consent. A day later, on 13 December, the owner asked the Environment Court to cancel this Order urgently. On 19 December, the expected consent had indeed been issued by the Council, allowing the development of the site, the construction of the 96 townhouses, and the demolition of the heritage main school building (although not the chapel, which is meant to strengthened as part of the development).
The owner’s application to cancel the Interim Order was then heard by Principal Environment Court Judge Newhook on the following day, 20 December. He was told that the owners believe that the Housing Accords and Special Housing Areas Act essentially ‘trumps’ the existing Heritage Order and the usual provisions of the RMA, hence no need to apply to SECT for permission.
The judge did not agree with this argument, and because the court’s preference is for parties to make ‘undertakings’ rather than issue formal orders, he convinced the owner to make an undertaking that he would apply to SECT for permission to demolish the school building and develop the site, under the provisions of the Heritage Order.
There is a provision in the RMA that says that if such an application is turned down by the holders of the Heritage Order, (which appears to be very likely in this case), the applicants can go back to the Environment Court to appeal their refusal (which seems the next likely play in the game). The judge recorded that the long-held animosity between the parties was fairly evident in the submissions before him.
And so this is how it stands today, although a more detailed judgment from Judge Newhook is due out soon, as is a second engineering report for the chapel.
Something to watch for the future: the bill currently slowly winding its way through parliament, the Resource Management Bill 2015, if passed in its current form, will allow the government to take Heritage Orders off one ‘heritage protection authority’ (such as SECT) and give it to another (such as perhaps Heritage New Zealand, or even the Wellington City Council), allowing them to make decisions for the site instead of SECT. This would be an important move in the Erskine chess game, if it was to come to pass, although whether the government really wants to get into the middle of this complicated situation remains to be seen.