The NSW Heritage Management System under the Microscope

Professional Associations


House_in_Killara_NSW__Australia_On the face of it, the NSW heritage management system works well. Listings are clear, protective measures are in place and most owners, developers and managers are aware of the processes and prohibitions involved in adapting their listed buildings to new purposes and in the case of domestic situations, altering and extending their dwellings. Likewise, people in the state are generally aware that locally listed and State listed heritage buildings cannot be demolished and if ever they should try to de-list their buildings, they will discover that such attempts have become taboo if not deliberately mired in complex legislative mechanisms.

Notwithstanding, under the microscope there are a number of irregularities and viruses in the system which if not dealt with could result in the ultimate undoing of a currently good intentioned structure.

Firstly, legislation in NSW is robust and cogent. The prescriptive operations of the listing process is clear and articulate, but undermining the very basis of it is that because of population growth and immigration, not all sectors in society agree on the nature and value of heritage listings. It is unsurprising that the majority of listed items in NSW are late Victorian established homes in large garden settings. Not everybody in society shares the prioritisation of such cultural content and the system obviously suffers from a lack of range and diversity not to mention the celebration and promotion of other cultures in society albeit fringe, nascent or foreign. The stasis of the listings results ultimately in the alienation of certain sectors in society from it and an unfair prioritisation of White Anglo-Saxon cultural values over others. The same can be said for Colonial and Federation buildings as opposed to Modern, Art Deco and Post-war buildings. The static nature of the themes in NSW, militate against new and emerging types of heritage taking hold.

Challis_Avenue_Potts_Point_NSW__Australia_Secondly, heritage in NSW, like many other states in other countries, is development – driven. All conservation work to listed buildings or contributory buildings in conservation areas is triggered by the need to modify them or convert them to new purposes. By comparison, very little conservation takes place for its own sake. Development-driven conservation is risky especially in a privatised economy – one in which local government relies upon the private sector to undertake the research, assess the significance and impacts and present the results in support of applications to local council/ shires whose role it is to process such applications. The assessments are naturally tendentious and largely supportive of the owner’s interest as opposed to what is best for the building. Even in situations where a local council refuses and application, the private applicant can raise enough fire power and muster sufficient legal resources to appeal such decisions and because local government in NSW is under-funded and under-resourced, the private sector can often win out with the result that development-driven conservation can be negative and intrinsically skewered in favour of development. Indeed, the prevalence of appealed refusals by developers is such common practice today that they simply factor the cost in knowing ultimately that they will get some form of favourable outcome eventually. In this sense, the prohibitive aura surrounding the listing legislation has become neither threatening nor disciplining to developers who know that they are in the ear of the politicians.

Houses_in_Chippendale_-_NSW_Australia_Houses in Chippendale - NSW Australia Additionally, both State and local governments realise that development is good for the economy because it creates jobs which in turn, increase taxing revenue. Politically today, the NSW government is completely committed to development almost at any cost and an ironic situation has emerged in which politicians attempt to water down the heritage legislation placing development above cultural built heritage as a higher public good in society. Such does not auger well for the listed stock.

Thirdly, there are no standards in the industry. Councils will accept heritage impact assessments from anybody who has written them i.e. owners themselves, builders, town planners, students and any other individual who may choose to write them. Indeed, there are guidelines set by the NSW Office of Environment & Heritage. But such standards are loosely applied, not always followed and often poorly scrutinised by those in local government who themselves are not qualified. By qualified, I mean somebody who has undergone formal training and has experience in assessing heritage significance, intactness and impacts. Somebody who understands fabric, knows how to research a building and is aware of local historical issues. Without such knowledge and experience, the role of assessing significance and impact is reduced to ostensible banality. Yet the industry is rife with under-qualified individuals making important decisions about the cultural built fabric – decisions that go unchecked and again result in inappropriate decisions being made in cities, towns, regions and cultural landscapes, not to mention the deflationary effect it has on industry standards themselves.

Similarly, although there are courses at university in which proper assessments can be learned and from where appropriate experience can be gained, they are not united under a single set of principles and priorities which means that the uptake of graduates into the industry causes irregular levels of experience and different understandings of how the true drivers and mechanisms of the industry work or should be made to work. The upshot is that industry practice today is riddled with differing levels and incomplete notions of cultural built heritage not to mention the fact that the industry itself draws upon an unsustainably wide set of disciplines i.e. historians, archaeologists, architects, economists, town planners, administrators, local government, property developers and sociologists – a difficult and sometimes fraught mix of competing aspirations resulting in an irresolute disposition within the industry.

Balmain_street_scene__NSW_AustraliaI am a firm believer in accreditation. We are risking far too much loss of fabric and inappropriate approaches to cultural built heritage that most probably, we will come to regret in the future. Hence the need for accreditation at university, TAFE colleges and high schools and industry standards that raise levels of awareness and understandings in society of what the role of CBH has become and that its treatment requires qualification, skill and foresight. Most importantly, accreditation would flush out the cowboys and charlatans in the current industry who assert presumption over measured research, detailed and thorough analysis and unbiased reporting.

Fourthly, there is little policing in the HMS. Despite the robust legislation, there are those in society who flaunt the rules and unilaterally decide to demolish listed building or modify their buildings secretly without permission from the local council. This is particularly prevalent in rural areas where local councils are under-resourced and are made to operate under extremely straitened circumstances. The lack of policing, fining and prosecuting in such circumstances does not bode well for the listed stock and creates an attitude of laissez faire by owners who routinely go un-censored for their actions. Indeed, this comes down to resourcing and certainly, the better resourced councils such as Mosman, the City, North Sydney, Woollahra, Hunters Hill and other metropolitan councils are often required to issue notices under Section 121 of The EP&A Act which is a type of injunction, however, the less resourced councils especially those in the regions and rural areas simply lack the facility to not only find out what is going on but even when they do, to mete out the prescribed restitution.

Fifthly, at local government level in NSW, there is no facility currently except where it gets dangerous to the public to prevent owners from running their listed properties into the ground. While it is not as prevalent as it used to be, there are still those who resent their listings and as reprisal, deliberately abandon their properties, allow vagrants to move in and ultimately let them go to rack and ruin. Wilful neglect is not a punishable offence in NSW and I for one, am very supportive of legislation that does more than simply discourage owners of listed properties from hastening their demise. Especially in the regions and rural areas, there are those who abandon their properties for financial reasons, but there should be assistance by way of incentives that help in defeating such practices and promoting more equitable terms than exist in the current local government HMS.

House_in_Queens_Park_NSW__AustraliaSixthly, political will and commitment to CBH as a public good in society is currently low in the State. Neoliberal approaches that promote the idea that business is more efficient than government in regulating taxable transactions in society especially those in the real property area has to a degree abandoned the ‘good ship heritage’ to rampant aspirations of development, progress and infrastructure allowing CBH to become completely exposed to the wrecking ball with the result that all over our cities, inner suburbs, coastal regions, main streets and towns, cultural landscapes have become disfigured and continue to disfigure at an alarming rate. The trend emerges from Canberra. When it comes to a national policy on CBH, the Australian Federal government fails to lead with a strong hand and the State governments follow in their trudging footsteps. By the time the system has percolated down to local government level, there is some, but very little commitment. This in turn affects the ability of councils, especially non-metropolitan councils and shires to deal with their CBH portfolios.

Seventhly, despite strong public support for CBH, there is very little promotion of it by local government. For the reasons mentioned above, it is not a top priority and has become superseded by development as a higher public good in society. Listings without promotion, education, celebration and acknowledgement of the part that private owners play in the maintenance and care of CBH, are simply dead letters. The Productivity Commission Inquiry Report No. 37 – Conservation of Australia’s Historic Heritage Places, 2006, indicates that in Australia, 90% of the listed stock is in private ownership (see previous blog). In NSW, private owners shoulder the bulk of the cost of CBH in society and the relative contribution of the community and of the local government pales into insignificance by comparison. The disproportionate distribution of resources undermines the system because of the enormous disparities. It is without purpose to have a robust legislative framework in place without any follow through. It is pointless to list buildings without promoting them – without encouraging people to learn about them, enjoy them, understand them and use them. Further, it is disingenuous for an HMS to place the burden on the private sector so disproportionately when the very point of listing a building or place is to protect it and keep it for the enjoyment of all and anybody.

Lithgow_Courthouse_Lithgow__NSW_AustraliaOn this ticket, NSW falls grossly below European and UK standards. Those jurisdictions understand fully the purpose of conservation not to mention the ultimate gain from local and international tourism, the economy itself and levels of wellbeing generated in creative cultural nodes such as museums, exhibitions and places of CBH interest.

Thus, on the face of it, things do not work as well as they seem. There is little ratification of an agreed content of cultural heritage value and there is stunted growth of singularly un-diverse lists. There is poor follow through of listings that extend to promotion, education and the celebration of CBH as a public good in society. There is little policing of heritage except in the well-resourced metropolitan councils. Politically in NSW, development is placed above CBH as more deserving of government resources. Such forces conspire against CBH both physically and intellectually. Despite strong public support for it, it is poorly managed, randomly administered and fraught with irregular and uncontrolled industry practices.

NSW can do a lot better than it is doing at present. However, in the face of neoliberalism, there is not much political commitment to CBH. Yet, it is far too valuable a resource to abandon it to the rapacious consumption of development which recently has become viral and out of control. As if taken over by lantana, our cities, suburbs, main streets and towns cower under the onslaught of development and CBH today is more threatened than it ever has been. A policy vacuum has emerged as a result of the private sector having greater carriage of the HMS compared with that of the public sector. This predicament has almost reduced the listings to dead letters – abandoned and unclaimed.

Paul Rappoport – Heritage 21 – 28 August 2015

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