Our finite and irreplaceable heritage fabric is disappearing from our towns and cities. On September 13 we all have to vote in the local government elections. Many councils will have a large turnover, with councillors retiring. It’s never been more important to have candidates elected who understand and genuinely support heritage issues. As a former Newcastle City Councillor (1995-2004) I know how hard it is to get the heritage message across to fellow councillors, staff and the community. With the NSW Government’s recent “reforms” of planning and heritage legislation, the task of protecting and identifying heritage has become even much harder, as indicated by the Trust’s campaign led by our President, Dr. Zeny Edwards. Candidates may claim to support heritage, but the acid test is whether they are prepared, in the face of development pressures, to vote to protect heritage items against demolition or unsympathetic change. It’s important to look at candidates’ CVs and past records. Councils need committed heritage supporters. The Trust’s Sydney headquarters staff has played a leadership role in the long community campaign to save the nationally significant, coastal mining village of Catherine Hill Bay from gross over development. We understand that Federal Heritage and Environment Minister Peter Garrett (who recently saved Nobbys from an unacceptable, in heritage terms, development proposal) has expressed an interest in the issue. Will the State Government cave in to development pressures?Newcastle City Council has just reopened Fort Scratchley to the public, with free admission, after several years and $ 12 million of Federal funds spent in conservation works prior to the handover to Council. It looks splendid, the restoration work was impeccable, the views are magnificent and the tunnels are reopened (for a modest fee) and staffed by volunteers from Fort Scratchley Historical Society. The only negative side is the large, intrusive multi-purpose centre nearby, erected without input or approval from the elected council or genuine community consultation. It is necessary for fundraising activities but its poorly chosen site makes it blight on what is otherwise a very positive heritage outcome for the region.
The former Newcastle Post office is another concern. It has been empty since being closed in 2002 and the out-of-town speculators who own it have left it to rot since they gained development approval in 2006 to convert it to a hotel. Its condition is a disgrace- boarded up, with its stonework covered in graffiti and squatters in residence .It was listed on the State Heritage Register in 2000 and consequently, its protection is a clear State Government (not Council) responsibility but they appear reluctant to take any action. Its best future use, in my view, would be in the ownership of our University, as part of their strategy of closer links between “town and gown” in Newcastle CBD.
Newcastle City Hall (completed in 1929) is one of the region’s cultural jewels and a major architectural achievement of Henry Eli White, who also designed the nearby Civic Theatre, Sydney’s State Theatre and many other (mostly demolished) cinemas in Australia, his native New Zealand and The USA. Its good news that Newcastle City Council has just endorsed a conservation management plan (the first draft was completed back in 2002!) to guide future maintenance and conservation works. Council has a daunting task to conserve the crumbling sandstone facade, estimated to cost about $11 million. The building was meant to have a rendered façade, but a last minute change resulted in sandstone being used. The spalling decay of large areas of its surface was the result of a poor decision to use cheaper iron rather than stainless steel or bronze for the tie pins. The iron has gradually rusted and expanded, blowing and cracking the stone work. Council is negotiating to procure rare “yellow block” sandstone from the Government’s dwindling quarry stock for the sections of stone that must be replaced. The task will take several years and the Trust will keep a watching and supportive brief.