Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Millers Point and The Rocks: heritage under threat

As the NSW State Government moves to sell-off the social housing at Millers Point and The Rocks, the Tenants' Union's first concern is for the people who will lose their homes and community. But we are also concerned for the buildings and heritage significance of these places.

As Housing NSW's own Millers Point Conservation Management Guidelines put it, 'Millers Point is arguably one of Australia’s most remarkable historic urban places and, for Sydney, a unique jewel.'

And as the Guidelines also say:
There is no question that, had Millers Point’s land been in multiple private freehold ownerships, it would not look or feel as it does today.... government-ownership and a dedicated land-use (public housing) have been fundamental factors in the conservation of the heritage significance of Millers Point.
To consider the threat posed to the heritage significance of Millers Point and The Rocks, let's review what we know about the sell-off.

The Government proposes to sell 206 heritage-listed properties in Millers Point, and eight heritage-listed properties in Gloucester Street, The Rocks (we'll leave aside, for present purposes, the 79 properties in the Sirius building, which isn't heritage-listed. It should be – but that's a topic for a future post). That's 214 properties, all on the State Heritage Register.

This makes them an unusual commodity. If you own a State heritage-listed property, what you can do to it is heavily regulated under the Heritage Act 1977. Some things – for example, cleaning, repairs and maintenance – you can do provided you comply with detailed conditions stipulated by the Heritage Council, which in most cases includes notifying a heritage officer of what you propose to do. If you want to do anything else, you'll have to apply formally for Heritage Council approval. And with these properties, any new owners will have things to do. As the State Government has pointed out, these properties need some work, so the owners have to deal with this regulatory regime.

So taking on one of these properties really is a task for someone with special skills and enthusiasm for heritage conservation. It'll take a heritage buff. This limits the market for these properties.

As for what the State Government plans to get for them, we don't know, but when it started looking at Millers Point the figure of $500 million was mentioned – that works out, on average, to about $2.3 million per property.

Now, a previous program of sales in Millers Point raised $28 million from 29 properties, with an average sale price was $1.3 million (NSW State Government figures). Those 29 properties were sold over a period of six years.

The current proposal is for the sale of 214 properties, over a period of less than two years. The State Government wants them sold by March 2016.

You have to ask: is there really a market of heritage buffs to buy 214 State heritage-listed properties in Millers Points and The Rocks, at $1.3-2.3 million a pop, all in the next 19 months?

We put this question to a representative of the NSW Land and Housing Corporation, who said 'watch out for the international marketing campaign.' We wonder how many genuine aficionados of early twentieth century austere Arts and Crafts Australian working class housing there are outside Australia.

It seems like something has got to give.

We're worried that it will be heritage that gives, and these properties will go to buyers who don't know their obligations under the Heritage Act – or who might even deliberately subvert their obligations, and declare their properties are unsafe and beyond conserving, with a view to undertaking a more radical and intensive redevelopment that destroys the heritage significance of the place.

We understand that the Land and Housing Corporation is to review and 'augment' its Conservation Management Guidelines for Millers Point. We're concerned about what 'augmentation' really means. We're also concerned whether the Heritage Council will be able, as a practical matter, to keep tabs on the activities up to 214 new owners of State heritage listed properties.

On the other hand, maybe it will be the price that gives, and the people of New South Wales will lose a valuable asset in what amounts to a fire sale.

It would be better if the two-year time frame gave way. A longer time-frame would mean a better chance of getting value for the properties, from buyers able to conserve them. It would also mean that not every current social housing tenant of Millers Point and The Rocks would have to be moved out right away, and that long-term and older tenants in particular might be able to see out their days in their homes and community.

Best of all would be if the objective of selling all the properties gave way, and a commitment was made to keep social housing in Millers Point and The Rocks, to serve people in need of housing there, and to continue to protect this 'unique jewel' in the State's heritage.

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