The City of Ballarat's new acting director of development and growth Natalie Robertson says the issue of heritage protection, and failures of council policy in that protection, will be addressed vigorously under her watch.
In an extensive interview with The Courier, Ms Robertson spoke about the difficulties council faces in adequately managing the pressures of development and preservation, and how she plans to address shortcomings in protecting Ballarat's built heritage, including the re-appointment of a full-time heritage officer and making the process for objecting to a development application clearer and easier.
"I always say that the basis of our heritage, and the preservation of it, is to have good guidelines and good guiding documents, so that it's very clear in the interpretation as to how we protect these things," Ms Robertson said.
"And I think what's becoming clear as a result of our very own gaps review is that, today, the controls are too broad."
The City of Ballarat is currently running a Heritage Gaps Review, calling for community identification of places with potential individual significance which are missing from the city's heritage overlay precincts. Ms Robertson says more protection needs to be offered to individual buildings within those precincts.
"Let's put it this way: within precincts, buildings are seen to be 'contributory', but the actual statements on the heritage precinct are so broad that they don't necessarily protect, as well as they should, individual buildings," she said.
While acknowledging that a heritage overlay for the entirety of Ballarat would be both overly onerous, costly, bureaucratic and likely resisted from most quarters, Ms Robertson says council is now hearing the concerns of the community over how development progresses, and how decisions can be better explained.
And I think what's becoming clear as a result of our very own gaps review is that, today, the controls are too broad.Natalie Robertson
A major step forward will be the re-appointment of a full-time heritage specialist to City of Ballarat employment, an aberration strongly criticised by former mayor Cr Samantha McIntosh.
Ms Robertson says the loss of council's previous heritage architect Brian Benson meant heritage issues were broken up into several components, spreading responsibility for areas such as statutory advice, urban design and the overall consideration of the city among council departments, which diminished focus.
"It essentially became three roles. And so planning lost that access to a full-time heritage architect or advisor. It's taken two years to get that back onto the budget. We currently have the funds that allow Ballarat to have a heritage advisor.
"And that's the difficult part. We are regulated, we have to go through a budget process and I have to make the argument (for the position). It became clear that we needed a heritage advisor."
COVID restrictions, which were introduced in the week a new heritage consultant commenced, have meant the new appointee is still working at becoming familiar with Ballarat, Ms Robertson said.
"He's been 38 years as a registered architect and has provided heritage advisory services to Maldon/Mt Alexander and Korong/Loddon Shires, and the Cities of Port Melbourne, Bendigo and Whitehorse, and with his services we've come a step closer at being better at what we do," she said.
But there have been failures, Ms Robertson acknowledges. There have been cases where council have approved demolition of heritage properties in recent years which, Ms Robertson says, would not be allowed to go ahead under today's parameters.
In one case, Ms Robertson says, the demolition and 'reconstruction' of a Victorian home was allowed to proceed on the advice of a consulting heritage advisor.
"We genuinely have to take every application on its merits," Ms Robertson said.
"This matter was a genuine application: 'we want to demolish and reconstruct under the Heritage requirements'. So the required, approved path is followed. At every stage, however it can become a slow erosion. As the owner starts development those things that may have been seen to be able to be preserved are shown to be damaged or structurally unsound, even though your first advice may have indicated it was achievable.
"And heritage advisors then say, 'It's not the ideal situation for us, but we're now currently in this position'. So we retain as much of the fabric as you can so we have some reflection of the existing buildings, and also the photographic evidence of the building.
"It's difficult. We've got to weigh it up and as I said, if I was to look at this application today, would I feel the same way or go make them things differently? Hindsight is a valuable thing."
Ms Robertson refers to a recent development on Creswick Road, where council worked in a conciliatory process with owners, saying the attitude and processes of development have changed recently. Council is now more determined to protect buildings of significance, she says; partial demolitions give owners and council retention of the historic fabric of Ballarat and achieve their outcome.
"We're in a phase where it's becoming more popular to renovate and develop within existing heritage buildings," Ms Robertson said.
If I was to look at this application today, would I feel the same way or go make them things differently? Hindsight is a valuable thing.Natalie Robertson
"For a long time it wasn't something most people would attempt and we retained the very fabric of most buildings. You find that development goes in phases and at the moment, people are genuinely accepting of buying their heritage buildings and then doing their addition to the rear and other modifications and it's trying to find that healthy balance. That's the difficult part in weighing it up.
"Our heritage controls don't talk specifically to single dwellings; it talks about streetscapes, that continuous streetscape and not interrupting it. So the additions themselves: whilst a lot of people may be offended by them, they are still complying with what heritage overlays ask.
"What people want, and probably what is clearly heard within council, is we want stronger guidelines and stronger principles to follow. And that's been heard, obviously, because we are doing our gaps review. And and it's been hard because we hear from the community that they want us to be stronger."
Ms Robertson has also undertaken to address concerns over the difficulty of objecting to development applications, which has been a point of concern raised by many in the community in recent years.
"We've been looking at our application process, we've been looking at our forms," Ms Robertson says.
"We've had feedback that it's difficult to object, so let's look at that process. Let's make that something easier on the community. You don't have to follow that process. I can receive an objection in any way shape or form: you can send an email to a councillor, you can send an email to me; you can reach me on the phone and I'll type out your objection and and send it off to the relevant place."
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