Tuesday, November 3, 2009

HUNTER REGIONAL COMMITTEE NATIONAL TRUST OF AUSTRALIA (NSW) ANNUAL REPORT 2009

The Hunter Regional Committee has had another busy year. Our committee is relatively small in size but well endowed with enthusiasm, energy and experience.
The year has been one of change in the organisation of the trust state-wide with a new CEO, John Neish, and a new executive team and structure, charting a sustainable way forward with the new 20 year Strategic Plan, “Charting the future”.
A number of members attended the Committees Conference last July in Wagga Wagga, where the draft Strategic plan was debated. While we believe there are still issues to be finetuned and we hope committees have the opportunity for meaningful input with this, we support the Trust’s new way forward.
A welcome initiative has been the appointment of a regional manager, Louise Gee, to act as a link between our local committees and Sydney HQ, now to be known as the Service Centre.
The Plan has some potentially profound consequences for the Committee, given its very large nominal sphere of influence (the Hunter Region). These could include refocussing on a smaller area of interest (say, Newcastle/ Lake Macquarie), a name change to branch, re-formation of the Maitland Branch (active in the 1980s), an Upper Hunter branch or branches, a smaller membership base, the future of our regional newsletter in its current form, etc. Some changes may in reality reflect what has been a de facto situation for some time, for example the Newcastle-centric role of the Committee, given the lack of members from outside this area.
The Committee has supported the nomination by the Coal River Working Party of the Coal River precinct for the National Heritage List While the initial nomination has not been successful, we will be supporting the subsequent nomination.
Members would be aware that the Minister last year rejected the Nobbys development proposal on heritage grounds after receiving independent advice from Lucas Stapleton Partners, arguably Australia’s most distinguished conservation architects. As a result the proponent produced a second much improved proposal, which we believed was probably satisfactory in terms of State level heritage values, although may still have negatively impacted on its national level values. Recently the proponent withdrew his application and he has levelled unreasonable public criticism at “the usual suspects”, which we presume includes us.
Newcastle Port Corporation should now look at more realistic low-key proposals that protect the significance of this heritage icon and allow for meaningful public access. They could look to the many other lighthouses under the control of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, as a model.
An application authored by Ann Hardy to have James Fletcher Hospital site added to the State Heritage Register, resulting from a resolution at the last AGM, has also been submitted. The submission is largely based on the high level significance related to the convict era, in accordance with SHR guidelines.
The site may potentially be of national significance and any new development there, since the transfer of most of its mental health facilities, must respect the high cultural, aesthetic, historic and social significance of the precinct.
There are great possibilities for sensitive new uses, such as university or justice related. We cannot allow it to become yet another site for speculative commercial/residential high raise use. Already we have seen the unjustifiable demolition of a very significant building within the site, Kirkwood House, which contained much fabric from the original parsonage, dating from 1819 .All the later mid to late 19th century fabric has recently been destroyed, along with the 1880s deanery; and the 1904 reception centre, which represented state-of-the-art mental health practice when it was built. The final demolition work occurred soon after completion of the archaeological dig, but ironically, before completion and publication of the report.
Only some token fabric, a section of the original wall and cellars remain, to be conserved within a new mental health facility. As a result one of the oldest remnants of, and few tangible links with the convict era and mental health history has been destroyed.
Heritage Festival was a great success this year. We had a less ambitious program in terms of the number of events. However, the events that were held were of a high standard and well received by the community.
The 2009 National Trust Heritage Festival had as its theme ‘Our Place in Space,’ celebrating The International Year of Astronomy. We had a full program including several events organised by the Newcastle Astronomical Society and exhibitions and workshops at the Maritime Centre.

The Newcastle Festival opened with a highly successful exhibition at the Lockup by local artists interpreting the Festival theme. This was followed by a wine and heritage night at Monet’s Cottage in James Fletcher hospital, with Dr Troy Duncan as guest speaker. Newcastle University Coal River Working Party and Committee members led a walk around the precinct of the hospital and Deputy Chair Keith Parsons led several walks focussing on the Mall and railway heritage.

The annual Forum with the theme, ‘My Country, My Place’ was a moving experience. Distinguished Aboriginal speakers, Professor John Maynard, and Ray Kelly from Wollotuka, University of Newcastle, Joyce Dixon Director of the Awabakal Day Care Centre, and teacher, Sue Hodges, told of their experiences leaving their country and living in the Hunter. A memorable night!

The National Trust’s historic house museums all held impressive events and displays. Miss Porter’s House celebrated its centenary this year with special events. Other Hunter events included a bus tour of the coalfields by historian Ed Tonks. Community organisations, Friends of the Regal, the Family History Society and the Newcastle Historical Society once again organised successful events.

Our planning for next year’s festival is under way, as are several fund raisers.

We had welcome media coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald when regional and heritage correspondent Debra Jopson visited Newcastle and interviewed members for a major news story on June 8, “Out with the old: despair over city’s vanishing heritage “ highlighting the enormous threats to the heritage of the CBD, including demolition by neglect of buildings like the Post Office and Victoria Theatre, the diminished role of the NSW Heritage Council and the decision by the majority of the new Newcastle City Council last December to reject adding 13 buildings, such as the Lyric Cinema to Council’s City Centre LEP heritage schedule. This would have given the buildings legal protection. They had previously been independently assessed and recommended for addition. The previous Council had supported the listings.
The good news is that Council recently (in September) reconsidered the buildings and without debate overturned their previous decision.
A recent fundraising bus trip to Cockatoo Island, organised by Pat Turnbull with assistance from Anne Creevey was a resounding success and thoroughly enjoyed by those who attended. The island is a truly remarkable place and repository of our convict, maritime and industrial history. It also made a profit of $1060.00 for Trust funds. Many thanks to Pat and John Turnbull and Anne Creevey for their hard work.
The Trust is celebrating the recent decisions that overturned the illegal planning approval for the gross overdevelopment at the Trust Classified Catherine Hill Bay and also at Huntlee near the historic village of Branxton (a Trust classified urban conservation area). The Trust played a major part in the “Save Catho” campaign, particularly from Graham Quint. It’s a major victory for heritage, proper planning principles and people power; and a blow for the infamous part 3 A of the EP and A Act.
However, the recent approval, under part 3A of the massive development including a marina at the southern end of Lake Macquarie at Trinity Point, an environmentally significant and sensitive area is not supported.
A third major conservation issue which the Trust supports, but to date have not played an active role is the “No Tillegra Dam, Save the Williams Valley” Campaign. This will be a major project for us after the AGM. We are currently preparing a submission.
We prepared a submission on the Newcastle City Centre Renewal Report to the NSW Government, produced by the Hunter (formerly Honeysuckle) Development Corporation. The new Newcastle City Council endorsed this without waiting for production of a report and recommendations from Council Planning staff – a disturbing abuse of due process.
We strongly supported the Report’s recommendation that a large sector of the University be relocated into the City (CBD). There should be opportunities to adaptively reuse unused or underutilised heritage buildings in the city for University purposes. The University has been gradually doing this for many years: for example University (former Nesca) House and the former Peoples Palace and Northumberland County Council buildings, now the Conservatorium of Music.
However, we strongly oppose the recommended removal of rail services to Newcastle Station and the termination of the rail at Wickham. The 1858 railway line and its heritage –listed Newcastle Station (Trust classified) are essential to the present and future needs of transport in the CBD and form an integral part of the historic city. Newcastle Station is a working complex of structures built from 1878 and one of the State’s great stations. Its significance does not lie merely in the main building adjacent to Scott Street. The Trust would like to see the interior (former overnight accommodation and restaurant) sensitively restored and reused for an appropriate purpose, even though some of the significant l heritage fabric has already been removed.
The Trust is currently considering a listing proposal to classify parts of the Great Northern Railway and other threatened historic lines across the State.
We are also critical of the proposed abandonment of the existing Newcastle Courthouse (built in 1890 and classified by the Trust). The Court House and its precinct have a logical and distinctive presence, capable of expansion where they are, rather than being relocated to Honeysuckle or Civic. We also suggest that the 1981 David Madison (or Newmed) Building, an RAIA award-winning, culturally significant late 20th century building, which is listed in the Royal Australian Institute of Architects Register of Significant 20C Buildings, could be adaptively reused for court or justice-related purposes. It is currently planned for demolition in 2012 after in-principle endorsement was given by former Minister Sartor.
The new local government term has resulted in some mixed blessings tor heritage outcomes:
• Newcastle Council in particular has made some disturbing decisions. For example the approval of demolition of the art deco heritage icon, Merewether Surf House erected in 1937) and approval of a massive and intrusive reception centre/restaurant complex for this environmentally sensitive publicly owned site
• the approval of a high rise development on the former Hunter Village arcade site, which grossly exceeds Council’s 2008 LEP development standards for height and floor space ratio, setbacks, etc against their planners’ recommendation. The site lies within the CBD heritage conservation area.
• the de facto disbandment of Newcastle Strategic Heritage Committee (SHC) in October 2008, and its proposed replacement by an omnibus committee in 2010 in which heritage interests will have to compete with other unrelated ones.
• the lack of any funding for heritage initiatives in the 2009-10 Council management plan (budget). We have written to the General Manager requesting the support equivalent to that offered to the Trust for Heritage Festival before this year.
• the shameful treatment of the Palais Royale building, which was demolished after the initial condition of approval to retain the 1920s façade, was overturned on the ground of structural instability. Had the original approval required retention of the entire foyer, as we suggested, the façade could have been retained.The outcome was a heritage tragedy. For a building with high historic, aesthetic and social significance. Ironically the building with its 8 storey approval was subsequently sold and a subsequent approval given for a 2 storey KFC outlet. A recent archaeological dig on the site has revealed important Aboriginal and early European relics including footings of the 1810-12 “Government cottage”, identifiable on early Lycett paintings. The Trust is awaiting the publication of the archaeologist’s report, and given that Council gave deferred commencement consent, the opportunity exists for the relics to be retained in situ. It's a very exciting find. Let’s hope for a better outcome than for Kirkwood.
• Legacy House (Bolton St), the Menkens designed 1890s former Dangar Chambers and Water Board headquarters, which was approved for demolition despite its high cultural significance and particular its largely intact interior, is now yet another CBD vacant site.
• The 1882 Coutts Sailors Home (88 Scott St) site was the subject of a completely inappropriate, out of scale 8 storey development proposal in 2008, involving retention of only a small proportion of its heritage fabric. It was subsequently withdrawn and replaced by a very supportable proposal for 2-3 storey buildings with retention of most of the original fabric. However at the rear of the adjacent 90 Scott St site, approval has been given by the Heritage Council for a building, which will destroy important sub-surface archaeological relics of the adjacent Convict Lumber Yard.
• The Trust had a recent partial victory when we opposed facadist proposal for the former City Bank site (Hunter& Bolton Sts). A second application, while arguably in excess of LEP standards, at least retains the whole building including its original, highly decorative 1908-banking chamber.
• Lake Macquarie Council declined to add a precinct of rare post World War II Nissen Hut residences to its LEP Heritage schedule, in opposition to the planners’ recommendation, preferring instead to pass responsibility onto the heritage Branch and the Minister for Planning. Last year I reported that the Historic Houses Trust purchased one of the Nissen huts for preservation.
• On a positive side, Lake Macquarie did call for a report on ways to financially support owners of heritage-listed properties, including rate relief. We are as yet, unaware of any outcome.
The State Government’s negative attitude to heritage protection impacted adversely on other local decisions this year.
• Lack of State Government support for an appropriate scheme to retain the 1870s heritage-listed Raymond Terrace Police Station, which has resulted in the approval to demolish the building.
• The ultimatum given to Newcastle Council by Planning Minister Keneally to rescind its earlier (2007) opposition to the demolition of a highly (State) significant train drivers’ barracks constructed in a rare concrete drop slab style, in a probably unique “Federation” architectural style. The Trust has requested that the building be dismantled and stored on the Loco yard site pending future re-erection there.
• The Newcastle Post Office and former Empire (former 1850s Railway) Hotel (Hunter St West) illustrate the impact that speculative non-resident developers have on the decline of the CBD. In particular, the Post Office purchased in 2002 and vacant since then has received development approvals in 2006 and 2008.Recently the owners (yet again) promised to begin work next year. Despite submissions from the community, the Minister has not intervened to purchase or require the owner to protect this State Heritage Register building.
• The Empire site received two Council approvals -2006 for a 12-storey complex with some heritage retention, and a 2008 15-storey approval. There was also a 2008 Court order to demolish all non-heritage fabric (the roofs of the heritage buildings were subsequently demolished allowing water ingress). The buildings still lie derelict and vandalised and are again for sale (the owners are now bankrupt).
Who should be blamed for this disgraceful situation tin Newcastle’s historic heart? I suggest the State Government and many in the property development industry.
Probably the most disturbing governance problem that has a risen in Newcastle since the last round of State and local government elections is the willingness of the Government and Newcastle City Council to hand over the proper planning assessment processes to the property development industry, such as the HDC (public sector) and GPT (private sector), whereby private planning and other consultants, acting as agents for their developer clients (and therefore neither objective or independent) prepare plans , often very flawed, which are then sent directly to be assessed by cabinet or councillors. Public consultation is absent, or token. Ultimatums have been made, such as GPT’s threat not to go ahead with its Mall revitalisation in 2012 (will it ever happen?) if the railway is not removed and vehicles are not returned to the pedestrian mall.
GPT and HDC have commissioned community surveys, which are again biased in their choice of questions, but appear to be accepted as accurate by local elected representatives. Is it little wonder that HDC wants the legal precinct transferred to Honeysuckle and new university buildings sited there? It’s their land after all.
Add to all that the threats posed by the Heritage Act review in 2007, new Heritage Council and Branch structures, the EP & A Act reforms, with new definitions of complying development and greater roles for private certifiers, a new Department housing code, heritage “integrated” with planning at a State level and Part 3A.Heritage protection is under threat at an unprecedented level.
Next year’s Heritage Festival’s theme, “The making of our nation” coincides with the bicentenary of the arrival in Australia of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, in 1810.He visited Newcastle 3 times (1812, 1818, 1821) and we will focus on his links with us, which include:
• The 1816 Morisset’s Bath (the Bogey Hole) now under threat of having public access removed.
• The Government cottage footings (1810) on the Palais site.
• The surviving remains of the 1819 parsonage on the vandalised Kirkwood site.
• The foundation stone for Christ Church, in the Cathedral.
• The magnificent Macquarie Chest, the holy grail of Australiana, at the State Library and its close relative, the Dickson Chest.
• The Llewellyn Chest built by Professor Ann Llewellyn at Newcastle University, a modern collector’s chest which pays homage to the Macquarie and Dickson Chests.
• A major public forum with expert speakers is proposed.

A FINAL NOTE:
Unfortunately advocacy to identify and protect heritage and combating powerful vested interests, the main role of this committee, can be distressing, depressing and sheer hard work. Negative outcomes too often outweigh positive ones.
The Trust is often one of a small minority of active local community advocates; but we have much behind the scenes support. We are arguably the largest community organisation; certainly the largest conservation body in NSW and our membership comfortably exceeds that of the major political parties. We speak for many.
The broad community looks to the Trust and its committees to play a leadership role. I’m sure we will continue in this role, despite setbacks and vested opposition.
For their support, sage advice and hard work during the 5 years I have been Chair, I thank my committee colleagues. The energy and enthusiasm of Ann Hardy and Mark Metrikas (both of whom have post-graduate heritage conservation qualifications) and the long experience and expertise of Keith Parsons, Doug Lithgow and John Carr stretching back over many decades, have been invaluable to me as Chair and the work of the Trust. So have the enthusiasm of the new treasurer Anne Creevey and the support and organising skills of Pat Turnbull. Indeed all members have made a valuable contribution. I appreciate David Griffin’s role as an early warning system for heritage disasters.
Thanks also to the members who produce and distribute the Newsletter and to Ann Hardy who developed a very useful blog: nationaltrust-hunternewcastleregion.blogspot.com. Ann’s organisational skills and dedication in spite of the many demands on her time are phenomenal! .
For their skilful management and fund raising for our 3 house museums, I thank the three local “Friends of”” house committees.
I believe it’s time for a change and so I will not be renominating for the position of Chair, although I would still like to remain a Committee member, if elected.
To all Trust members assembled here this morning, and for the splendid hosts, Friends of Grossmann House, thanks for supporting the Hunter Regional Committee.
I commend my report to the meeting.
Margaret Henry
Chair

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