Ballarat, Australia, March 15, 2017: Exterior view of historic buildings in the rural Victorian historic gold mining town of Ballarat, Victoria, Autralia

Why has the word “heritage” become such a polarising term? It has now become part of many binaries:










Closed to change


Open to change




Heritage is used politically, for example: to divide, to gain advantage, to oppose development, to promote development, to thwart neighbours, to push agendas, to increase property values, to decrease property values..

Over the coming months, this column will explore the nature of the heritage industry  with a special focus on NSW in all its complexities. It will try to unravel some of the convoluted decisions being made around some of our historic sites and examine in detail the changing nature of heritage in our 21st century cities, and why this is important.

But first, some history of heritage in New South Wales

It’s nearly 50 years since the NSW Heritage Act was promulgated in 1977. This act established the Heritage Council of NSW, its supporting office, the process for listing items of heritage significance on the State Heritage Register, and the means for protection and conservation of the state’s heritage. The EP&A (Environmental Protection & Assessment Act) followed two years later in 1979, allowing local councils to establish LEPs (local environment plans) with heritage lists and conservation areas. These two pieces of planning legislation provided a well-designed, two-tier system for heritage identification and protection at state and local levels.

The timing of the heritage act was the result of a number of coinciding movements, occurring internationally, nationally and locally. In 1974, Australia became one of the first countries to ratify the World Heritage Convention (WHC) recently adopted by UNESCO. The WHC was part of the spirit of post-war internationalism where countries sought to celebrate shared values rather than differences. Australia enthusiastically embraced the notion of shared global heritage values to be cherished and protected by the whole planet, and now has 20 places inscribed on the World Heritage List, the latest being Budj Bim, inscribed in 2019.

When the Whitlam Labor government came into office in December 1972, a committee of enquiry into the National Estate was set up, chaired by Justice RM Hope. The committee had wide terms of reference – covering natural, indigenous and historic heritage.

It asked big questions: what made up our national estate; what role should the Australian government play in its preservation and enhancement and how could local groups, such as National trusts of Australia, be supported by public funds to increase their effectiveness?

The committee reported to federal parliament in August 1974 that “…uncontrolled development, economic growth and ‘progress’ to that time had had a very detrimental effect on Australia’s national estate…and called for…prompt action and public education to prevent further neglect and destruction”.

Meanwhile, at state level, a battle between government-led development and local conservation groups was waging in The Rocks, Sydney. The full story of the fight for the Rocks from 1965 to 1979 is a complex one, told eloquently and equitably in Jim Colman’s book The House that Jack Built: Jack Mundey, Green Bans Hero (NewSouth Publishing 2016). This was a time of intense public debate between heritage conservation and development. The societal values that emerged and crystallised during this period have subsequently shaped the urban form of Sydney.

Similar debates were occurring in other cities around the world. In New York, city planner Robert Moses’ vision for a modern city of expressways and tower blocks was opposed by Jane Jacob’s grass-roots movement to retain the finer-grained historic fabric of the city. Jacobs’ 1961 seminal text The Death and Life of Great American Cities continues to inspire urban urban design students today. In London, Sir William Holford’s plans to modernise the war-damaged areas around Euston Arch and St Paul’s Cathedral were opposed by grass-roots movements concerned about the loss of historic fabric and community memory.

During this period in Sydney, as in other world cities, two key ideas emerged: firstly, the need for formal public participation in the design of cities, and secondly a more rigorous planning system and way of assessing heritage significance. Thus, it transpired that by the end of the 1970s, NSW had established legislation to guide the city’s planning in the form of the Heritage Act (1977), Environmental Protection & Assessment Act (1979), and the Land & Environment Court Act (1979).

The federal government’s ratification of the UNESCO WHC in 1974 led to an Australian branch of the United Nations-sponsored International Council on Monuments and Sites was formed in 1976.

This non-government organisaiton promotes expertise in the conservation of place-based cultural heritage and is one of over 100 current ICOMOS national committees.

One of itsfirst acts to work on a local version of the Venice Charter to guide the preservation and restoration of ancient monuments and sites.

Australia members felt that the Venice Charter was too focused on ancient monuments and not broad enough for the Australian context. The subsequent charter, adopted in the South Australian town of Burra in 1979 has since been known simply as The Burra Charter.  

It introduced forms of cultural heritage beyond tangible and physical forms. In 1982, James Semple Kerr published The Conservation Plan, which “outlines the logical processes of the Burra Charter, and how to prepare a conservation plan to guide and manage change to a heritage item… of European cultural significance”’.

Together, these form the basis of our national heritage practice. Both documents have been revised several times and have been exported internationally as a template providing guidelines for heritage practice globally.

In one profoundly productive decade, from 1972 to 1982, the foundations of our current heritage system were established. These were innocent days, full of hope for the future.

Future columns will cover the fall and occasional rise of this system and its effectiveness in influencing the planning outcomes of our cities from 1982 to the present.

In news to hand

From 31 August to 9 September 2023, Australia ICOMOS will be hosting the 21st Triennial General Assembly of ICOMOS International at the International Convention Centre in Sydney. Around 1500 professionals from across the globe will be arriving in Sydney representing heritage, archaeology. historians, urban planning, architects and academia. The theme of the five-day symposium is “heritage changes” – with sub-themes: resilience, responsibility, rights and relationships ­reflects the tumultuous changes taking place in the world, but also a positive message about the role of our heritage in supporting rapid recovery and inclusive approaches.

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  1. The NSW Heritage Act grew out of the optimism and activism of the 1970s. Submissions to the recent review of this Act suggested how we might recapture the spirit this legislation, but the outcomes seemed to fall short of what could have been achieved. Look forward to more installments in this series. Here are the submissions to the parliamentary review …

  2. ..Why has the word “heritage” become such a polarising term? …..because it gets in the way of developers.