The NSW government has ignored the advice of its own heritage bodies and relied on private opinion to deny Sydney’s brutalist Sirius building heritage protection and move forward with sale plans by year’s end.

The move has been labelled “reckless” by Save Our Sirius Foundation chair Shaun Carter, who said it was an ignorant decision made by an out of touch government. Federal Labor minister Anthony Albanese on Thursday also voiced his disappointment.

The building, which was recently placed on the 2018 World Monuments Watch list, has been at the centre of a long controversy after the NSW government announced plans in 2014 to sell off the iconic site to make way for a $120-180 million apartment development. The sale had been scuppered by a recommendation for heritage listing by the independent Heritage Council and legal action when the former environment minister refused such a listing.

Sent back to the drawing board on a heritage determination, environment minister Gabrielle Upton said on Wednesday that while distinctive, she did not consider Sirius “a landmark worthy of state heritage protection” on aesthetic grounds.

“I do not believe that that the Sirius Building is important in demonstrating aesthetic characteristics and/or a high degree of creative or technical achievement in NSW, and this criterion is not met.”

On the other criterion the Heritage Council had recommended state heritage listing – rarity – Ms Upton said:

“The Heritage Council considered that a rare combination of events, including green bans and development pressure on low income residents, resulted in the development of a brutalist public housing building in the Rocks. While this may be an uncommon combination of circumstances it does not mean the building has heritage significance for the state of NSW.

“On balance, after considering the Heritage Council’s recommendation and the submissions, I am of the view that the Sirius apartment building is not of state heritage significance.”

An artist’s impression of the scale of development that could be sought on the Sirius site.

Private advice trumps independent

Save Our Sirius made a Freedom of Information request for submissions regarding heritage listing Sirius, which have been viewed by The Fifth Estate. It believes a submission prepared by the NSW Department of Family and Community Services, featuring input from five organisations and experts, has been given more weight than the Heritage Council’s views. All experts determined that Sirius failed to meet any of the seven criteria for State Heritage listing, and Ms Upton’s judgment refers to many of the points brought up by these experts in the FACS submission.

Mr Carter told The Fifth Estate the government had placed “private hired heritage opinion” above that of its own independent council.

“You need these independent expert groups that can provide frank and fearless advice so you know what you should value,” he said

“The Heritage Council is not out of control. They list 24-28 buildings a year.”

He said it was rare for the council to recommend heritage listing on two criteria, unanimously, with the decision also supported by bodies including the National Trust, City of Sydney, AIA and Historic Houses Association.

“These are significant and substantial bodies that understand social, cultural and heritage [significance].”

Pursuing a development agenda

The registering of the building has been strongly opposed by Property NSW and the NSW Land and Housing Corporation, arguing that it could affect the price of the proposed sale by as much as $70 million, leading to less money to be reinvested into social housing.

Previous heritage minister Mark Speakman had refused to list Sirius because, whatever it’s heritage significance, it was outweighed by the “undue financial hardship” a listing would have caused the government.

This was challenged in the courts, where it was ruled that financial hardship was not the same as financial loss. With the state government this week announcing a $5.7 billion surplus in 2016-17, an improvement of $1.2 billion from budget estimates, it was unsurprising this line of refusal was not pursued again.

Artist’s impression of the scale of development that could be seen on the Sirius site

Mr Carter said the government’s decision was motivated by a development agenda and a cultural war.

“Let’s be clear about this, it is a decision based on a massive development play – 250 apartments on this site where only 79 now sit, and it’s part of the current government’s cultural war to get rid of a building they see as a symbol of the left,” Mr Carter said.

“People like [treasurer Dominic] Perrottet and [social housing minister Pru] Goward see Sirius as a symbol of the left and they want to knock it down. To forever remove a social and cultural symbol that contains the storyline of the green bans movement. This building was only born because of the green ban movement, Jack Mundey, and the preservation of the Rocks.”

He said people might not like the current building, but it would only be replaced by something of enormous scale.

“If you don’t like Sirius, imagine how much less you’ll like this.”

Federal Labor minister Anthony Albanese has also spoken out, calling the decision a “tragedy”, and saying it was about much more than the building itself.

“For decades, the location of public housing in the heart of our city has been symbolic of the spirit of Sydney,” he said.

“The fact is successful cities are inclusive cities, not disconnected enclaves of privilege and disadvantage.”

Mr Carter said the matter had been referred to the Environmental Defenders Office, “and if there’s a millimetre of space to mount a challenge, we will.”

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