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Why the Negativity from Council?

Agnieshka Kiera

This article was first posted as a entry in the former Fremantle Society blog for 24 February 2016.

It has been interesting to read various public responses to Fremantle Society’s attempt to promote nomination of a larger area of Fremantle for State Heritage listing than what is currently proposed. From the derogatory and personal attacks of Roel Loopers, through Cr Coggin misinterpretation of John Dowson’s intentions, to the Mayor’s misreading of the initiative as an attack on the City of Fremantle and/or Heritage Office.

What an extraordinary waste of good will and resources! In a situation where the both ‘camps’ share the same objective: the due recognition of Fremantle’s heritage. And in light of one of its strongest manifestations: an active, passionate and involved community group representing Fremantle’s as a social capital i.e. one of the legitimate heritage values of the city – concerned members of the community volunteering its free time for what they believe would benefit the city. The proposed state heritage listing for the historic area of Fremantle could have been used as an incredible opportunity to discuss, unite, and combine forces. After all, appreciation of the city’s heritage is not an exclusive right of politicians or bureaucrats. It has taken a long time for culture of heritage appreciation to mature in Fremantle, and the nomination itself has also taken the City of Fremantle a number of years to initiate and prepare. The opportunity to legally sanctify an area of Fremantle as a unique, intact, high quality, historic and significant to State of Western Australia, doesn’t happen often. So it’s important to get it right the first time. Instead of spite, the Mayor and the Council could show a generosity of spirit and good will, they have been claiming they are motivated by, and take the Society’s proposal into consideration. To discuss support and, ideally arrive at a consolatory rather than divisive decision.

So what the argument is about?

1. Despite plenty of statutory evidence to the contrary, the City of Fremantle chose and negotiated with WA Heritage Office nomination of a fragment of the historic centre of Fremantle for state heritage listing, the area commonly referred to as the west end;

2. In accordance with the well-researched and documented evidence, Fremantle Society is advocating nomination of the larger area, which includes Town Hall, Railway Station, Fremantle Markets and Arthur Head.

Fremantle Society’s action to call public meeting in order to seek its members comment on the Executive Committee’s proposal is a legitimate part of the nomination process, since Heritage Office is obliged to consult with the community and seek feedback on the proposed nomination early on in the process. In this light Cr Coggin’s public argument (Fremantle Herald 22/2/16) that John Dowson is ‘whinging about Fremantle’s achievements in maintaining and boosting our unique built heritage’ is, at the very least, grossly misinformed. While Steve Grant’s article (Fremantle Herald 22/2/16) appears bogged down by the personal assertions and commentary by other sources, because surprisingly, the Herald didn’t even bother to turn up at the Fremantle Society’s meeting to provide its own and accurate account of an important community debate.

There is no surprise that heritage is highly contestable area, all various shades of grey. Heritage is no mathematical science, so whoever is expressing an opinion could be right. This is why the State Heritage nomination process specifies undertaking a rigorous and comprehensive heritage study that identifies heritage values of an area as objectively as possible. The documentary evidence required by the State Government is a critical first step of the nomination process and, ultimately, form the most objective basis for the final judgment regarding boundaries of the area. In 2011, when the City of Fremantle initiated the nomination process, it formed the community-based group to oversee it and had commissioned an expert to research, evaluate and define the area’s significance as prescribed by Heritage Office. The report produced the required evidence and arrived at a comprehensive statement of significance for the larger area’s boundaries, making sure that heritage of Fremantle is well assessed, considered and argued. In this respect it is the Fremantle Society’s support for nominating the expert recommended larger area that complies with the State Heritage statutory requirements, while the City’s and Heritage Office’s does not. To date neither the Council nor Heritage Office offered any comparable and compelling expert evaluation to support their nomination of the reduced area.

Mr Mayor’s published argument that the west end is the most intact and legible example of gold rush architecture might represent his personal view, but it’s not backed up by the evidence. The same aesthetic value applies equally strongly to the larger area proposed by Fremantle Society. In addition and as the official entry on the State Heritage register demonstrates, there are proportionally as many individually listed gold rush buildings in the west end as is in the proposed larger area. And, adversely and proportionally, in both areas are comparable number of the not-gold-rush infill buildings. Yet the larger area not only offers to list the whole historic centre. It would provide a transition zone around the west end to protect its integrity while the reduced area offers no such transition. So nominating the Fremantle Society’s larger area provides much solid rationale for a prudent conservation master planning in addition and as a next step to heritage recognition.

To include the larger area on the State Register would form a base for translating heritage listing into the planning standards and controls in the listed area, providing framework for development PRIOR to development taking place. It would give the City of Fremantle opportunities to seek heritage funding, making heritage agreements, ensuring harmony of new development within and around the listed area, including curtilage, landscaping and public spaces PRIOR to development submissions and with a main objective to ensure public benefits. The current, much more generic LPS4 zoning and height control offer no such prudent mechanism as it has no design process to inform the outcome at any scale prior to development taking place. Instead it provides framework for the developers’ lead growth of the city immediately adjacent to the heritage area. The only opportunity for the City and the State to intervene is to slightly moderate aspects of the proposed development AFTER a developer has submitted a proposal. It is this part of the planning process that currently generates so much uncertainty, thus conflict, between the developers, authorities and community. So it is the Fremantle Society’s proposal that is about ensuring good heritage outcome, not the City’s and Heritage Office. Therefore the City’s push for a smaller area begs the question what motivates the Council and Heritage Office to fight the community and insist on the fragmented nomination instead of embracing it.

Significance of an area is primarily about historic values. Streetscape values are an important aspect of it, but not constitute full weight of the area’s significance So it’s not about just the collection of gold rush buildings looking pretty, but about the historic town centre, including the street network, Kings Square, and the city’s symbol and landmark, Town Hall. The Land and Environment Court of NSW involves a number of cases where the precedence of an area significance based on its historic rather than solely aesthetic values was fought and won by local governments.

The WA prevailing culture propagates the view that heritage stands in a way of development. The developers’ lead development, to be precise. Yet heritage decisions don’t belong solely to Elected Members. In this respect the community, Council staff, the Minister for Planning, STAT, even the developers make heritage decisions. The latter mainly by looking for the loopholes, lobbying and sometimes winning on appeals, if only in the statistical 1% of cases. So in light of the conflicting perception of values, it is even more important to be flexible and generous rather than autocratic. It is important to ensure that the procedural fairness and transparency forms basis for the final decision regarding deciding boundaries of an area. Planning system and the government should serve public interest. Contrary to Roel Loopers’s bitter assertion, what Dr Carmen Lawrence advocated in her presentation was the many reasons for celebrating shared heritage. Especially where there is an opportunity to stand by the community and its values. Come on Mr Mayor and the Elected Members – as the decision makers serving your own community, and in the interest of public benefit, consider being conciliatory, inclusive, generous, flexible and supportive in recognising our shared heritage instead of ‘fighting’ your own community for, what appears to be politically motivated, if not frivolous, reasons.

Agnieshka Kiera

Ma Arch AICOMOS member of CIVVIH + ICTC
24. Feb. 16

(former Fremantle Council heritage architect for 25 years)

References and Links

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