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Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

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Image(Before the tsunami) The mean high water mark has just gone out to sea.


Anyone wanting to get on with enjoying life knows that getting a permit is one of the big obstacles, but Tony Watkins suggests that many people may be getting permits which they really do not need.


A great many people give up on their hopes, dreams, and fascinating building projects, because getting a permit is just too difficult and expensive. Only the courageous rise above the dead hand and dull conformity of mindless bureaucracy.

The first question more people need to ask is whether their permit is actually necessary. This is particularly important when there is almost no chance of one being granted. Lateral thinking is needed, and to learn how this works it is useful to watch how those who issue permits do it themselves.

The Auckland City Council is seeking to undertake what it has called “erosion control works” at Karaka Bay, Glendowie, on the site where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed 170 years ago. Such works require a Resource Consent from the Maritime Planning Authority, but the ACC realized this was most unlikely to be granted as the proposed works were not only not in accord with the wairua of the sea, but also contravened every fundamental principle of ecology.

Nature seeks to heal. Destabilising the beach to put in gabion baskets only means that in twenty years time the beach will be a tangle of twisted wire, rocks imported from somewhere else and non-biodegradable synthetic material. Getting a permit to turn the beach into a rubbish dump obviously did not look realistic.

More than 40 years after the Stockholm environmental conference we are still plagued with a few arrogant “gabion wall” engineers, working against nature when they should be working with nature. A healthy natural environment gives us life. Our planet will only have a future if engineers and architects embrace the natural world.

Knowing that the Maritime Planning Authority would never grant a Resource Consent meant that the ACC had to do a little lateral thinking. When a building is too close to a boundary most ordinary people trying to get a permit assume that the building must be shifted. Lateral thinking suggests that it might be easier to shift the boundary.

By moving the Mean High Water Mark Springs boundary of Auckland City out to sea the "erosion control works" were left stranded high and dry on what, at least on paper, had become land. Any understanding that receding waters are only a sign of a tsunami to come could be avoided for the moment. No Resource Consent was necessary.

This idea is not unlike that used by Moses to allow the Israelites to flee out of Egypt. After the Israelites have passed through to safety the ACC will spread out its hand again and the waters will return, swamping the horses and chariots of those who only want to get a permit to put on a verandah. It seemed entirely appropriate that the ACC should announce their plans in Easter Week, with only a symbolic three days of public notice, and declare that the works were to be completed in the 40 days of the Easter period.

Just when other people are beginning to worry about sea level rise, the ACC has found the answer. Simply move the mean high water mark out to sea. Every architect is familiar with the similar technique of moving a contour line here and there to gain compliance with height controls, and get a permit, so the idea is perhaps not new.

This cunning slight of hand permit process at Karaka Bay has continued with even more smoke and mirrors. The Local Government Act 2002 requires the Auckland City Council to “provide opportunities for Maori to contribute to its decision making processes”. The Act however does not say which Maori. The ACC clearly realized that the iwi which signed the Treaty of Waitangi would never give permission for the desecration of their sacred site.

Lateral thinking obviously suggested going around this problem by consulting with some other iwi. The Treaty was signed on the Auckland Isthmus by Ngati Paoa, but for many years Ngati Whatua have been trying to deny this reality. “Nga Mana Whenua o Tamaki Makaurau” has begun the process of dispelling one of our great Auckland myths. This document was signed at Karaka Bay only a few weeks ago, on the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi at the same spot, both on 4 March.

Asking Ngati Whatua if you can destroy the mana of Ngati Paoa means having the answer in the bag before even asking the question. Rigged elections are decried in Afganistan, but the poor Afganis are really just doing their best to imitate us, without quite understanding exactly how it is done. It seems that in retreating from this myth the Auckland City Council intends destroying everything which might be useful to those with a right to the land. The Indonesians did it when they withdrew from Timor. Our local government is being just as effective, but more subtle.

If you cannot get a demolition permit lateral thinking suggests denying that you are going to demolish anything. Karaka Bay is rich with archaeological remains. It is one of the oldest occupied sites in New Zealand. Middens abound and the Council in the past has just cut through this heritage of another culture. It is about to happen again. Every developer is terrified that archaeological remains will be found on their site. Work can be brought to an instant halt. Not having a permit saves all the hassle.

In recent times a good many small investors have discovered that if they let someone else play fast and loose with their investment they will lose the lot. In the same way small players who give away their power over their lives will find that they too will lose everything.

Getting a permit is only a problem for those who cannot work out how to avoid the need for one. The real problem for little people is that they treasure honesty and integrity.


Tony Watkins co-authored the first Maritime Plan in New Zealand, has acted as Co-Director of the International Union of Architects Sustainability Work Programme, and has been involved in numerous United Nations conferences concerned with both the natural and built environments.


Footnote on the definition of MHWS

"There seem to be a number of similar definitions, but the one referenced on the LINZ website describes it as the average level of spring tides that occur under average meteorological conditions.  Unfortunately, this is difficult to represent on a map because it relates to an elevation rather than a defined location, and because the elevation may vary in different areas because of different tidal conditions.  This height may be surveyed for individual properties or locations but hasn't been definitively surveyed for the entire country or even the Auckland region.  These days approximations of the MHWS line can be modelled using a surface derived from LIDAR data, but results are only indicative and have no legal standing.  The coastline that is shown in Spatial I is captured from a combination of LINZ property boundary outlines and aerial photography.  It is captured for cartographic purposes and should not be considered to represent MHWS."

The following paragraphs from a NIWA report entitled 'MHWS level for the Bay of Plenty' provide further reference on the subject.

"LINZ and the Environment Court both re-iterate that there is no single definitive method that can be used to establish a natural boundary like MHWS. LINZ states that the approach taken by the surveyor needs to be customised to the individual location and take into account, amongst other things, the hydraulic gradient, the type and value of land concerned and the survey accuracy required.
The Environment Court decision in 2000 on Ann’s Creek of Mangere Inlet (Hastings vs. Auckland Regional Council, Decision A130/2000) stated:
“We accept that a practical solution is required. From the surveying evidence there is in no definitive answer. Neither a strictly mathematical surveying approach, nor any other approach, will produce a solid irrefutable result. A judgmentis needed, and whatever decision is reached will not be universally acceptable.” [Section 35].

That should make it perfectly clear. 

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