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Heritage Hell — Can this be happening in NSW in the 21st Century?

by Andrew Piper,
School of Humanities, UNE

It is hard to imagine Sydney without the Queen Victoria Building. This grand old dame has watched lovingly over Sydneysiders since 1893, when its construction provided many people with jobs in the midst of a grim depression. But in 1959 our beloved QVB was threatened with demolition to make way for a car park. The justification given by the government of the day: that the building was standing in the way of economic development.

Last year, while still the NSW Minister for Planning, Kristina Keneally announced a set of changes to the Heritage Act citing the need to ‘allow better consideration of economic and non-heritage issues’. The Heritage Amendment Bill, which was passed on 3 June 2009, places more power in the hands of the Minister for Planning in deciding which properties are listed on the State Heritage Register.

Under the amendments the Minister will have the final say on the criteria used to determine heritage significance and can direct the delisting of items already on the State Heritage Register.

Heritage has widespread appeal, beyond those actively engaged in its preservation, as well as importance socially and economically. The good old QVB, for instance, was saved by public outcry. The importance the community places on heritage is obvious through the widespread membership of various heritage organisations, such as the National Trust and local and family history societies; the success of the national quarterly Australian Heritage; and, the popularity of heritage events and sites with the public. Consistently, cultural heritage tourism places attract more visitors than natural heritage places and for some regional communities cultural heritage tourism is a major contributor to the local economy.

Fundamentally a community’s heritage represents community memory. Heritage helps communities make connections to their pasts and provides identity.

Governments who perceive such a position as nothing more than subjective rhetoric do so at their risk. Australian history has shown that on heritage matters the majority are often silent until the heritage buildings they value are taken from them. A return to a planning setting in which heritage values are not recognised or inadequately protected will elicit resentment and a backlash towards any government that appears to favour developers over formal and genuine assessment of community sentiment. One reason that the Bjelke-Peterson government was ousted was its support for midnight demolitions, disdain towards community anger at the demolition of buildings that Brisbanites and Queenslanders in general identified with (such as the Bellvue Hotel and the Cloudland Ballroom), and community wrath at shonky deals between developers and politicians.

To have avoided repeating history the current NSW government, when considering changes to the Heritage Act, ought to have looked at ways to strengthen, and not dilute, legislative protection for heritage. Of great concern is the enacted changes made to the membership of the Heritage Council, which previously included four expert representatives from non-government organisations such as the Royal Australian Historical Society and the Royal Australian Institute of Architects. Under the new legislation these positions will become skills based and appointed by the Minister. The only assured non-government position under the amended act is reserved for the National Trust of Australia (NSW), and even with this position the Minister appoints the candidate from a list of three put forward by the Trust. The Minister’s power in appointing new Council members lessens the body’s appearance of impartiality and lends itself to the suspicion that it may not be objective in the future.

Alarmingly there is no guarantee that an historian will be included on the Council. This throws into question the veracity of the Thematic Listing program, which seeks to prioritise state listing nominations around four agreed themes: Governor Macquarie; convict; World War I and II sites and Aboriginal heritage. The thematic approach to listings makes sense, but it is hard to imagine how a Heritage Council of architects, developers and bureaucrats will determine the relevance of particular sites to each theme without the insights of qualified historians. History underpins heritage by providing a context through which to understand places, buildings and objects.

Differences in opinion as to the role that heritage plays in our lives, and the values they impart, exists. This diversity of viewpoint, however, reflects a healthy robust dialogue amongst groups and individuals peddling different agendas, rather than widespread negativity to the earlier legislation and its associated regulations. There exists overwhelming community support for effective heritage legislation as well as integrating, and conserving, a representative sample of the past as a part of our contemporary built environment.

This support is evident in the diverse amalgam of community organizations opposed to recent changes in NSW, such as: the restructuring of the NSW Heritage Office which has seen it essentially broken up and subsumed by the Department of Planning; changes to planning legislation that weaken the capacity for systematic, balanced and accurate assessments of heritage significance to be undertaken and considered when assessing development applications; as well as, suspicion of the motivation behind the review and amendment of the Heritage Act that has for so long been admired as setting the standard by which legislation in other states is compared.

It appears that NSW is making a series of retrogressive steps that will force a return to the pre-heritage legislation of the 1970s when green bans and conflict in respect to cultural heritage was rife and community mourned the loss of many much loved buildings and structures. The success of heritage, both economically and socially, since the introduction of the Heritage Act in 1977, appears to be conveniently forgotten by a state government beholden to powerful development lobbyists who have made sizeable political donations in recent years. The enacted amendments emphasis the importance of economic planning, but communities are concerned with matters other than the economic. Social, historic and aesthetic issues are of the utmost importance for they give a community identity and provide its members a meaningful environment in which to live their lives.

Citation: Andrew Piper, Heritage Hell — Can this be happening in NSW in the 21st Century? Australian Policy and History. March 2010.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/heritage-hell

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Permanent link to this article: http://aph.org.au/heritage-hell