Readers of this blog will be aware that I am opposing the current planned development at Shelly Bay. That’s why I was intrigued when I heard about a campaign called Buy Back the Bay. I investigated further and reached out to Mary Varnham, forefronting the campaign, to learn more about it. Here is how our discussion went.
Benoit Pette: Kia ora, my name is Benoit Pette. Today, the 28th of September 2022. I am sitting with Mary Varnham who is fighting for Shelly Bay. Mary, for those who don’t know you, who are you?
Mary Varnham: Well, I guess that currently I’m known mostly as being a publisher at Awa Press, the company I started 20 years ago. Previous to that, my career, most of my life, has been as a journalist, mainly freelance. But I also spent a spell as an activist for the Wellington Waterfront, particularly founding a campaign called Chaffers Park, Make it Happen.
And I got on the council to kind of, as I thought, promote that cause. In fact it was a very bruising experience, but in the end we did win in Chaffers Park,as you know. So that’s kind of my background. I’ve also been involved in quite a few other campaigns around Wellington. So I guess I’m an urban activist.
BP: Very well. And I guess your next campaign is now on Shelly Bay. So can you tell us why you are so interested now in Shelly Bay?
MV: Well, Shelly Bay, I guess, has for me some resonance with the fight we had over Chaffers Park. I think Wellington really has to preserve green spaces and preserve public land. I think it’s so vitally important. We’re not… As a society, we don’t have a strong philosophy about that. But I think people are becoming more and more aware of how important it is to save natural places.
So as I became aware that Shelly Bay was going to be consented as a housing development, like a lot of people I think I felt frustrated. I didn’t know how to approach it. What to do to protest against this. Because Shelly Bay was never… the housing development was never publicly notified. So it was a sort of under the table deal, if you like, under the Special Housing Areas Act, whereby it was designated by the council as a special housing area. And that meant that no public consultation needed to take place.
So there was a whole long period when all of the stuff was going on behind the scenes with resource consents. And I think most people in Wellington were pretty unaware of what was actually being planned. But when it did become public, there’s been a growing unease about Shelly Bay, because for so many reasons, it’s just not a good place to put a housing development. And for a lot of other good reasons, it’s a very good place to put what we want to do, which is to combine it into the National Heritage Park that’s being created on the peninsula.
BP: Now, as soon as you start touching on housing developments in Wellington and you push forward a little bit of opposition to it, you usually get the response, “Well, you’re a NIMBY. You don’t want that in your backyard.” So what do you say to those people that is so specific about Shelly Bay and that is the housing development is not the right place to do this?
MV: Well, there are certainly people who think that Wellington, or we all know Wellington has a bit of a housing crisis, we definitely need more housing. So on the face of it, I guess, this looks like an answer. Build these 350 apartments at Shelly Bay and a number of houses and so on. But actually, there are quite a number of things you could say about this. But one is that it’s really not an answer to the affordable housing crisis, because by the developer’s own admission, these are going to be luxury apartments.
Although the consent was granted under the Special Housing Act, which was supposed to encourage affordable housing, there’s only actually 5% of the development that’s designated affordable. And even that probably won’t be that affordable. So that’s number one. It’s not a solution to the housing crisis.
But also it’s hard to think of a worse place, actually, to build intensive housing because there’s a very narrow access road. There’s great concern that there will be, over the 13 years of development, a lot of danger to pedestrians, cyclists, and even other cars, with the traffic that would have to go between the Miramar cutting and the Shelly Bay side.
It’s also the side that’s subject to sea level rise. And that’s well documented. So how sensible is it really for the council or anybody to allow development on this site where it’s thought that, in time, a lot of these houses would be actually uninsurable, they’d be so subject to sea level rise. So it just doesn’t make sense on any level.
BP: Isn’t it the responsibility of the developer though, to deal with these kinds of questions? I mean, what you’re saying makes sort of sense. But the developer responded to inquiries saying, “Oh well, it’s fine because the ground floors are only going to be carparks. So, therefore, it’s fine.”
MV: Well, what developers do, of course, how they make money, is they develop and sell and then move on. So sure sea level rise is not going to affect these buildings in the next few years, but it will affect them. And so by then, the developer, like so many other developers, would’ve moved on. And the people left with the problem will be the people who own these buildings. And that’s been true all over the city, actually. Not only with sea level rise, but with buildings that are not watertight and so on. I mean Wellington is just full of incidences of people stuck in apartments that they bought in good faith, but have had to spend sometimes almost millions remediating because of water tightness issues. So that’s one thing.
The other thing is that the buildings that will initially be most vulnerable to sea level rise will be the ones along the waterfront, including the old buildings like the saw tooth building. And the developer seems to have been doing a deal with the Port Nicholson Blocks Settlement Trust for them to take on those buildings and therefore that responsibility. So that’s quite worrying because I feel somehow this iwi, associated with the board, are getting themselves into quite a lot of financial risk.
BP: So obviously, the one aspect of the Shelly Bay saga is all the questions relating to the iwi and how it was dealt with internally. That was quite a strong argument when the councillors voted back in 2021, I believe it was, or 2020, for the sell and lease of the land, the public land, to the developer, saying, “Well, we don’t really have a role to play in the tensions within the iwi and they have to resolve it themselves.” How do you place yourself around this? I mean, do you work with Mau Whenua or…
MV: Yeah, so obviously, the history is very interesting of the Bay. It was originally a Maori settlement and not only that, but the whole area of Miramar Peninsula, coastally, was where Maori fished, and landed their wakas. It has a long history there and also about six to eight Pa sites on the whole peninsula. So there was a historical link, but the land had long ago gone to settlement, Pakeha settlement under the pretty terrible deeds that were done by the Wellington Company. And so it had ended up being seized as a… from a settler there called Crawford taken by the defence department for defence purposes. And it was that way for about a hundred years, actually.
So by the time these arguments around Shelly Bay started, it was because the defence department was abandoning the land, which they did about 1995. And then the question was what was going to happen to it. The defence department went to the Environment Court and said, “Look, the design guide of the Wellington City Council has this all designated for very low rise and natural landscape and so on, but we want to make a lot of money out of selling it. So we want you to change that designation.” So that went through the Environment Court who refused, really, to change it. And so it was sitting there with a designation and the design guide of the council.
But nothing really happened. I mean, it just sort of sat there like a lot of abandoned land. And then the local iwi, the Taranaki Whanui negotiated a treaty settlement. They negotiated a $25 million treaty settlement, and it was agreed that out of that, 15 million would be spent by the iwi buying Shelly Bay. And that was pretty popular and the iwi felt they had a strong connection, that they would really make it a place for them to stand. All sorts of good intentions for the land.
Somewhere along the way, personnel changed and it ended up being sold, disposed of, the land, to The Wellington Company, the development company. So that’s just the most highly contentious aspect of the whole Shelly Bay issue really because the iwi who belonged to Taranaki Whanui met at least twice, and they voted against the sale. But the trust board, through various mechanisms, managed to work out a way to sell it in smaller lots and actually ended up losing money.
I mean they sold it for a total of 12 million. So they lost 3 million right away. And they sold it outright. But since then there’s been quite a… Because of the public opinion that the iwi had been sort of done out of their land, the developer has tried to do, what he calls a partnership, but it’s a very dodgy sort of partnership. So the whole thing remains very, very controversial.
And a few years ago, the breakaway branch of Taranaki Whanui, which is really the majority of the iwi, held an occupation there for 18 months as you probably know. So that was a pretty clear sign that actually that the iwi was not happy about the sale and they are still not happy. And that group, Mau Whenua, is still making efforts to get the land back.
It’s currently sitting in the Maori land court, the challenge to the sale that was made. So that’s something that’s still in progress. And I think the Mau Whenua, the group that calls themselves Mau Whenua, which means the landholders, as opposed to the land sellers, they still hope that that case will work for them. But at the same time, they’re also with us on our campaign.
BP: Yes. Oh, that’s a really great point actually, because you are working on the campaign to buy back Shelly Bay. But before we go into this, very briefly, what are the connections, in your eyes, between Shelly Bay and Mount Crawford and the potential development that’s happening? Do you see the same risk of a developer kind of overtaking the will of the iwi and doing behind the scene kind of a deal?
MV: Yeah. I’m not so familiar with the Mount Crawford situation, but I know that there is a right of return of land there. And so the same development company is obviously doing what it can to persuade the Port Nicholson Settlement Trust to allow them to buy that land as well. In fact, I’ve seen maps, which I think were taken to investors in China, where it shows the whole of the Mount Crawford site being developed and then right down the hillside to and including Shelly Bay, which would be a sort of lot on this wonderful natural landscape. It’s pretty horrifying.
So yeah, I think that’s definitely an issue. But it’s not one that I’ve personally got involved in and I’m not entirely sure that… I know that there are some members of the iwi who are quite interested in having Maori housing up at the old Mount Crawford site. And at the moment I don’t feel opposed to that at all. What I’m opposed to is the land being used for luxury housing and non-affordable housing.
BP: And the point could be made that the development has no connection to the Spatial Plan that was up for consultation a couple of years ago, where basically every development had to be done around the main transport spine and close to the centre of course but didn’t tick any of those boxes.
MV: Yes, well it’s definitely… I mean that’s another point against the development of Shelly Bay is that it isn’t on a public transport spine. In fact, there is no public transport. So added to all the other negatives for the site, it’s just completely unimaginable that so many hundreds of people in their cars would be using that very narrow access road.
BP: So Mary, obviously, you described the situation actually by you’re unhappy and you are starting a campaign. Can you tell us about that campaign, what’s its name and what it’s doing?
MV: Well, a lot of people in Miramar, particularly Miramar Peninsula and the Miramar Enterprise, the business association have been really, really fighting against Shelly Bay development for a long time. And in fact, had taken cases against the resource consent court and so on. So there was already a group of people who were working quite hard to think what is the next step. I mean, they’d lost the court cases and things seemed to be barreling ahead.
So somehow I was enlisted into this group and we spent a lot of time talking about, “What is the answer here?” And we thought really, the only answer seems to be to take the land out of all of the disputatious areas. To just say, “Look, the only, the first step, to sorting this out is to have the land bought back from the developer.” I mean, whether it ends up going back to the iwi, or as part of the National Park, Heritage Park, or whether the government controls it, or we would hope that there would be iwi, certainly, involvement. But it just seemed to be let’s not get lost in the minutiae of all these court cases and all those disputes.
I mean, we’ve compared things like Ihumātao where the government and the Auckland Council bought back that land. It’s not exactly analogous, but it’s an example of how you can really rise above the decades of conflict in the terms of Shelly Bay. And one of the first steps we took was to say, “Well, what do the people of Wellington really think?”. I mean, do they really want housing development? If they do, obviously, we are on the wrong track, or do they really want to preserve this land? And this land, it’s a sort of much-loved place, Shelly Bay, people travel around there all the time. I mean, it’s been sort of dilapidated, but it’s been loved. And people go to the Chocolate Fish Cafe and they ride bikes and it’s really an access point for the whole peninsula.
But we asked Research New Zealand to conduct a poll, which simply said to people in Wellington, “Well, there are two options for this site. It could be this housing development, or it could be that this land is added to the National Heritage Park that’s being planned for the peninsula and becomes again public.” And the result surprised even us. It was just overwhelming support for the park option. 78%, in fact, of people, said that they really would prefer it to be added to the park. And when they teased out, even from the initial 28% of people who said they supported the development, when they were questioned further, it turned out only 10% felt really that it should be a housing development. So from our point of view, we feel we’re doing the right thing.
BP: Yeah, okay. How many people took part in the poll, do you know?
MV: Four hundred people. Yeah, so it was a professionally conducted poll and yeah, we’re making the report public.
BP: And so the campaign’s goal is to bring the land back into public ownership. That’s what I’m hearing. And so it would be owned, ideally, by the Crown? It would be owned by the City Council? And whichever way you’re trying to pull that, the direction you’re pulling towards, how do you think you’ll achieve this?
MV: Well, that’s the question we’re most asked, actually. Well, the question is, who would buy it back, I guess, is the question that we were asked. And our answer to that is, “Look, this is just a hugely significant piece of heritage land.” And in the capital city of Wellington, which actually has absolutely no regional parks within Wellington City, so great that the government is planning this heritage park, we want them to add on Shelly Bay. Whether the government ends up buying it back, whether there’s a public, whether there’s a private partner… We don’t really want to get into the finer points. What we’re trying to do is establish the principle that this land has to come back into public ownership.
And so we feel that with the goodwill of Wellingtonians and New Zealanders too, because we see this as a place for everyone in Wellington. We’ve got a War Memorial Park in Wellington, Pukeahu, which is very successful. It commemorates war.
BP: And have you gathered some support already from either political parties, people, trust or organizations? I’m thinking, for example, a local trust here that is very known, is Predator Free, and into this support. Do they engage in this campaign at all?
MV: Well, we’re at early days. We are certainly approaching everybody. We certainly support Predator Free, and one of the concerns about the development of housing at Shelly Bay is that it will open up to predators again because Predator Free has done such a fantastic job of getting rid of predators. We certainly don’t want them being reintroduced. But yeah, we’re working with Mau Whenua, we’re working with Enterprise Miramar, where we did a big email out to the public. It’s sort of quite early days, but the response so far has been great, with people volunteering to help. And so we feel it’s going to spread and spread. It is just really at the early day stages. But the response we’ve had has been terrific. I mean, there really… When you say to people, “Look really, do you want this to be added to the National Park?” And they go, “What a great idea.”
Because I think people are just tired of the acrimony and the division over Shelly Bay and people want it sorted. And I don’t think that 13 years of construction is going to sort it. It’s just going to make it a whole lot worse for everybody. So we would like to see that stop. So yeah, we’ll be reaching out to as many groups. We’ve got tangled up in the middle of the local body elections because of the timing, and certainly, some candidates are very much on our side in the eastern suburb.
Andy Foster, who was the mayor, has been the mayor, he’s always opposed the development there and tried to stop it unsuccessfully. Paul Eagle seems to be supporting the developer. He doesn’t really want to listen to the public, even though he should. And the third really viable candidate is Tory Whanau, who we’re speaking to. So she wants more information, we’re going to give her that information. Hopefully, she’ll see that she would like to support the public well on this.
BP: Harnessing public support is going to be maybe the greatest challenge. I appreciate it’s early days, but how do you think you’re going to harness this kind of public voice?
MV: Well, we did it at the waterfront. And it’s amazing. I think Wellington is a great city for this because people really care about Wellington and they really get it. So we have complete confidence that this all sort of spread, from a small ember, a whole fire will grow. That’s what happened pretty much on the waterfront. It just took off gradually, and when we held that public… First of all, we scheduled a public meeting and so many people turned up that the police came and said… well, the fire department, that we’d have to move it to another place. So then we held it in the town hall.
I’m pretty confident that it’s a different issue from the city waterfront because most people go into the central city, but an awful lot of people do go to Shelly Bay and it’s sort of at the gateway of the harbour. It’s very visible and more and more people, I’ve noticed… And I’ve been living in this area for 20 years now, and during that time I’ve noticed how many more people use it. They picnic, boat, kayak, windsurf, bike, it’s really a hugely popular place. So we’re pretty confident that we’ll get the support we need.
BP: Okay. So I guess the next question is timing, right? Because of course, time is kind of running out. Yes, there is a local body election that’s getting in the way, but pines are being fell, buildings are being put down at the moment at Shelly Bay, so when are you going to launch, do you think, perhaps evena website or the Facebook page or something that can help rally people to the campaign? Do you have any timeframe?
MV: Yeah, well we’re working on all of that sort of social media and the website and so on and so forth. I mean, it does look as though a lot’s happening at Shelly Bay. The developer has been demolishing old buildings and there’s been recently a lot of publicity about the kororā, the little blue penguins, who make their home at Shelly Bay. And part of the resource consent was that they were to be protected. And this hasn’t happened. In fact, they’ve been blocked off by fencing from their nesting sites. They’ve been found wandering the road, there have been injured ones found on the beach.
So yeah, so some pretty bad things are happening around there at the moment. But no building consents have been issued. This is a hugely long project. I mean even 13 years. Add onto that the road that the developer has to some extent improve, the access road before they actually can start even thinking about building new buildings. So we’re pretty confident that we’re going to have lots of time to stop this thing.
BP: Okay. So yeah, hopefully maybe by the end of this year we’re going to see some website up?
MV: Oh yeah, absolutely. Yeah, you’ll be definitely reading a lot about us. We’re just getting going.
BP: One last question. Have you met Ian Cassels?
MV: I’ve never met him. No. Sorry.
BP: Have you tried?
MV: No, I don’t know that there’d be a whole lot of point really in meeting him, but yeah. I’m not sure what motivates him really. And maybe he’s just gotten so deep he can’t find a way out. So we’re offering him a way out now, which is please sell back the land.
BP: That’s a nice way to finish it, unless you’ve got some other comments, Mary.
MV: Well, just thank you for anything you can do to promote the cause. And I just think, yeah, come on Wellington. We’ve done it so many times before, saving wonderful things in Wellington that yeah, this is just another. And Wellingtonians is just great to work with. So a fantastic city, with fantastic people. Go Wellington.
This will be such a beautiful heritage. When people say to me, “Well this is such a huge thing, and how are you going to stop it?” And I say, “Well, just imagine the people who founded the botanical gardens all that time ago.” People who, or did the town bell. I mean everything takes a lot of time, but it’s worth it, because it’s a legacy for Wellington. And this would be a fantastic legacy.
BP: Yes, thank you very much, Mary Varnham, for your time today. And all the best.
MV: Thank you.