Can the Review of the NSW Heritage Act make History?

The Workshops were the epicentre of the 1917 great strike and were crucial in the formation of the labour party, the creation of the shop committee movement and struggles for equal pay for aboriginal workers.

A new unionism led by the NSW Builders Labourers Federation, based on full membership understanding and commitment, forged alliances with local communities from which emerged the world famous “Green Bans” movement. They were instrumental in shaping the 1977 NSW Heritage Act.

Now Over 40 years old the heritage legislative and administrative architecture has fallen into decrepitude. The wheel has turned full circle with the power of property developers and financial interest’s casting a long shadow over heritage conservation.

 A multitude of problems have arisen which includes;

  • The Act has failed to reflect our increasingly diverse and multi-cultural society. The Act is focussed on the tangible heritage of built fabric with intangible cultural history, the stories, actions and narratives of many communities not accounted for.
  • The funding of NSW Heritage and the Heritage Council has been whittled way,
  • Political appointments of business and financial interests rather than content experts and community representatives have come to dominate heritage bodies,
  • The Minister has exercised many political interventions and the planning instruments, through the state significant development legislation, have been used to nullify state heritage register listings.

A number of heritage decisions taken by the Government have seen strong and ongoing opposition from community and union groups. They include the debacle to relocate the Powerhouse Museum to a flood prone location in Parramatta at a cost to over $500m and still counting to the CFFMEU green bans on the demolition of the historic Willow Grove house.

The current Act does not include provision for community consultation and NSW is the only state in Australia which does not have stand-alone legislation for aboriginal cultural heritage.

Fundamental Review of Act undertaken

A public inquiry by the NSW Legislative Council has conducted a root and branch review of the Act and made a raft of recommendations for changes to both the legislative regime and the administration of heritage conservation in NSW.

Unions who made submissions included the Rail, Tram and Bus Unions Retired Members Association and the CFMMEU. The Association has been conducting a long campaign to ensure repurposed state heritage sites such as the former Eveleigh Locomotive Workshops in Redfern include the stories of the many industrial and political struggles forged by generations of workers. The Eveleigh Locomotive Workshops were the heart of the NSW rail system in an era when publicly owned workshops produced hundreds of locomotives and were at the forefront of technological innovation.

The Workshops were the epicentre of the 1917 great strike and were crucial in the formation of the labour party, the creation of the shop committee movement and struggles for equal pay for aboriginal workers.

This was in an era were union coverage of the 3000 strong workforce was almost 100% and working conditions, in an era which predated OHS legislation, was dirty and dangerous. Workers and their unions formed social clubs and were the backbone of local community organisations, sporting and civic institutions.

The fabric of working class organisations is all but ignored in heritage conservation. As eminent labour historian Professor Lucy Taksa has observed “emphasis on the conservation of material culture has concealed the workers experiences beneath Eveleigh’s tangible heritage. All that remains are ghosts and machines.”

Outcomes of the Review

The Review noted that Intangible Cultural Heritage had emerged as a key area of concern with a demonstrable gap in the architecture of the Act. It didn’t reflect structural changes to the economy and that there was scope to align the Act to a more contemporary understanding of heritage , including more explicit recognition that heritage consists of more than just built or tangible items.

The Review Committee observed ‘’ the most vocal advocate of this position was the RTBU RMA which considered the current act to be fabric centric , a bias reflected in its definitions, objects and other elements such as the statutory functions of the Heritage Council.

The Chair of the Heritage Council in evidence “acknowledged what he termed an Anglo -Saxon dominant view of state heritage listings.” The Committee commented “the state heritage register was considered inadequate in reflecting the diverse social and cultural fabric of the community, specific attention should be given to migrant communities, indigenous communities, women and other groups.”

The Committee made a recommendation “that the NSW government amend the Heritage Act to explicitly reflect contemporary concerns, thinking and approaches to heritage conservation including intangible cultural heritage”

Aboriginal cultural Heritage:

NSW has fallen behind other jurisdictions. Some submission advocated for aboriginal cultural heritage to be under the umbrella of the Heritage Act, others especially aboriginal organisations argued for stand-alone legislation that was designed through community consultation and a co-design process based on aboriginal self-determination.

The Review made a number of recommendations. They included ,the NSW Government as a matter of priority, progress the reform of aboriginal  cultural heritage legislation and that “ the NSW Government allocate specific funding for an Aboriginal War Memorial Museum and work with Aboriginal people across NSW , including traditional owners and the NSW Aboriginal Land Council to progress this proposal.”

Increasing the involvement of Local Communities and Councils.

The strong involvement in the Review of community organisations was acknowledged in a number of the Committees recommendations. These included:

  • The Act provides increased opportunity for community participation and co-design in the identification, protection and management of heritage.
  • The Government introduce, on a trial basis, a community driven early round nomination process calling for potential state heritage register nominations.
  • The Government investigate the application of a scheme similar to the UK Enterprise Grants Scheme and consider creating a fund to assist with the adaptive reuse of public and private properties and in particular in disadvantaged communities
  • The Heritage Council include a local government representative.

The Review outcomes did not respond positively to a number of issues raised by unions and communities. These included

  • Significant dissent concerning the detrimental impacts of dividing state heritage items by categories,
  • A failure to ensure real independence of the Heritage Council and its ability to directly employ its own staff and engage professional assistance and
  • The continuing ability of the provisions of the planning system that allow the removal or dilution of state heritage protections for items that are subject of state significant development applications. Some minor improvements were made in this contentious area.

The NSW Government is required to respond to the 26 recommendations of the Committee within six months. Important steps have been taken to modernise the Act to reflect contemporary concepts, thinking and approaches to heritage conservation. As always many of the recommendations will be dependent on the availability of government funding and a number require further investigation. This struggle is far from over. 

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