Editorial: The price of heritage

16:00, Sep 27 2011

Of the many losses that Christchurch has suffered in the earthquakes of the past year, one that continues to cause great dismay is the destruction of so many of the city's heritage buildings.

The attachment that most people in Christchurch felt for its old stone, brick and other buildings was deep and heartfelt and had been demonstrated tangibly by the effort and expense that had been devoted to preserving them. To a degree not seen in any other city in New Zealand, Christchurch's heritage buildings helped define the nature of the place.

Some of the buildings were wrecked in the September and February quakes to such an extent that repair was plainly impossible. For others, though, repair and restoration were at least an arguable possibility.

There is rising suspicion that, in the haste to clear the city so that wider recovery may begin, many of these are being demolished with insufficient consideration given to trying to save them for a city of the future, which will need them as much as the city of the past did.

Whether this is the case is not easy to determine. Certainly an unfortunate tone was set for the official attitude towards preserving old buildings when the Minister for Earthquake Recovery, Gerry Brownlee, said not long after the February 22 quake that Christchurch's "old dungers" had to go.

Even if it was an off-the-cuff comment and was designed to communicate a no-nonsense approach to the clearance of what was unsalvageable, it was a crass and offensive expression to use and not one to inspire confidence that the authorities were going to put themselves out to save what could be saved.

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In addition, the rescue of heritage buildings raises complex issues. Some buildings, of course, like the Old Government Building in Cathedral Square and the Canterbury Museum, thanks to money spent over many years to strengthen them against earthquakes, have survived relatively undamaged. Others, like the Arts Centre, will be restored without argument, despite heavy damage and the huge sum that repairs will cost, because of their importance.

But for many more owned privately, questions of restoration or demolition turn to the issues of finance and insurance – particularly whether there is enough to meet repairs to a sufficient standard and whether insurance cover will be available after restoration. In a city where the most urgent priority is to get financially viable businesses running properly again, the unavoidable truth is that much of the city's heritage has already irrecoverably vanished, and much more may be beyond our means to save.

The Labour member of Parliament for Christchurch Central, Brendon Burns, has suggested there should be greater public involvement in the decisions on heritage buildings, especially where public money has been put into their preservation in the past.

The principle of public involvement in decisions on the future of the city is an admirable one in general – that was the idea of a community forum established by Brownlee (though it seems somewhat coy about its deliberations). It is also desirable that, if there is unnecessary haste in pulling down buildings, pressure from the public should be brought to bear to try to temper it. But money is the crucial element in saving many buildings, and Burns will need to identify a significant source of such funding if he is to succeed in his campaign.

The Press