The Real Battle? Updating Victoria’s Heritage Charter.

Nearly two years ago an article appeared in The Age on Saturday 3 August, 2019. The article posed a sensible and necessary question. Are Melbourne’s Heritage homes worth saving? The simple answer is yes, ofcourse. However, with less than 2,600 sites (that’s not necessarily homes) considered significant and worthy of State level Heritage, we are witnessing a continuing cavalcade of destruction. And it comes down to the intransigence of local municipal councils. This is, in part, financially driven, as we have been pointing out here for some time. Quite simply the increased rates from property developments that replace single dwellings with multiple storey apartment complexes on strata titles provide an irresistible carrot. The real requirement is a significant increase in budgeting expenditure by councils on ensuring Heritage Overlays are accurately maintained and expanded to reflect the true Heritage Status of many properties and sites not included in the original Heritage Overlays proposed and confirmed from the 1980’s onwards. What were then 70-year-old buildings are now over 100 years old and deserve protection. 

It isn’t necessarily about age. Where there is true architectural significance – for example, the mid-century modern designs and constructions of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s located in the Bayside council area – here real protection is required. Currently there are only a minimal number of dwellings that qualify under Council assessments with demolitions continuing in the area unabated.

So let’s reflect. We reprint in full the article from The Age by James Bennet, dated Saturday 3 August, 2019: 

They’re charming, but are they worth saving? The battle to save Melbourne’s heritage homes

by James Bennet. Saturday 3 August, 2019.

When the demolition notice went up at 55 Seymour Road, Elsternwick, neighbour Sam Dugdale didn’t know what to do.

Last-minute appeals by locals to save this historic family home failed.

Key points:

  • A petition signed by several thousand people failed to halt the house’s demolition
  • National Trust says many councils lack resources to conduct rigorous heritage reviews
  • Opposition says a review of Victoria’s heritage protections can’t recommend legislative change

“I was advised to put in an interim protection order, which I did,” she said.

It was denied.

Why? Because under Victoria’s heritage laws, individuals can only seek emergency protection for places or buildings worthy of state-level heritage protection.

Only 2,600 sites across Victoria are considered that significant.

Except in rare cases, Melbourne’s historical homes are instead protected by council-level heritage overlays.

So if, like the property on Seymour Road, a house is not already covered by a heritage overlay, it is only the council that can ask the planning minister to halt demolition while its historical value is assessed.

“How do we actually stop these terrible things from happening?” Ms Dugdale asked rhetorically.

She started a petition, which attracted more than 2,120 signatures.

But by Thursday, an excavator was clawing at the house’s front room.

“I’m devastated,” she said.

“This is 100 years of history being bowled over.”

Bulldozers moved in on the 1890 Edwardian family home.

National Trust ‘frustrated’

Victoria’s planning minister’s office says it did not receive any application from the City Glen Eira to halt the home’s destruction.

“We get calls from people about these kinds of issues every single day,” the National Trust’s Victorian advocacy manager, Felicity Watson, said.

“Its very frustrating to have these individual cases keep coming up while the systemic issue underlying that is not addressed,” she said.

Heritage Victoria and the Heritage Council have both acknowledged the issue.

They’re currently conducting a statewide review of “strengths and weaknesses” of local heritage protection.

Local government shortcomings

“The reality is this is a council issue, and they’ve been neglectful,” Ms Dugdale said.

Glen Eira’s last full heritage survey was over 20 years ago, in 1996.

The National Trust says ongoing heritage assessments are critical to identify and protect significant homes before people knock them down.

In an email to Ms Dugdale, Glen Eira mayor Jamie Hyams said he “shared her disappointment” but suggested there “wasn’t much we could have done about it”.

“The last time Council looked at heritage in that area, our consultant did not recommend that stretch of Seymour Road for protection,” he said.

Councillor Mary Delahunty told the ABC that Glen Eira is currently conducting a new heritage assessment.

“These are long processes, they’re methodical processes,” she said, while acknowledging the community dissatisfaction.

“Obviously it’s on council to speed that up,” she said.

Elsternwick residents including Sam Dugdale (left) want to try stop the destruction of any more historic homes.

Preserve or prevent urban sprawl?

At the heart of these issues lies a deeper question — which homes should be preserved?

Urban planners have long hailed medium-density development — close to transport and the city — as critical to preventing Melbourne from sprawling ever outwards.

The ABC has attempted to contact the owners of 55 Seymour Road to ask what they plan to build, but has not received a reply.

“Councils do have a responsibility to provide for our increasing density,” Ms Watson acknowledged.

“But it needs to be done in a strategic way, that protects the places that we value, while also providing opportunities for growth.”

Felicity Watson of the National Trust says local councils need better funding to manage heritage protection.

Review mere ‘window dressing’

The Heritage Victoria review of local heritage protection won’t report back for another year.

It is understood that it will not have the power to suggest new laws, prompting criticism from the Opposition.

“I don’t believe it can recommend legislative change,” said planning spokesman Tim Smith.

“That shows you that this really is window dressing,” he said.

Ms Watson said many councils simply lacked the resources to conduct regular, rigorous assessments of what should be protected, and called for the State Government to fund them.

“I think this is really crunch time, where the State Government needs to work with local government to address this issue,” she said.

“It keeps coming up again and again, and the community outcry is growing.”

Quite frankly very little has changed and, to be honest, we consider current Heritage protection to be a flawed model unless all local government agencies take their Heritage responsibilities seriously. It is simply unacceptable to have some local councils rigorously enforcing Heritage Standards whilst others continues to turn a blind eye to inappropriate developments that proceed at the expense of Heritage. Height levels seem to change to suit particular projects and insignificant “faults” are continually discovered to undermine Heritage significance. Where restoration is both possible and cost effective the option should be available via Heritage Victoria to order restoration of minor Heritage transgressions. Seven Oaks in Balwyn/Deepdene is a prime example of this. Located in Boroondara council area, such an attitude and response (a demolition permit is now pending) is not surprising. Over the last three years a number of simply magnificent properties have been demolished in Boroondara.

The correct answer for Local Councils and the State Government is to allocate more funds and more expertise to true Heritage protection – provide higher funding to Local Government and the Heritage Council, to carry out timely and effective assessments. Give genuine recognition and protection to Victoria’s valuable Heritage and its remarkable buildings. Determine why the property or place is of Heritage significance, not looking for petty reasons to pronounce it is not of significance. Put a real value on the advice of the National Trust and similar bodies.

Nothing will change until there is an across-the-board co-operation and understanding. This can really only be achieve by convening a summit of all involved participants – Local Government, Heritage Victoria, the Heritage Council of Victoria, the National Trust, the REIV, the Australian Institute of Architects and prominent Developers. Such a summit will require significant planning to achieve a medium where all parties can provide input, however, ultimately what is required is an up-to-date approach to Heritage protection and a set of guidelines that provide and a set of guidelines that provide universal legislation to be applied uniformly across the entire State of Victoria. This summit should ideally be convened and held by the Victorian Government Planning Department.This summit would ideally be held by the Victorian Government Planning Department. Penalties for transgressing Heritage regulations should then be increased to a level that makes ignoring them punitive to the extreme. In the United Kingdom if a Developer demolishes or destroys a Heritage building they are offered a simple option. Rebuild it to its original status and configuration or be forced to pay someone else to do so. Fines are massive and Heritage protection is actually funded by a National lottery. 

It’s way past time to update our statutes on Heritage protection – quite simply, when Heritage is destroyed it becomes but a fading memory. Melbourne has enough such nightmares – it’s time for reform. 

Heritage – It Matters. Preserve It. 

Balance Architecture – Heritage Architects.

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