Our trust in councils may be based on sawdust

Barbara Hardwidge in her sinking New Plymouth home.

After the Taranaki Daily News revealed a couple of New Plymouth homeowners have ended up with homes that have sunk disastrously, I had some questions for the New Plymouth District Council about its responsibilities.

This column was published in the TDN on May 19, 2022:

How do pieces of land unsuited to housing suddenly become the opposite?

That’s a central question in some startling cases of New Plymouth homeowners whose life investments appear to have been built on fairy dust.

One revealed by this newspaper at the weekend is a 30-year-old house in Mangorei Rd near Awanui St that apparently sits on an old sawdust heap. There are proverbs about things like that.

Since then, two more instances have emerged, the owners coming forward to give similarly devastating accounts (although sawdust was not involved).

Journalist Helen Harvey’s investigation into the first case made a crucial revelation: some people working for New Plymouth District Council in 1990 changed their minds about the Mangorei Rd site’s suitability. “NPDC’s property file shows the site was deemed ‘poor ground’ in 1990,” wrote Harvey.

“On January 4, 1990, a council officer signed the Not Approved box. But on July 16, that ruling was crossed out and consent was given to build.” NPDC group manager community and customer services Teresa Turner explained that happened because the developer came back with an engineering design “suitable for ground conditions at the site”.

When you read something like that you have to wonder what they were teaching in engineering school late last century, especially in the light of the earthquake-strengthening misadventures the country has since endured.

And you could speculate about the state of the council’s records. The story later refers to an Earthquake Commission view about the Mangorei Rd section that’s based on aerial photos.

I’d be surprised if the original council opinion about “poor ground” was informed merely by aerials. In my six decades of council reporting I rarely came across anything so definitive that wasn’t backed by a detailed engineer’s report.

I grew up living down the road from that sawdust heap. I recall a helluva lot of sawdust (but no sawmill). It filled the head of a gully that conveyed a small unnamed stream seawards. According to a reference in council records, that tiny waterway was more of a swamp beneath the sawdust pit, a place that during the three decades until 1982 was also covered with material referred to as “ash and topsoil”.

In other words, fill. Hence “poor” ground.

Then someone apparently found a building approach so promising the council changed its mind. Unwisely, it seems, because the house is sinking (even though others nearby seem okay).

Yet, the council is denying responsibility, fearful of setting a precedent. Turner says the buyer should have got a LIM (land information memorandum). But how would that have helped? According to a councillor, a LIM done since makes no reference to “poor ground”. Which raises another question – how do we know about it, then?

There’s something unfortunate about the timing of this case in terms of trust in the council.
In the same newspaper, it paid for a full-page advertisement outlining why the Government mustn’t go ahead with its Three Waters Plan until it clarifies a lot of things.

One of those is the fundamental right local communities have to a say in the way basic services like water and sewerage are handled. NPDC says the majority of us is not going to allow such a major central takeover without more answers to questions surrounding the proposal.

The council’s right. We’re none of us happy about losing control over something NPDC assures us it has well in hand, the long-overdue refurbishing of water supplies, sewerage systems and stormwater drains.

Here’s what worries me, though. What is it the current council can claim to know and be able to do that was presumably missing from its predecessors, councils that let our services get into their current state?
I doubt it was lack of skill and knowledge on the part of employees; it was probably political reluctance to spend sufficient money, which can result in bigger rates rises. Infrastructure work can get behind.

We’re lucky to have a current mayor and councillors prepared to bite the bullet, raise rates as needed, and get this mess sorted…although some of us won’t feel so fortunate when rates bills (already pumped up by the Yarrow Stadium rebuild) arrive in the letter box.

And there is this question: given current revelations and NPDC’s stance, how much we can trust any council with anything really tricky. Especially something precedent-setting – like when houses that maybe should never have been consented start sinking and embarrassing everyone.

The council says it can live with embarrassment. Whose, I wonder.


Below is a copy of a report originally dated January 4, 1990, provided to me by national engineering company Tonkin & Taylor – with a note that “this is what the council knew from the start”. There is no clear indication of who wrote the report, but it was signed off by someone on that date as indicating approval to build was not granted; it warns of the site’s apparent unsuitability for building, with the words “Poor ground” given an exclamation mark.

Then the document is signed off for approval later that year, on July 16, by someone whose signature is unclear; the original hand-written note at the top is crossed out. That note reads: “A logistics paper is to be provided on the ground conditions (illegible word) and floor structure design and conditions provided as our records show a lot of fill is on this site.”

There is an instruction for the document to be circulated and then returned to “building”, presumably that building section at the council. When that was written is not clear.

A second image provided by T & T shows analysis of two bores put down there to check.

The logistics paper referred to here (in the crossed out section) may have been what came along in July 1990 and changed the council’s mind about granting consent for a house to go ahead on the site.

An important question remains at time of writing (here): Was the requested logistics paper produced and what did it say? Where is it now? If the council has a copy, it needs to be produced for publication.

About Jim Tucker

Supposed to be retired, after quitting journalism teaching in 2013 (after 25 years, preceded by 22 years as a newspaper journalist and editor), but find myself busier than ever with various book projects, advising law firms, and writing articles for magazines like North & South and Live.
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