A few years back I contributed a chapter to a scholarly publication called Heritage, Labour and the Working Classes. The chapter focused on the experience of trying to establish a museum of working class history and encountering a group of middle class practitioners operating within an identity politics ideology and oscillating between working for the government funder, establishing consultancies to prepare feasibility studies and contracting to curate exhibitions.

The editors of the book defined heritage as ‘not only tangible artefacts, buildings, places, sites and monuments, but also intangible traditions, commemorations, festivals, artworks, songs and literature.’ They went on to say that, ‘These chapters show that working class people have a remarkable ability to avoid reactionary nostalgia and self pity, and can build on their history, traditions and sense of place and community in novel ways.’

The Blackball Museum experience was, at the time, a ‘getting one’s fingers burnt exercise’, healed only by eventually managing to house relevant stories in a couple of containers, which, as an institution supported by unions, has proved remarkably resilient.

Forgetting that previous lesson (perhaps one of the dangers of old age), Te Puawai Co-operative Society which I helped set up has embarked on another heritage project: this time to repair and upgrade the old Jack’s Mill School near Moana so that it becomes a Kotare-style residential school exploring issues in a progressive way through enabling the exchanging of grass-roots knowledge. The site celebrates a past story of progressive education under the first Labour Government, a first exercise in technical education which resulted in the children of this rough-and-ready Coast sawmilling settlement designing, building and furnishing a much-celebrated child-size cottage. We were very grateful when the Ministry of Culture and Heritage granted us the $199,000 required from a covid-inspired innovation fund.

There are problems however: the site is owned by DOC who have a community agreement with the Kotuku Heritage Society and it is a Heritage 1 historic site so Heritage NZ are also involved, and of course Council has to provide resource and building consents. This means three bureaucracies and two community groups have to agree. Partnering with the community group has always been simple: the site is unpeopled and under utilised with most of the effort going into preserving the children’s cottage. This additional purpose was obviously a great idea.

Cash-strapped DOC were also grateful and very pleased that the money would be injected into the property. At the same time, we started to become aware of the heritage game: that a building should reflect itself in a passive manner, like replaced with like and so on. Fair enough, but old people looking into the mirror do not always appreciate what they see. And the heritage game can see a curious regression to infancy with adults playing with toys from the past.

Conservation Plans come into play, the guts of them being advice of replacing like with like with the addition of modern treatments of timber, sometimes to repile, to check the electrics, paint in heritage colours, no heat guns to be used, keep a record of changes and so on ­­- sensible practical requirements encased in value-laden description which seems to hide literary ambition. These plans are lodged with HNZ who become the national custodians of heritage sites, but devolve the administrative role to local bodies. Here we encounter the syndrome I wrote about previously: bureaucrats and consultants passing through a revolving door.

Everyone was supportive of the project until an application for resource consent found council requiring letters of approval from DOC, HNZ and the heritage society as affected parties. The heritage society were immediately forthcoming. DOC remained mute and HNZ wanted to impose conditions that were problematic: waiting for a new conservation plan, sign off of detailed plans and methodologies… The new conservation plan will take months and still won’t mention the upgrade of water and sewage and the fit out of an ablution block, kitchen and dormitory, all of which will have small impact on the fabric of a building which is in need of the repair that will happen. Plan approval on what grounds given that the building consent means that work meets the building code? Do HNZ have other measures for the installation of showers and toilets? And of course conditions will lead to nervous building officers and greater expense.

The exercise became fraught to the point of wondering whether it was feasible. Generally, the web of regulation is leading to the demolition of heritage buildings, for repurposing is made problematic and expensive. Buildings instead, become passive mirrors of themselves as sentimental commodity, slowly sink into dereliction and are then pulled down. But as query followed query, I suddenly read a paragraph in Tolstoy’s War and Peace (I’m doing a study of Tolstoy at the moment): ‘He thought of the meetings, remembered how carefully and at what length everything relating to form and procedure was discussed at such meetings and how sedulously and promptly all that related to the gist of the matter was evaded.’  I suddenly realised that this was simply an exercise in form and procedure, to be dusted off only if there were a disaster and they could then be pointed to.

In turn I wondered about the generality of this phenomenon throughout the bureaucracies and if this is why problems seem insoluble in health, education and so on. Have we returned to medieval scholasticism, with governance being an attempt to reconcile enlightenment knowledge with religion, the religion in this case being identity and ritualistic presentations by multi-faceted and fluid individuals. Sin is intolerance, harassment, confrontation and bullying…

But like scholasticism, the paradigm generates elements of the absurd. For example, in the Nominalist camp of scholasticism only individuals existed rather than ‘supra-individuals’, essences or forms. Try and design a health system around that and imagine the problems that arise e.g. Are two individual high need clients both high need clients because the predicate ‘high need client’ applies to both of them? Or does ‘high need client’ apply to both of them because they resemble an exemplar ‘high need client’. Or are exemplars inevitably oppressive?

Bureaucrats thus obsessed will never be able to tackle the realities of staff and funding shortages, geographic service spread and so on.

This whole paradigm also reflects the current urban-rural divide: of rural areas and their people being dictated to by central authorities and their obsessions. The resulting bitterness fuels populist agenda which the recognition of iwi will not ameliorate. In fact, the combination will lead to an upsurge of settler racism.  It is remarkable how insensitive the current Labour Government is to this development.

War and Peace was written in 1862, about the same time the land wars were beginning. Where did I begin? That’s right: heritage.