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Peak practice: Should cars be banned from Auckland's summits?

The view from Maungawhau/Mt Eden is one of Auckland’s most popular attractions. Photo/Getty Images

Proposals are well advanced to close the summits of five Auckland maunga to all traffic. But not everyone’s happy about the idea.

The new regime was set in place, with all the appearance of finality, on November 21. Five Auckland tihi (summits) easily accessible by car would be closed to vehicles, in recognition of the Maori view that they are sacred. The ban will come into force this year.

The decision, by the Tupuna Maunga Authority (TMA), the statutory body established under the Nga Mana Whenua o Tamaki Makaurau Collective Redress Act to co-govern the volcanic cones, made the next day’s news. Mike Cohen, a member and former chair of the Devonport-Takapuna Local Board, was shocked. He’d understood that the TMA would come and discuss any plan for Takarunga (Mt Victoria), which rises above the waterfront suburb on Auckland’s North Shore. He’d expected information signs on the mountain, meetings and decisions that might reflect community opinion about a car ban. Instead, the news arrived like a diktat, and Cohen sat down and drafted a motion for his board that, among other things, opposed the plan. “They’re making decisions in a vacuum,” he told the Listener.

The same day, across town, another local board politician, Josephine Bartley, newly elected chair of the Maungakiekie-Tamaki Local Board, fielded her first call from a constituent who’d read the news and wanted to know the fate of One Tree Hill and Mt Wellington, which lie within her bailiwick. Her emailed questions to the TMA went unanswered. “It is really weird,” she told the Listener. “They’re not very accessible. I have tried.”

Mike Cohen on Takarunga/Mt Victoria. Photo/Tony Nyberg

Stunning views

It’s an easy drive up Mt Wellington to a car park with stunning views across the city and gulf. The summit, 30 vertical metres higher, is a 400m walk away. But the car park is slated for removal; a replacement will be installed at the base of the mountain and walkers will face a steep 1km slog to the summit.

“It’s very hard line,” says Bartley. “So who’s it for then? I’ve just finished meeting with one of the local pastors who has lived here over 30 years. He told me that whenever he has international visitors he takes them up One Tree Hill. Once this comes in, he’s not going to do that.”

When the news broke, Albert-Eden Local Board chair Peter Haynes was still sorting out access for those using the archery range and sports fields on Mt Albert, but he was unsurprised by the decision, and supportive of it. Puketapapa Local Board chair Harry Doig also knew the proposed ban was about to be announced. He had not been consulted or briefed on the plan for Mt Roskill, but he’d seen the agenda and accepted TMA’s plans.

The four chairs of the local boards affected by the five-summit ban, all believed the TMA should improve its consultation. But why had the authority moved so quickly, with such obvious control of the information, to bring in the ban?

Photo/Tony Nyberg

The poster child for the vehicle-free volcanic summits in Auckland is Maungawhau (Mt Eden). In December 2011, almost three years before the TMA came into being, a ban was imposed on the big tourist buses, puffing diesel and beeping as they reversed, which were unpopular even with the motorists who crowded the summit.

The TMA, formed in September 2014, detecting popular approval for the bus ban, moved quickly – and openly – to expand it. It first agreed in principle to establish a vehicle-free summit, a decision recorded in the published minutes of Hui 4 in December 2014. The design specifics of the plan were noted in the minutes of Hui 7 the following April: the summit would be “pedestrianised”, but keypad-controlled retractable bollards would provide vehicle access to the less mobile, who could apply to Auckland Council for codes. The $225,000 budget for the entire operation was recorded in the minutes of Hui 8 in May, and the summit of Maungawhau became vehicle-free in January last year.

In stark contrast, the five-summit ban announced last November didn’t appear in the minutes of any TMA hui until the executive plan emerged and was adopted in the meeting that same month, the last of the year, although the decision carried the rider that “the relevant consents and assessment processes must be undertaken”.

Reference to the ban was made in June 2016 in the Integrated Management Plan (IMP), the TMA’s primary guiding document, which lists “vehicle-free tihi, and traffic management” as guiding purposes for maunga management, but the IMP names no specific maunga and indicates no timelines. The authority’s operational plan for 2016-17, which itemises “Car parking upgrades and reduction of vehicles on the tihi (summits)”, was open for public submissions, but that document didn’t mention an actual ban. Nor did the TMA’s capital expenditure budgets of 2016-17 show any large budgets for any such project.

All that time, though, the five-summit ban was being shaped, behind closed doors, in TMA workshops in July, September and November last year. Under the authority’s governance procedures, similar to councils, those meetings had no published agendas and were not minuted.


Yet to be convinced

Ironically, more rather than less publicity about a five-summit ban might have ensured a smoother overall reception in the months ahead: what little evidence exists suggests that a large constituency of Aucklanders has yet to be convinced. A Herald DigiPoll survey in January 2015, the only poll ever taken on the matter, showed that 58% of Aucklanders favoured the Maungawhau ban, but only 28% favoured extending it to other summits.

The Albert-Eden and Puketapapa chairs, however, reported little public opposition, and Bartley fielded “about 10” concerned enquiries. “It hasn’t really come through as a strong issue from people yet,” she says, “but I think that’s because they don’t know. There’s stuff out there, but I guess they won’t react until the gates go up.”

The Devonport-Takapuna Local Board, however, pushed back directly. At its December 2016 meeting, the board passed Mike Cohen’s motion, although it needed chairman Grant Gillon’s casting vote to succeed. Cohen himself says he accepts there’s no clear measure yet of community opinion. The possibility of significant community opposition, though, raised questions as to what would happen in a stand-off between the TMA and a local board.

The TMA chair, Auckland lawyer Paul Majurey, told the Listener that local boards could not rule against a TMA decision. “The local board can’t object. In terms of our specific statute, there’s not a process for objection in terms of decisions made by the authority. When I say that, I’m using the word ‘objection’, as I think most folk use it. I can write a submission [objecting to a draft plan or similar] and there can be a hearing and stuff like that. And, of course any statutory decision can be challenged in the High Court by judicial review.”

What if the TMA was faced with an unfavourable poll? “We don’t make decisions by opinion poll; we make decisions by our statutory purpose. Those might not be popular, although we think actually our decisions are popular.”

Paul Majurey on Maungawhau/Mt Eden. Photo/Tony Nyberg

Public access

In June 2012, when he initialled the Deed of Settlement with Tamaki Makaurau tribes that led, in turn, to the TMA being empowered to administer the maunga on the tribes’ behalf, Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson said, “There will be no changes to existing public access and use rights.”

“Our decisions,” says Majurey, “are not through political statements. They’re through looking at legislation. We have a specific legislative regime. It comes from a Treaty settlement and puts the Maori world-view at its very centre. The governance of the tupuna maunga is equal between the council and mana whenua, so we have those joint forces there and we make decisions according to our statutory purpose.”

Majurey says the decision does not rest solely on the Integrated Management Plan. “We don’t hang our hat on that. Context is important. This all comes through the Treaty settlement. The Maori world view is writ large in the legislation. It’s a statutory purpose that the authority is required to give consideration to when it makes its decisions [because] for many decades the Maori world view has been excluded from these maunga.

“Where was the consultation with mana whenua when tanks were dug in the ground, where wahi tapu were desecrated?”

The colonists, then, had their turn, and now Maori have theirs? “This is not some sort of rebalancing to do with that, but it’s reflecting what Maori wanted through this settlement. We get our turn because we have the maunga through the settlement. We wanted to share the table with council as representative of the community to be part of that: the council gave us a seat at the table, but we also welcomed the council’s seat at the table. The Integrated Management Plan does not say for these five maunga there is not going to be cars. But that’s not the sole basis for our decision.”

Photo/Tony Nyberg

Majurey notes that those who tend to complain about lack of consultation also tend to disagree with proposed changes. And, those who support change tend to be comfortable with the communications process. “This is not to avoid questions on process, rather to note we have done all we could with the resources and processes at our disposal, but we are not going to please everyone.

 “I and other members of the Tupuna Maunga Authority have never made secret our hopes of seeing these important archaeological and sacred sites pedestrianised. I’ve done many media interviews and written op-eds about it. We’ve produced reports, consulted, engaged and discussed this many times. If some still seem to be taken by surprise, we can’t control that with the resources we have. But, it was never the intent.”

Majurey emphasises also that car-free summits, although not a compulsory condition of a possible World Heritage bid for Auckland’s volcanoes, will certainly help show Unesco that the maunga have co-ordinated management care that respects the culture that so strikingly adapted them to Polynesian purposes.

A second, mundane, reason is simply the safety of pedestrians from sharing the access roads with cars. “Remember what this is about – and it is not some draconian plan. The Tupuna Maunga Authority is in the process of bringing coherence and structure to the way that we manage all our maunga – which include Wiri Mountain, Mt Wellington, North Head, Mt Albert, Mt Hobson, Pigeon Mountain, Mt Richmond, Mt Roskill, Mt Smart, Mt St John, Mt Victoria and Big King. All these tupuna maunga have important geological, historical, spiritual and cultural significance. We have produced an Integrated Management Plan that reflects the values of the maunga through the management of these significant landscapes and will help us to further restore, enhance and protect them.”

These things together, says Majurey, “are playing a key role in helping all Aucklanders rediscover and cherish Tamaki Makaurau’s maunga, which proudly adorn our city’s vibrant urban landscape”.

The TMA is now considering more direct one-on-one relationships with local boards, so does this more time-consuming approach mean it still intends to take the cars off all five summits this year? “Yes,” says Majurey.

Steep climbs

So what will it mean for Aucklanders? The plans the TMA adopted in November will stop vehicle access to One Tree Hill at the start of the summit road; to Mt Wellington at the base; and to Mt Albert at the entrance to the ring road (although suburban streets encroach high on the mountain, and the walk to the summit is an easy one). The Mt Roskill walk is also easy: the plan leaves the access road intact and develops a car park within the existing roundabout, an easy distance from the summit.

At Mt Victoria, an automatic gate will replace the manually lockable one, and the walk from there is a steepish 350m, if you luck into one of the three parking spaces beside the gate; otherwise, the walk up from street level is 450m, if you can find a park in the busy village and get to the top and back within Devonport’s standard 60-minute parking limit. Mt Albert and Mt Wellington both get new car parks in the plan, but Mt Victoria, which rises directly out of a densely settled commercial and suburban environment, has no spare room.

Aside from such purely practical problems, Gillon believes Mt Victoria and North Head – which will eventually come under TMA’s regime – are the only Auckland maunga extensively modified “by something other than quarries”.

One Tree Hill/Maungakiekie. Photo/Alamy

“There are significant post-colonial markers on both. One Tree Hill has a little bit of that, but if you look at both of our maunga, there’s extensive fortifications, the flagstaff, and the signal station.There’s also a water reservoir at the top of Mt Vic that needs servicing. It’s a bit different from the others. People are very keen to visit those sites. It’s not just wandering up and having a cuddle after sunset or being a tourist and looking at the view. There’s a lot more to it than that.

“I know the community is split. Some want the cars stopped, some don’t, but everyone wants to know the full impact on the tennis courts and the writers’ centre, and the bunker for the folk club. Those details aren’t there yet. My understanding is we do have time. They’ve said they’re happy to meet and talk it through and engage with the community. I expect a good outcome there. Will [the car ban] happen in 2017?  No, it’s my understanding it won’t.”

Access for the elderly

And what of those who can’t make the walks? Grey Power wrote to the TMA in January, saying the car ban would effectively preclude access to the summits for many senior residents. Majurey’s reply stressed the risk of cars and pedestrians sharing the narrow summit roads. He added that access codes would not be limited to people with formal proof of handicap. Those who had difficulty walking could call in and state their case.

But Act Party leader David Seymour, the only national politician to oppose the five-summit car ban, described having to persuade an anonymous staffer of your disability as “grotesque”. “The chilling effect on people who are older is profound. And nor does that cover those who have children, or who are just short of time.” Seymour believes mountains that still have vehicle access should retain it: “If you want a car-free experience, there’s nine others that don’t have vehicle access.”

But, at least for the immediate future, the only machines the TMA intends allowing on the vehicle-free tihi without special permission are pedal bicycles.

Hone Mutu Retimana. Photo/Tony Nyberg

Gentle encounter

In contrast to the political clashes between local boards and the TMA, the Listener had a gentler encounter with local kaumatua Hone Mutu Retimana on the lower slopes of Takarunga. The well-known Devonport kaumatua, a touchstone of tikanga for schools and community groups throughout the peninsula, includes the grave of 19th-century Ngapuhi chief Eruera Patuone in his daily walk.

“I mihi to him every day: Tena koe, Ngapuhi. It’s good for him. How nice is that? People think you’re nuts and all the rest of it. Fair enough. But if we’re talking about the spirituality of this place, it includes all of that. It includes what we say, and how we say it.

“Do the cars that go up the mountain affect that spirituality? No. This is the 21st century and they’re still talking of closing it to the cars? The forefathers put a road in so people could go up and enjoy the maunga. It’s such a majestic place. You can see the whole of Tamaki Makaurau from up there.

“Pakeha have done some indifferent things around development of the maunga, but that’s what I want the Maunga Authority not to do. Don’t fall into that trap. The 13 iwi is one thing, but the tangata whenua and the mana whenua here is another. I’m Ngati Whatua, so when you knock on my door, I say, ‘Yes? Can I help you? What do you want me to do?’ But don’t come here and tell me what to do. We are the kaitiaki. We are here to protect that maunga, and its access. I want that said.”

This article was first published in the March 25, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.