New Sheriff Needed To Ride Shotgun On Heritage Suburbs

It’s a bit of a rhetorical leap to compare Melbourne’s gentrified suburbs with the Wild West.

But after a Port Melbourne man knocked down his own home in order to build a double townhouse, that was apparently what came to mind for the mayor of Port Phillip.

“Saddle up your horse and ride out of town now if you think you can get away with it,” the mayor wrote in an official statement released last week, obviously confusing his role as the chief political representative of a wealthy inner-city suburb with a gun-slinging saloon manager in Deadwood.

When demolishing houses is outlawed, only outlaws will demolish their houses. The property’s owner, Hodo Zeqaj, was fined more than $52,000 for the demolition because his rather ordinary-looking brick duplex had been subject to a “heritage overlay” – that is, it’s located in an area of Port Melbourne the proud and self-satisfied local government has decided is historically significant.

A team of three men managed to demolish the house in less than 15minutes using a couple of chainsaws, which, no matter what you think of heritage laws, sounds like it would have been a lot of fun.

Certainly, Mr Zeqaj shouldn’t have demolished his house without getting a permit to do so. (And he definitely should have consulted his neighbour, with whom he shared a wall.) Even so, the council has publicly stated that had Mr Zeqaj applied for a demolition permit, it would have refused him one.

Once your home has been “heritaged”, well, you don’t really own it any more, no matter how much money you’ve paid off your mortgage. The council effectively does. Almost every petty little alteration has to be approved by local government functionaries.

Want to paint your door? In Port Phillip, there are 27 approved colours. But don’t get too excited – you can’t choose from the whole range. You will need to carefully maintain historic consistency.

Want to install an air-conditioner? There are planning permits to fill out, of course, and you need to make sure the unit is as hidden from the street as possible. After all, we wouldn’t want to ruin the seductive milieu of a suburban road by revealing that people actually live in those houses.

But don’t we as a society need to protect historically significant properties from the ravages of the marketplace? Perhaps. But what is historically significant? For the past half century, social history – the history of ordinary people, as opposed to the history of priests, politicians and warriors – has dominated the way we look at the past. That’s all great. But the rise of social history does make it a bit harder to assess what is uniquely important.

For a social historian, almost everything can be counted as “historically significant”. Everything reflects in some fashion the social circumstances of the past. So we get a barely interesting piece of trivia – the properties around Mr Zeqaj’s house are apparently early examples of low-cost homes built by the Housing Commission after World War II – transformed into a harsh legal edict. It isn’t quite Captain Cook’s cottage we’re talking about here. Does an entire neighbourhood need to be frozen in time so we can display cheaply and quickly built government housing in its full glory? For those people who care about the history of public housing, wouldn’t, perhaps, a few photographs suffice?

Anyway, if councils really want to protect important buildings, they should just buy them – or at minimum compensate the owners for their loss of control over their own property. If councils had to pay for the rights they steal, then they would perhaps be a little more cautious about doing so. Right now, it’s far too easy for local government to casually brand whole suburbs as critically important heritage areas while bearing none of the substantial costs.

It might seem glib to point out that we can’t stop all development. But it appears some councils are trying to do so. Vast swathes of Melbourne’s suburbs are being locked up by heritage regulation.

Unless we want Melbourne and its suburbs to become nothing but museum pieces, we’re going to have to accept that the flip-side of having a dynamic, modern city is having to occasionally watch that dynamism sweep aside physical remnants of the past.