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Heritage rules need settling

THE Heritage Bill 1999 is currently making its way through the State parliamentary machine.

The proposed legislation is being promoted as improvements and reforms to the 1990 Heritage Act. Resulting from a review of the Act back in 1995, the so called improvements have been a long time coming.

Some of us might not readily recollect what the 1995 review concluded, what changes it recommended and why.

It is therefore timely to remind ourselves what heritage conservation is all about.

The Property Council supports heritage conservation. In fact, our members spend millions of dollars every year restoring and maintaining our built heritage.

At the same time we need to understand our cities are not museums. They perform a vast number of functions – commercial, social and cultural to name a few.

Heritage conservation cannot be pursued independently of these activities.

The challenge for heritage conservation is to blend the old with the new – to allow cities to grow and mature yet preserve important structures in the city’s history. This is what gives a city character.

One of the major difficulties facing property developers – and for that matter regulators – is the absence of criteria.

Employing terms such as ‘notable’, ‘extraordinary’, ‘outstanding’ and ‘pioneering’ have allowed restrictions to grow without the support and agreement of key stakeholders.

In addition to official heritage registers, numerous registers have also been set up by local councils, government agencies, historical societies and professional institutes.

While many of these lists have no statutory significance, they have become de facto waiting lists for the official registers that are already overloaded, extending in many cases to items of unproven heritage significance.

These unofficial lists sometimes become the basis for unreasonable expectations on the part of advocacy groups and the community.

There is a clear need for the WA Government to take a more active lead in heritage matters.

Statutory lists should enjoy reputation and credibility sufficient to discourage others from campaigning on the basis of alternative wish-lists.

The first step to improving heritage legislation is to revisit and set down commonsense criteria and procedures to determine what the community really wants to keep.

l Joe Lenzo is chief executive of the WA branch of the Property Council of Australia.

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