Natural and Cultural Heritage Theme Report

Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 (Theme Report)
Lead Author: Jane Lennon, Jane Lennon and Associates Pty Ltd, Authors
Published by CSIRO on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06752 3

State of government protection and funding of heritage places (continued)

Government rationalisation and organisational change

  • Commonwealth disposals
  • Changes in government organisation
  • Providing the skills to achieve heritage protection
  • Conclusion and implications regarding government rationalisation, organisational changes and provision of skills
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    Government rationalisation programs are having a significant effect on heritage assets - railways, post offices, defence properties, hospitals, education facilities, fire stations, court houses, health centres and other identified and potential heritage places across Australia - through having their uses changed, or being sold by governments.

    In part, governments are responding to (and sometimes driving) changes in technology, due in part to changing perceptions of economic viability of government services, and in part to changing concepts about the proper role of government. At the local government level, council area amalgamations, orchestrated by State governments which control the mechanisms of local government, have left many council facilities redundant. In affluent areas these may be used for other council functions, or sold for other uses; but in more depressed areas buildings can be left vacant and deteriorating, or demolished.

    At the State, Territory and Commonwealth level, the changes have affected infrastructure such as railways, and heritage buildings previously used by government agencies. The most controversial of these, on a national level, has been the changes in postal services, which has seen the retail functions moved to smaller, more cost-effective premises and bulk mail handling moved to industrial areas, leaving many heritage post office buildings without an ongoing postal use. The Commonwealth has also disposed of a large number of lighthouses during the reporting period, mainly to state government agencies. Other major changes have occurred in the use of customs houses, court houses and defence properties, among others, leaving many heritage properties either vacant or converted to other uses.

    The changing rural infrastructure of the wheat belt in Western Australia

    The rationalisation of the government railway infrastructure throughout rural Western Australia is having a serious effect on the heritage of the wheat belt area.

    The railways were developed from the early 1900s in association with the government policies to open up agricultural land. Towns and communities were established around the railway sidings. Most of the lines closed to passengers during the 1950s and are now open only during the grain-harvesting season, if indeed there is still a line. Vacant and often derelict railway stations are often the only reminder of the railway presence. There are a handful of water tanks and some goods sheds left, but very little other infrastructure such as turntables. Some local government authorities have leased railway stations from Westrail (the State Government railway organisation), but recent changes in government policy has resulted in Westrail requiring local councils to take over maintenance responsibilities for the railway station (and other associated elements), which may otherwise be demolished.

    Although there is also a government policy that places built prior to 1940 undergo heritage assessment before government disposal, some railway places are post-1940, and others are overlooked. Local communities and local government authorities are short of funds at the best of times and often do not have the capacity to take over derelict buildings that have been neglected for many years, nor to conserve a water tower, for example, that no longer has a useful function.

    The major banks are also making a mass exodus from regional Western Australia (a situation which is occurring throughout Australia) and leaving a string of vacant buildings, due to the general decline in population in many of the smaller inland rural towns. This means a reduction of available services and inevitably empty shops in the main streets, which in turn threatens public facilities such as the community town halls.

    Funding is more available and local councils more inclined to contribute to large multipurpose recreational centres, usually located on the fringes of the towns to the detriment of the town's layout and sense of activity. Then, the centrally located town halls fall into disrepair, as they are used only a few times a year and then become a liability, as councils are reluctant to spend money on maintenance or conservation.

    The more remote rural halls which may be more authentic (due to lack of change and lack of funds over the years) are at more risk, as they are much less liable to attract council support for maintenance as rural communities are reducing and dispersing. Once building and health surveyors declare them unsafe and a public liability due to lack of maintenance, the next step is demolition.... These halls are disappearing all over Australia.

    Source: Burke (2000).

    Questions have been raised by the public and by government inquiries as to whether governments have taken sufficient action to ensure the protection of heritage values and minimisation of adverse impacts in this process. A number of States have responded by legislating for better identification of the heritage places owned by government agencies, and bringing them under tighter planning control. The Commonwealth has been slow in taking such action, despite the recommendations of the Committee of Review into Commonwealth Owned Heritage Property (Schofield 1996). However, a Commonwealth Heritage List of government-owned heritage places is included in the Environment and Heritage Legislation Amendment Bill tabled in Parliament in December 2000, which includes requirements for protecting heritage values.

    The importance of heritage to tourism has been recognised by governments because of the economic benefits, but as a community we seem unable to provide funds to heritage for educational purposes for our long-term social well-being. Cultural heritage responsibilities tend to be placed in the environment portfolio, even though heritage is relevant to environment, tourism, planning and infrastructure, education, and (in the case of museums and moveable heritage) the arts. Cross-portfolio funding is required to produce benefits in each of these areas.

    Commonwealth disposals

    '... it has been the disposal of many Commonwealth heritage properties that has engendered the greatest feelings of confusion, anger and loss in local communities which feel powerless to influence decisions that impact directly on the social structure of their towns and cities.'

    - Schofield (1996, p. 62)

    The most vocal community response has probably been to the disposal of post offices and lighthouses, because these are prominent buildings in towns or in the regional landscape, and many of them have been affected.

    While there appear to be no reliable figures for the rate of disposal in the period 1990-1995, the Coordination Council on the release of Commonwealth land identified that of the 292 places scheduled for disposal between 1994 and 1999, 44 were on the Register of the National Estate. Table 28 shows the number of properties reported as divested by Australia Post, the Defence Housing Authority, Department of Defence, Department of Finance, CSIRO, and Australian Maritime Safety Authority. Some 106 Commonwealth places in the Register of the National Estate were reported as actually disposed of by Australia Post and the Defence Housing Authority, which is double the 1994 projection. It is not known whether this increase was due to more of the 292 places scheduled for disposal being assessed as being of heritage value (such as the 65 places proposed for disposal by the Maritime Safety Authority, including many lighthouses), or due to an increase in the overall projected number that resulted from the inclusion of registered places. About 40% of the divested places were in NSW.

    Table 28: Number of Commonwealth Government heritage properties divested, 1996-2000.
    Year 1996-97 1997-98 1998-99 1999-2000 2000-01 Total
    Number 36 51 48 26 10 171

    Source: Historic Environment Section, Australian Heritage Commission.

    Despite the apparent asset sales, 24% of disposed places were leased back (see Table 29), and one can assume that their heritage values were retained. The survey of historic places undertaken in 2000 identified a number of former Commonwealth and State or Territory heritage buildings that were vacant or under-used and in deteriorating condition, suggesting that protective mechanisms were not working adequately in at least some cases. It is also of interest that the New South Wales Audit Office examined the effectiveness of long-term leasing versus ownership for the housing of agencies involved with the delivery of core government activities. While acknowledging that the question of ownership versus leasing can be complex, studies indicated that it is generally more cost-effective to own accommodation than to enter long-term leases (NSW Parliament 1997, p.2).

    Table 29: Number of Commonwealth Government heritage properties divested but leased back during each year.
    Year 1996-97 1997-98 1998-99 1999-2000 2000-01 Total
    Number 10 17 3 8 2 40

    Source: Historic Environment Section, Australian Heritage Commission.

    The disposal process also affects natural and Indigenous heritage places. Where larger properties such as defence lands are being relinquished, natural and Indigenous values often have not been identified, and disposal occurs without the necessary protection.

    In some disposal cases cultural heritage values are not given primacy. In the case of a number of lighthouse disposals, for example, the State land-management agencies have been keen to acquire the properties not primarily because of a desire to conserve the historic lighthouse, but rather to ensure that the surrounding natural environment in the lighthouse reserve remained in public hands, many of them being adjacent to or surrounded by national parks, as in Victoria.

    Changes in government organisation

    'Government organisation' in this context includes the way in which each jurisdiction perceives and administers its own heritage identification and protection regime, as well as the relationship between jurisdictions. The expectations of the relative roles of government at the local, State or Territory and Commonwealth level changes over time, and major shifts in the relationship between the three levels over the last decade have resulted in legislative and administrative changes during the review period.

    There has been a steady shift of day-to-day responsibility for development planning, including heritage control, from State governments to local governments. This has resulted in an increased emphasis during the reporting period in the funding of local government heritage survey work (notably in Victoria), and the provision of local heritage advisory services nationally, as shown in Table 30. However, as indicated earlier, there is a substantial time-lag in the ability of local governments to adopt the heritage component of their increasing responsibilities. As a result, there is a disjunction between the theory of clean division of responsibilities - between Commonwealth, State and local governments - and the reality. In particular, local government is often not able to fund, as a priority, the heritage surveys necessary to prepare local heritage schemes. Some States have recognised this problem, and have tried to address it with targeted funding, but there is still a nation-wide challenge in resourcing local government to be able to undertake quality heritage studies and to implement well-founded local heritage management regimes.

    Table 30: State and Territory heritage advisory services, May 1999.
    State/Territory Heritage Advisory Service Date started Number of Council areas served by advisors
    ACT nil    
    NSW yes 1983 93
    NT yes 1994 2 (Top End, Alice Springs)
    Qld yes 1992 6
    SA yes 1987 15
    Tas. nil   3
    Vic. yes 1977 44
    WA yes 1992 6
    Total     152

    Source: Historic Environment Section, Australian Heritage Commission.

    This is taking place in an environment of generally declining public sector agency budgets for heritage place maintenance and restoration (with the exception of Victoria and New South Wales, which have put substantial resources into the area). The Commonwealth ceased its tax incentive scheme for private heritage property owners during the review period, and the scope of its heritage-related funding has been narrowed considerably, with cross-State and national research to establish context for heritage assessment and conservation being largely abandoned. This constriction of funding at the national level has to be compared with the largesse of Natural Heritage Trust funds for natural heritage and environmental protection and biodiversity conservation. The support of tourism infrastructure is receiving higher levels of funding than is conservation of the heritage places that the tourists come to see.

    The new Commonwealth heritage regime, reported on elsewhere in this report, is based in part on an assumption outlined in the introduction of the new heritage Bills in Parliament (as of December 2000) that each level of government is equally capable of taking on the responsibilities for identifying and conserving the natural and cultural heritage resource in its control. Performance over the period 1995-2000 demonstrates that this assumption does not stand up to close inspection. In terms of State of Environment reporting, there are substantial differences in the capacity of the three levels of government to report on the identification and condition of heritage places.

    In the historic heritage field, the most useful heritage database for state of environment reporting, on the continental scale, has been the Register of the National Estate. Some of the State and Territory registers are at least as good for their jurisdiction, but major differences in the capacities of the supporting databases meant that it was not possible to aggregate the State data to give a national overview. The local government inventory information was broader in the number of places it identified, and except in NSW this data was not accessible as a single database.

    In the context of the current experience, a major problem exists in the heritage regime proposed by the Commonwealth, which consists of a national list reflecting Commonwealth responsibilities, State and Territory registers representing State-level responsibilities, and Local Government registers picking up local heritage significance. The current Bills have no role for the Register of the National Estate other than to freeze its operation but would include its data in the Australian Heritage Places Inventory (AHPI, see ) which will simply become a national reporting mechanism for State registers. The State/Territory registers are constrained in most cases to listing historic heritage places that reach a significance threshold of 'State' significance. The existing State and Territory registers, with a few exceptions, do not have the breadth of the Register of the National Estate in covering natural, Indigenous and historic heritage. Indigenous heritage places are now mainly recorded and protected by operation of State and Territory legislation, albeit largely separate to the broad heritage-type legislation. In the meantime there is a very real risk of disenfranchising large parts of Australia in terms of their access to historic heritage recognition and possibly funding, and placing substantial numbers of heritage places at increased risk.

    The problem lies in the fact that the two 'top' tiers of this regime - the national list and the State and Territory registers - are in general based on thresholds that would be reached only by places with national or State significance. The remaining places, being of local significance, would be the responsibility of local governments. However, most rural local governments do not have the resources to carry out adequate systematic surveys of heritage at the local level, and to maintain that information in a useable form if it is gathered. A more basic (and in some senses linked) problem is that there is neither the experience, nor in many cases the will, to embrace heritage issues at the local government level. Many local governments are hard-pressed to maintain roads, sewerage and garbage systems, before they can consider funding a perceived 'luxury' such as heritage identification and protection.

    While the provision of heritage advisory services in many local government areas (initiated with National Estate Grants Program funds) has been successful, only a minority of local government areas have heritage registers, except in Victoria where all but two of the local government authorities have heritage planning overlays now in their planning schemes. In addition, many of the studies that have been completed in some States are of poor quality, and are by no means an adequate survey of the area's heritage places. In many cases heritage studies do not include Indigenous places or natural heritage places. This lack of local studies and their variability in quality and comprehensiveness is not likely to be solved in the foreseeable future, given that even those States that have 'required' them for many years have completed relatively few.

    The Register of the National Estate fills an important gap in providing local communities with an opportunity to have their heritage places recognised in the absence of adequate local government registers, and where the place is not sufficiently significant to meet State listing thresholds. This role is even now being reduced by agreements between the States and the Australian Heritage Commission over heritage assessment processes, and by priority-setting for the processing of outstanding nominations. The role of the Register would be removed altogether if the Australian Heritage Places Inventory was reduced to being simply a mirror of the State and Territory registers.

    Providing the skills to achieve heritage protection

    Training of heritage place and object managers and their staff is an important issue to consider when assessing the condition of Australia's heritage and the provision of government funding for such training. For some aspects of management, complex technical knowledge is required so that treatments applied in the conservation management and protection process do not damage the place or object. Well-known controversies have occurred regarding the restoration of paintings and the degree of renewal of historic fabric in building conservation, and there are many cases of well-intentioned people and unskilled working bees attempting to restore heritage objects and places, with disastrous consequences for long-term conservation.

    The data available for reporting on this issue are patchy and inadequate. The discussion below focuses on a few issues where data are available, and provides a snapshot (albeit a constrained one) of the availability of practitioners and the supply of training opportunities.

    Table 31 summarises the availability of practitioners in the historic environment field in a number of organisations and in government in general. There would seem to be a roughly steady membership in each category, in a situation where the demand is growing.

    Table 31: Membership of professional historic heritage organisations, 1999-2000. [NCH Indicator G.7]
    Organisation Number of members
    AICCMA 486
    Australia ICOMOSB 374
    AusHeritageC 39
    Professional Historians Association (NSW)D 59
    Government employeesE 73

    A The Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM) is the peak organisation for materials conservators nationally, but anyone can be a member.
    B Australia ICOMOS is the peak organisation for cultural heritage practitioners, especially in the historic heritage field. Membership requires professional qualifications or expertise in the heritage field.
    C AusHeritage is an organisation of professionals in the cultural heritage and museums management and materials conservation fields, promoting and networking Australians working internationally.
    D The Professional Historians Association (NSW) represents professional historians working in all fields, including heritage.
    E The number of government professional employees is difficult to estimate at any given time, due to definition problems (e.g. who is working in 'heritage'?), and ongoing turn-over of staff. Some States have not provided information.

    Source: Historic Environment Section, Australian Heritage Commission.

    The University of Canberra provides one example of the output of heritage practitioners. In the five-year period 1995-1999, 105 degrees in conservation fields (Indigenous and historic places management, materials conservation and museums management) were completed, but the annual rate of graduates fluctuated from a low of 12 to a high of 38. This fluctuation and general number of graduates has been roughly the same since the early 1980s.

    In 2000 there were 104 environmental management courses offering heritage management training by Universities and TAFEs around Australia, and 79 of these were degree courses. (Source: At a glance, then, it would appear that the number of training courses is adequate. The content of courses being offered has not been analysed. The section 'Indigenous control of Indigenous heritage' (later in this report) discusses the training of Indigenous professionals in more detail.

    Conclusion and implications regarding government rationalisation, organisational changes and provision of skills

    • Governments have continued to implement rationalisation programs involving their services and property portfolios.
    • Commonwealth heritage properties are being disposed of at an unrecorded rate. In the absence of action by the Commonwealth government to ensure adequate identification of heritage places under its stewardship, many places have been disposed of with no survey to assess potential heritage values, be they natural, Indigenous or historic. Without this knowledge, the Commonwealth cannot know if its disposal program has resulted in the loss of heritage places.
    • There have been inadequate safeguards applied to ensure that disposal programs do not damage heritage places. The Commonwealth has still not fully addressed the recommendations of its Committee of Review (Scholfield 1996).
    • Changes being implemented by the States and Commonwealth governments in firmly defining which level of government - Commonwealth, State and Territory or local - is responsible for different heritage issues, is proceeding in advance of adequate safeguards. Local government in particular is being given increasing responsibilities without corresponding funding.
    • Despite the number of courses currently available and the increasing number of graduates in a range of disciplines necessary for heritage conservation, there is no data available for assessing whether these meet the needs of heritage conservation managers in the natural, historic or Indigenous fields.