CHRIS SKELTON & ALDEN WILLIAMS
Heritage advocate Anna Crighton plans to launch a legal battle to stop the Catholic church demolishing the historic cathedral.
The Catholic cathedral is being demolished under a now scrapped emergency earthquake power. What is a section 38 notice, what did it do to Christchurch and why is it still affecting the city? CHARLIE GATES reports.
Just days after the 2011 Canterbury earthquakes, cabinet minister Gerry Brownlee laid out what he wanted to do with damaged buildings in Christchurch.
“My absolutely strong position is that the old dungers, no matter what their connection, are going under the hammer.
“Old stuff, if it’s got any damage at all, needs to be got down and got out because it’s dangerous and we don’t need it.”
By July that year, further emboldened by the June aftershocks and a drive to get the city centre reopened quickly, Brownlee had sweeping demolition powers thanks to the passing of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act in April.
“The city is going to look very, very different once all the demolition is completed,” he said.
“But I think there is real urgency now to get that done. I think most of the sentiment around buildings has gone as people realise that there is not a lot of hope for most of these buildings.”
It was the start of a wave of demolition in the city centre that removed dangerous buildings, made space for vital rebuild projects and destroyed heritage buildings at an unprecedented scale.
Between April 2011 and August 2015, an emergency power in the new act called a section 38 notice ordered the demolition of 718 buildings and the partial demolition of 169 more.
Heritage buildings were hit hard, with 181 demolished under the act. A total of 994 section 38 notices were issued in just over four years.
The section 38 notice gave the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Agency (Cera) the power to demolish, order owners to take down their buildings and charge owners of dangerous structures for the cost of demolition. The demolition orders bypassed normal planning laws, with their requirements for consultation and rights to appeal.
Owners could also apply for a section 38 notice if they wanted to demolish their buildings quickly. Not all applications were successful. The owners of the Public Trust Office building on Oxford Tce were twice refused the notice. The building is now being restored under new ownership.
The Catholic diocese were granted a section 38 notice for their Christchurch cathedral in 2015.
The act was repealed in 2016, but the legacy of the section 38 notice endures. There are four buildings in central Christchurch that still have active section 38 notices. Just last month, Canterbury bishop Paul Martin announced plans to demolish the central Christchurch basilica using their section 38 notice.
In some instances, the new power helped the city recover. For example, when buildings were quickly cleared on Cashel St in 2011 to make space for the new Re:Start temporary mall. The quick pace of demolition meant Re:Start opened to the public in October, just one month ahead of the busy Cup and Show Week. It was feared that if there was no retail in central Christchurch for too long then people would make new habits and never return.
But when the power was applied to heritage buildings, or “old dungers” as Brownlee called them, they became lightning rods for discontent about the rapid pace of demolition, the loss of local control over the city and the destruction of the country’s irreplaceable built history.
About 44 per cent of protected heritage buildings in the central city, or 135 properties in total, were demolished in the wake of the 2011 earthquakes, according to the Christchurch City Council.
In 2015, Graham Stanley of Linwood wrote a letter to The Press complaining about the demolition. “They destroyed my landmarks and roots which have sustained me over my 76-plus years, the touchstones of my life,” he wrote.
“They did this from a position of dictatorial power, even labelling some dungers, and rendering we Christchurch citizens powerless to have a democratic voice.”
In 2014, protesters gathered at the historic Majestic Theatre on Manchester St to protest the section 38 notice that would eventually lead to its demolition. The Government partly wanted to demolish the building so they could widen Manchester St by a few metres. One protest placard stated: “DEMOLISH SECTION 38s!”. There were also protests when the historic Cranmer Courts on Montreal St were demolished after a dangerous building section 38 notice was issued in April 2012.
The Government even tried to use section 38 powers to force demolition of the Christ Church Cathedral.
In November 2011, the building was issued with a section 38 notice. Then Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee said the order would not force the cathedral into demolition. “We certainly haven’t pushed that position, but it is severely damaged, ” he said.
“I believe [demolition] was the right decision and it is not easy to say that.”
In February 2012, then Cera general operations manager Warwick Isaacs recommended the cathedral was taken down to the height of the window sills.
When Isaacs, who signed demolition orders for the Majestic and the Anglican cathedral, left the job in 2015 he had no regrets about the wave of heritage demolition.
“It’s been the hardest part of my job, having to make those decisions knowing they are not going to please everybody.
“But nevertheless I’ve had to make those decisions so we could move on with the recovery of the central city.”
In 2013, then Cera chief executive Roger Sutton said the demolition powers were being used to keep the city safe.
“The … Act is not heritage focused and was never intended to be. It is safety focused with an overarching mandate to push the recovery forward and ensure that everyone affected by the earthquakes has an opportunity to move on.”
But, have we moved on?
In 2019, the demolition powers still cast a shadow across the city. There are active section 38 notices on the Anglican cathedral and McLean’s Mansion on Manchester St, which are both being restored, along with a building on the proposed stadium site next door to the NG Gallery on Madras St owned by the Government and the Catholic cathedral.
A spokeswoman for government department LINZ, which now administers the notices, said they do not have expiry dates and only lapse “once the conditions have been fulfilled or the notice is lifted by the LINZ chief executive”.
The section 38 notices were introduced during an emergency to urgently make buildings safe and get the rebuild underway as quickly as possible. But the power is now being used to demolish the Catholic cathedral at a time when that urgency has long passed.
Christchurch lawyer Mark Christensen said he was surprised the Catholic diocese was relying on an old law for demolition. “I was interested to see that they are relying on something from way back,” he said.
“I do wonder that if a section 38 was applied for now the same decision would be made.”
Resource management lawyer Jen Crawford said the section 38 was still a valid tool for demolition, despite being based on an old law from the emergency period.
“They may well have been appropriate to use in the early days when things needed to happen quickly,” she said.
“I would imagine that sense of urgency has passed, but if someone acquired one legitimately they should be able to use it.”
Christensen was philosophical about the legacy of the section 38 notice. “The buildings are gone. There is no use crying over spilt milk.
“We were faced with an unprecedented situation and people thought they were doing the best thing.”
“In hindsight, people might think differently about certain situations.”