Should We Heritage List Australian Cities?

Thursday, June 25th, 2015
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Broken Hill recently became the first Australian city to be included on the National Heritage list, with the town’s mining history helping it to gain the unique honour.

Broken Hill joins 102 other sites – from Tasmania’s Port Arthur to the Sydney Opera House to the Great Barrier Reef and the Great Ocean Road – as examples of places of “outstanding significance to the nation.”

However, at a time when governments are trying to reduce ‘green tape’ and bureaucracy, is heritage listing a good thing?

This is something people in Canberra have been discussing as calls come from local experts to heritage list the national capital in recognition of its significance as a symbol of federation and an exemplar of 20th century planning.

But a living, breathing city can’t simply be dipped in amber and preserved. Cities change to accommodate the changing needs of their citizens.

Walter Burley Griffin’s vision for Canberra, laid out more than a century ago, was one of the great city plans of an idealist age. Today, the city designed for a population of 25,000 people is home to more than 380,000.

The vast majority of Canberra’s residents have very different life expectations to those imagined by Walter Burley Griffin. Family sizes have shrunk while disposable incomes have grown. Residents are living longer and people – both young and old – want the choice to live close to work, services, entertainment and public transport options. They want a vibrant café culture, galleries tucked into hidden laneways, restaurants overlooking the lake, libraries and museums just a walk away – and all of these things require development.

And it’s development that would be at stake if a heritage listing were to occur. ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr has acknowledged that the regulatory burden associated with a heritage listing would have a “negative impact on jobs and the economy in the ACT by hitting business confidence and investment.”

Importantly, heritage listing a city does not provide any additional recognition or protection of heritage qualities or values above and beyond those enshrined in existing legislation and statutory planning documents.

Heritage listing can, however, impose potentially onerous and costly referral and approval requirements on development, and duplicate existing approval processes. Imposing further hurdles on property investment may lead to economic strangulation in certain parts of a city.

A National Heritage listing may also encourage NIMBYism – creating an additional avenue through which vexatious or frivolous objections to development could be made. The impact would increase the costs and reduce the viability of development.

We can’t be sure of the true value of a heritage listing. We can be certain that it would impede development, and compromise our ability to create a vibrant, modern and liveable national capital for the citizens of Canberra and the citizens of the nation.

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