Wellington divided as Peter Jackson land purchase halts housing plan

Controversial development proposed in New Zealand capital, which faces a housing crisis, scrapped after film-maker purchased block of land

As news spread on Wellington’s leafy Miramar peninsula that the film-maker Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh had halted a controversial NZ$500m housing development by buying the land it was to be built on, residents of the seaside suburb were joyous.

“It’s fantastic,” says Miramar local Dan Stickley, as he leaves the supermarket. It matters that it was Jackson – whose sprawling moviemaking enclave powers the otherwise sleepy suburb – who bought the land, he adds.

“He’s one of us,” Stickley says.

Commenters on local Facebook groups exalted the pair’s pledge to restore the proposed site to nature; plans were made to gather messages of gratitude on a card. A short drive from the housing project’s planned site, someone has painted “Thank you Fran & Peter” on the side of a block of flats in red cursive letters eight-feet tall.

The end to the proposed housing development at Shelly Bay – a sparkling piece of coastline 8km from the city centre that was once a defence base – draws a line under one of Wellington’s most fraught and divisive disputes of recent years. The proposed development has divided residents of New Zealand’s capital since 2014, with the matter prompting debates about the sluggish pace of change in a city gripped by a housing shortage

Rebecca Matthews, a Wellington city councillor, says “we face a culture where our city will search for reasons to stop that housing development”.

Georgina Campbell, a Miramar resident and a Wellington issues reporter for the New Zealand Herald, said: “What could have happened with Shelly Bay is 350 more homes in the city in the middle of a housing crisis.”

A polarising matter

In 2019, Jackson denounced the Wellington city council for “doing anything they can to assist a private developer” intending to build “on a beautiful part of Wellington’s coastline”, The film-maker’s companies contributed $30,000 to a 2019 mayoral campaign by a candidate who opposed the Shelly Bay plan and one of his firms backed a court case by a group protesting against the project.

Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh hold their Oscar statues after The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won best motion picture in 2004.
Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh hold their Oscar statues after The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won best motion picture in 2004. Photograph: Robert Galbraith/Reuters

In a statement announcing the land purchase earlier this month, Jackson and Walsh said they planned to restore “the natural beauty of the bay”, adding that landscaping and planting would begin shortly. According to the statement, the pair will not develop the site beyond restoring two existing buildings. The pair did not say how much they had paid for the land; they declined, through a representative, to comment further.

Shelly Bay is “a wonderful coastline that holds a great deal of cultural and historical significance”, the statement said.

On the streets of Miramar, it is difficult to find anyone who does not side with Jackson.

“The traffic would’ve been a nightmare,” says one resident, Barbara Hiri.

Aaron Cowan, who moved to the area to work at one of Jackson’s visual effects companies, decried as “a disaster” the 350-house development.

“There’s no access to it, no infrastructure,” he says. “You couldn’t fit that many people in that area.”

But outside the suburb, the issue has been polarising.

Wellington city councillor Matthews says: “Of all of the myriad of complex issues and history that are part of the Shelly Bay story, there is also the significant influence of nimbyism.”

Housing at ‘crisis levels’

While the sale ends a long-running debate over Shelly Bay, questions remain over how the land may be used in the future – and how the city will tackle its housing shortfall, which official figures estimate at about 10,000 units.

Paul Eagle, member of parliament for Rongotai which covers the Miramar peninsula, urged Jackson and Walsh and the council to discuss how the pair will use the land they own – which includes tens of millions of dollars of other properties on the isthmus.

“My plea to Sir Peter and Fran is that we need you around the table as part of the city vision,” says Eagle, who was a city councillor from 2010 until 2017, and will leave his parliamentary seat at October’s election.

It is not known what involvement the Māori iwi (tribes) who had sold their land to the property developer might have in the site’s future use. Māori – Shelly Bay’s pre-colonisation settlers – bought the land back as part of a Treaty of Waitangi settlement after its use by the defence force for more than a century until 2009.

Neither the iwi organisation that supported the development, nor the group that opposed it, also including iwi members – who staged a two-year occupation of the site until 2022, and were challenging the land sale to the developer in court – responded to the Guardian’s requests for comment. The developer, Ian Cassels, made a joint statement with Jackson and Walsh, speaking of “deeply mixed emotions” about the project’s end.

He cited the “challenging” nature of the development. A spokesperson for Cassels said he would not comment further.

Photo taken on 23 March 2021 shows a view of a residential area near Wellington, New Zealand.
Wellington, like other cities in New Zealand, is in the grip of a housing crisis with a shortage of affordable accommodation. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

Still, many in Wellington remain frustrated by a lack of progress on tackling the housing shortage. Eagle says while the Shelly Bay purchase might be “a win for conservation and locals” it fails to address the affordable housing problem in Wellington “which remains at crisis levels”.

Tory Whanau, Wellington’s mayor who had learned of the deal the day it was announced to the public, said she was “incredibly surprised” at the news.

“I was looking forward to seeing an increase in affordable housing with this development,” Whanau told reporters, adding it was “disappointing to see that go”.

City councillor Matthews says Wellington “lacks very many ideal or easy places to build houses”.

“From a housing perspective, it’s about whether you support land owners to develop their land and the view of a lot of the pro-housing voices on our council is that we want to take more of an enabling approach,” she says.

Campbell, the New Zealand Herald reporter, said the Shelly Bay dispute was emblematic of a wider problem in Wellington – which is plagued by quake-prone buildings, public transport crises, and crumbling sewerage: an “incredibly, fiercely strong resistance” to change.


Charlotte Graham-McLay in Miramar

The GuardianTramp

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