The New South Wales government has released a discussion paper relating its goal to review and “modernise” the Heritage Act (1977). Proclaiming the review, Arts Minister Don Harwin said:

“Too often we see once cherished heritage properties experience dilapidation by neglect.”

Harwin was referring to the practice called demolition by neglect. This is when property owners neglect historical buildings to quicken their demise and leave no choice but demolition.

What is the heritage of heritage building? In 1825, French writer and politician Victor Hugo initiated his public career with an essay, War on The Demolishers. It was an argument in favor of architectural and urban conservation.

While Hugo’s war was fought in France and Britain, it lacked a major Australian battleground until the mid-20th century. In Sydney, 1971-1974, the Builders’ Labourers Federation launched a militant campaign of work bans: the Green Bans. This direct-action advocacy tool, on behalf of community groups, was imposed on sites in Australia, to the consternation of developers.

State and Commonwealth governments intervened. The NSW Heritage Act (1977) stood as the new Wran Labor government’s attempt to achieve peace in this regional war on the demolishers. It added to the legislative precedent established by the Victorian Liberal government in 1974.

Almost 50 years later, the NSW discussion paper addresses no fewer than 19 “focus questions”.

Authorities overseeing heritage have few resources and are working under the auspices of dated policy and practice instruments. As well as addressing these issues, the investigation will need to provide a clear objective for heritage governance and management.

Presented in the discussion paper are two competing perspectives regarding heritage. In the traditional view, the government aims to renegotiate the peace with “the demolishers”. Also, the discussion paper acknowledges that heritage has the power to respond to social, environmental, economic and cultural opportunities.

In the traditional viewpoint, heritage values are steeped in history. Any change to a designated historical site can only take away from its designated aesthetic, historic and social qualities. This means that legislation must be resistant to changing places.

In the emerging viewpoint, the importance of heritage lies in its ability to enhance places. Although historic sites and areas are part of the past, the goal is to promote the sustainability and continuity of places and their evolving values. The law can inspire change and development, as guided by public and design interventions and cultural values. In this way heritage policy and process can highlight the importance of places.

Heritage represents the eternal struggle between traditional and emerging views. It even may be challenging to enforce new policies tied to conventional views of governance and management.

Public confidence must be won, as people might suspect that the concealed agenda of the NSW review is to put their developments on the fast track. Public comments by the state treasurer about the White Bay Power Station and government decisions in conjunction with the Sirius BuildingWillow Grove in Parramatta and WestConnex in Haberfield diminsh confidence in the shielding of heritage and urban governance.

The timing of the inquisition is odd, as it may be seen as deflecting from the National Parks and Wildlife Act (1974).

In the 2020s, Queensland and Victoria have modernised their Aboriginal heritage legislation to put the focus on Aboriginal decision-making. The passage of standalone Aboriginal heritage legislation in NSW should reign as the top priority. This is in itself a clear path to link up heritage policy in the state.

Adapting heritage governance for the 21st century involves a significant and forward-thinking view.

Scotland has spent many of the past 10 years interacting with the heritage and development sectors and the public regarding its legislation. Its Infrastructure Commission has recommended a “re-use first” concept for its assets. Property owners must be called to justify demolition against sustainability mandates.

Authorities should develop models of heritage governance that engage public participation and the inherited environment. Heritage conservation must serve as a centrepiece of aspirations toward social, environmental, economic and cultural sustainability, in an effort to keep demolition at bay.

Source: Architecture and Design.Com.Au