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A rational debate on heritage

Amid the continuing heritage debate, recently appointed Heritage Council chairperson Patric de Villiers talks to Tracey Cook and outlines his position on the controversial topic.

 

THERE’S no doubt that heritage is a touchy subject with no easy answers.

As Heritage Council chairperson Patric de Villiers says, you can’t remove all controversy from the heritage issue – it’s the nature of the beast.

Mr de Villiers, who was appointed to the Heritage Council position late last year for an initial five-year term, believes the community dispute over heritage issues needs to be transformed into a more rational dialogue.

Armed with experience and qualifications in architecture, planning and urban design, as well as a long history in planning and development for the City of Fremantle – including a four-year stint as chief executive – Mr de Villiers comes to the job well qualified to tackle this difficult task.

“I have got the strong view that heritage should be preserved not only in terms of history, but in terms of the economic impact the heritage fabric has on the urban economy,” he said.

The tourism benefits of preserving the urban heritage are well-documented in countries with longer and richer histories than ours.

Mr de Villiers said Australia was just beginning to see, in real economic terms, the impact urban quality has on the local economy. States such as South Australia and Tasmania had experienced a turnaround in their local economies – despite the fact they were not regarded as economic power-houses – due largely to the urban quality issue, he said.

“We are starting to see real indications that urban quality is driving local economies.”

Mr de Villiers believes the issue of heritage needs to be moved into the sphere of core business of a regional centre or city.

“Heritage has got to be the pro-active part in the debate,” he told WA Business News.

It was not just community sentiment that required a shift in focus; the Heritage Council itself also needed to reformulate its approach, Mr de Villiers said.

An indication of the changing nature of the organisation is evident in the case of the Court Hotel and two derelict residential buildings on James Street.

Early last year the City of Perth approved the demolition of the Court Hotel and the two adjacent buildings to make way for a $19 million redevelopment.

However, due to the cultural significance of the buildings (which were yet to be heritage listed), the State Government stepped in with a stop work order to ensure a heritage assessment could be carried out.

The outcome of the Heritage Council’s assessment is still yet to be announced, however the Heritage Council has appointed an architect and quantity surveyor to determine the adaptive reuse of the buildings and how the retention of the buildings works out financially.

Mr de Villiers said it remained to be seen whether a solution that satisfied all involved could be found.

“But the Heritage Council is trying to work towards a solution,” he said.

“We haven’t done a lot of that in the past.”

Lack of resources continues to be an Achilles heel for the Heritage Council.

“Resourcing is a critical issue. For us to be taken seriously we need to respond in a timely manner and with a coherent response,” Mr de Villiers said.

”We are getting more and more references and more and more work, but our budget does not reflect this.”

In time, Mr de Villiers believes, more local authorities will begin to take on more responsibility for urban heritage and inject more funds towards incentive schemes and grants to assist owners maintain and improve their properties.

There is little point creating museums out of heritage buildings where people can’t even paint their front fence, he said.

“The first thing we need to do with heritage buildings is to get them used. 

“If they are used they will be maintained.”

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