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Protection of State Heritage Places

30 August 2023



Introduction and First Reading


The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (16:03): Obtained leave and introduced a bill for an act to amend the Heritage Places Act 1993. Read a first time.

Second Reading

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (16:04): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The bill I introduce today is to address an issue that threatens the preservation of our cultural heritage, that is, the principle of demolition by neglect. Before I delve into the detail of the bill, I want to note that, of course, when we talk about heritage, for us as Greens we also recognise the importance of promoting and protecting Aboriginal heritage and in particular cultural heritage sites. It is vitally important that that is front and centre of all the discussions we have about heritage here in our state.

This bill relates in particular, however, to our built heritage, and that is the principle of demolition by neglect, which refers to the deliberate acts of neglecting the maintenance and care of our state's historic buildings, ultimately leading to their deterioration and their eventual demolition. It is a known concept. It has been around since the 1990s, at least that is when the term was coined. Sadly, this practice has become all too common in South Australia. It has been endangering our heritage buildings.

In the context of South Australia, we have a wealth of historic buildings that must be protected to ensure that their cultural value exists going into the future. Certainly, we have seen some examples of destruction of our heritage here in this parliament. Who could forget the decision to demolish the police barracks to make way for a new hospital? A worthy endeavour, of course, to support a new hospital but a shame that the Malinauskas government set up a dichotomy between our heritage and an important public service like a hospital. We know there are many places around the world that are able to reconcile public services with ongoing respect and protection of heritage.

Let me give you some examples of what I am talking about when I talk about these buildings falling into disrepair. Romilly House, also known as Hackney Lodge, at 1 North Terrace, Hackney, has been vacant since 2017. It is now falling into disrepair and is a target for graffiti and vandalism. Edmund Wright House is an absolutely stunning building, built in 1878. It has a ballroom, it has high ceilings and balconies that overlook King William Street, it is on prime land in the CBD and it has been looking for a tenant since 2015.

North Terrace is also home to the Gawler Chambers and Newmarket Hotel, both beautiful heritage buildings that sit there empty without the love and care that they require. In April 2022, a group of historic houses in Glenelg fell into disrepair and were then demolished in order to build a 13-storey apartment tower. Heritage buildings hold intrinsic cultural, historical and architectural value for our state. They provide a tangible connection to our ancestors, who tell stories of the past, and they shape our understanding of who we are today.

When these structures are allowed to fall into decay, we lose an essential part of our state's story and we erase some valuable chapters of our history books. Heritage buildings also contribute significantly to the tourism industry and local economies. Visitors are drawn to visit historic sites, generating revenue and boosting local businesses. When these buildings are neglected, we not only compromise their preservation but we lose opportunities for economic growth and cultural exchange.

It is, of course, absurd that we have half of North Terrace vacant while we have people sleeping on the street. There is something seriously wrong about that. This bill aims to incentivise property owners to activate their buildings, either to renovate them or to make them available to the government for public good, and that could very well include housing. Back in 2015, the then planning minister, John Rau, told InDaily that:

We're concerned generally about owners of buildings in the city who just sit on those buildings, especially if they're sitting on vacant buildings, that don't invest, don't upgrade, don't make them attractive to tenants…

I'm seriously thinking about the issue of whether or not we should have some sort of disincentive built into the system for people who do that.

I agree with the minister. It is a shame that the Labor Party, which has been in power for 20 years of the last 30 years, has not dealt with this issue, but this bill is aiming to do that.

Preserving heritage buildings requires a collaborative effort between government bodies, heritage organisations and private owners. By implementing stricter deterrents we could prevent demolition by neglect and ensure that our architectural heritage is protected. State heritage listing under the Heritage Places Act has been a valuable way to protect our State Heritage Places and demonstrates that a place is worth conserving and celebrating.

Unfortunately, provisions under the act have not been enough and it is a shame that we are not seeing them being appropriately enforced because there were not the powers given to compel owners to do the right thing by these properties, and of course by the people of our state. We are still seeing owners sitting on buildings and not maintaining them to a sufficient standard.

Under section 36 of the Heritage Places Act there is a penalty of $50,000 for a person who fails to take reasonable care of a State Heritage Place, but this penalty is not enough and it is not enough of a disincentive for property owners. In 2015, the National Trust of Victoria made recommendations for dealing with demolition by neglect and one of those recommendations was to increase enforcement and penalties for allowing a heritage place to fall into disrepair.

Other jurisdictions have also started to take action on this issue. In Victoria, reforms were introduced back in 2021 that prohibit development for 10 years if owners are charged with demolition by neglect or for allowing a building to fall into disrepair. In Oregon, privately owned properties can be ceded to government or public management for preservation purposes while proprietors still retain ownership—and it is that model that we are proposing here in South Australia. In San Francisco, a $500 per day penalty applies to owners who neglect historic structures.

This bill aims to address the problem of demolition by neglect in three ways. Firstly, the bill makes clear that a heritage agreement can provide for the management, occupation or future use of the heritage site. This would allow for the government to activate the site, if it is left vacant and neglected.

Secondly, the bill imposes a much more significant penalty for intentional or reckless damage or neglect. The bill more than doubles the penalty from $120,000 to $250,000 for an individual or $500,000. It is important that the penalties for neglect are not just considered the cost of doing business for corporations who want to develop a site and make huge profits. The reality is, at the moment a large corporation could purchase a heritage building, let it be run down, knock it down and make a motza. We need to change the law so that there is actually a deterrent. In addition to increasing the penalty, the bill also includes the provision to charge a penalty per day where a property owner is not complying with a protection order. This will provide timely maintenance of heritage places.

Beyond this bill, we call on the government to make a commitment to improve heritage protection through existing legislative provisions. The government must commit to increasing the number of authorised officers to monitor and police demolition by neglect. We call on the government to introduce incentives to maintain heritage sites, which would be more of a carrot rather than a stick approach. Coupled with the provisions of this bill, there is a real opportunity for us to protect our cultural and built heritage.

Of course, it is relevant I think to refer to the Labor government's own heritage policy in the lead-up to the 2022 state election. Indeed, they say:

A large part of what makes Adelaide such a desirable city to live is the heritage and character of our suburbs.

That is a direct quote from the Labor Party's policy document in the lead-up to the 2022 election. The document goes on, and I quote again:

To ensure that demolition cannot occur at the whim of a future government, Labor will legislate to better protect State Heritage Places, including requiring a public report by the SA Heritage Council being prepared and laid in the parliament before any consideration of a demolition approval and full public consultation so that all South Australians can have their views heard.

Let's look at that again:

…Labor will legislate to better protect State Heritage Places, including requiring a public report by the SA Heritage Council being prepared and laid in the parliament before any consideration of a demolition approval and full…consultation so that all South Australians can have their views heard.

That sits in stark contrast to the approach they took in relation to the hospital where they did not bother to require a public report of the SA Heritage Council. That was jettisoned.

I would suggest referring this on to the Premier's Delivery Unit but we know what will happen if it disappears into that black hole: we will never get a report, it will disappear into the ether, there would be no minutes, no-one will know what happened and we will never hear of it again.

It is very disappointing that it has fallen on the Greens to try to enact the policy commitments of the Labor government, rather than the Labor Party themselves taking the action that is necessary to fulfil the commitments they made to the people of South Australia. It is very disappointing, very disappointing indeed. We wait eagerly for legislation from the Malinauskas government to come that fulfils the commitment they made to the people of our state at the last election to do better when it comes to management of heritage.

The principle of demolition by neglect causes issues for the protection of our state's culture and our heritage, and we need to act to ensure that there are deterrents to demolition by neglect that closely reflect the value we place on these buildings. We also need to ensure that we end this madness where we see buildings being left vacant while we have people sleeping on the street. Something has to be done, and that is what the Greens are proposing.


Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. I.K. Hunter.