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Spring Street and councils need to co-operate on heritage issues

When it comes to petitioning against demolitions, those living in Hawthorn, Camberwell, Balwyn, Kew and Deepdene have more resources at their disposal than many communities, as the would-be developers of Camberwell train station discovered 15 years ago. In Canterbury and Camberwell alone there are estimated to be more than 1100 buildings considered worthy of a heritage overlay. The question then becomes whether a growing city that has decided against continued sprawl can afford to see its most affluent areas preserved in aspic, leaving the burden for creating fresh housing capacity resting even more heavily on other suburbs.

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One of the chief reasons that development has become a dirty word in this context is the public’s growing dismay at the sub-standard character of much of the unit construction that is replacing traditional homes on quarter-acre blocks. When the use of unsafe materials in tower-block construction became a major issue in Melbourne, the state government said “a true national partnership” was needed with federal government to bear the costs of fixing the problem. While Canberra promptly rejected requests for funds, it did eventually sit down with the states to agree a program for reform of building standards. If Canberra and the states can see reason and start working together to address this crisis, is a spirit of partnership between Spring Street and the city’s councils really too much to ask for?

In all cases, the aim of such a partnership should be to encourage and facilitate a conversation between the electorate and its representatives about what we regard as indispensable to the character of the city and what we are prepared to reimagine. It means acknowledging that sometimes the structures of the past, whether they are beautiful or not, must be set aside. But it also involves identifying and taking into account the competing interests of property owners, neighbours, developers and planners without finger-pointing.

For such a conversation to remain coherent and have predictable outcomes, it is time for the state and councils to make a commitment: heritage overlay studies should be a regular duty of councils, rather than one taken up in an ad hoc way, and the state government should provide funding commensurate to the task. This new approach would also involve recognising that building our future is as important as preserving our past, and that growth and change are part of that balance. This is a challenge facing not only Melbourne but the nation as a whole.

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