Delays by councils create heritage headache

THE failure of municipalities to complete their inventories of heritage places is adding to the headache facing developers.

In 1990, the Heritage of Western Australia Act was introduced to bring WA into line with most of its eastern states counterparts. Prior to this buildings were unprotected.

The Act created the Heritage Council of WA, whose main function is to compile and maintain a register of heritage places.

As well as these centralised lists, each municipal council was required to compile an inventory of places within its jurisdiction by February 1995 and give it to the Heritage Council.

Almost five years later, fourteen councils in WA still have not completed their historic building inventories, including the cities of Perth and Fremantle.

As such, these councils are in breach of the law but there are no provisions within the Heritage Act for the Heritage Council or government to impose any penalties.

Palassis Architects conservation practitioner Ian Boersma said the councils were liable for failure to seriously address the inventory of buildings.

“The City of Perth, I think at the moment, can be held negligent because it doesn’t have its inventory together,” Mr Boersma said.

He said if a building was bought after 1995 and then declared heritage, the City of Perth could be held accountable.

Heritage Council special projects manager Mike Betham said the inaction of the councils would be addressed in the new Heritage Bill before parliament.

Under the proposals of the new Bill, the Heritage Council is able to ‘take over’ the listing of a building if the councils fail to do so.

Costs incurred in this process will need to be paid for by the local councils and failure to do so will result in court action by the Heritage Council. The Bill effectively gives the Heritage Council more teeth.

Mr Boersma agreed something had to be done.

“When a local council is not cooperating, the Heritage Council should have the power to step in,” he said.

Mr Boersma said some owners were losing money because they had purchased property in good faith, only to find later it would be heritage listed.

“The authorities have a duty to make people aware if there is a likelihood of there being an encumbrance.

“The City of Perth is letting down investors. There is so much uncertainty while we don’t have a comprehensive municipal list.

“It doesn’t give developers a clear picture from which to work.”

In September Perth City Councillor Noel Semmens said it had to sort out its municipal inventory quickly.

Property Council of Australia WA property research officer Anthony Shields said owners and developers alike had unduly borne costs associated with the listing of a heritage building, while the benefits were enjoyed by the whole community.

Mr Shields said, while the Property Council recognised the need for good quality heritage buildings, the opportunity costs of keeping such a building were unfair to the owner. This was particularly the case in Perth because of the high stakes involved.

He said the owner should be provided with some incentives and tax breaks to lighten the load.

Mr Betham believes the number of buildings worth preserving is at least double the current number.

The Heritage Council uses criteria such as whether the building has aesthetic, historic, scientific or social value to deem a building worthy of heritage listing.

In 1998, 135 buildings were assessed. In 1999-2000 the aim is to assess ninety-five buildings and register about seventy of these. By June 2000 the Heritage Council aims to have about 730 buildings registered.

Currently, the heritage issue is a legal minefield for developers, because they may be listed on two or three registers.

Those involved with heritage buildings say the biggest problem is putting a quantitative value on those properties.

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