The test for community engagement

The recent decision of the Sydney West City Planning Panel to consent to the demolition of the cottage at 44-48 Oxford Street in Epping raises a number of important issues as to how the interests of the community are dealt with, as part of the approval process.

The heritage cottage at 44-48 Oxford Street was identified as a heritage item in the Hornsby Local Environment Plan. I had previously argued that the Panel should have no jurisdiction to alter a planning instrument by allowing for the demolition of an identified heritage item. This ought to be the responsibility of Parramatta Council, which possesses the authority to draft planning instruments after consultation with the community. Upon receiving legal advice, that argument was rejected by the Panel.

Like many in the community, I echoed my disappointment with respect to the decision that was made by the Sydney Central City Planning Panel to demolish the heritage cottage. I have always opposed inappropriate development, and it is regrettable that this historical item will make way for yet another development in Epping Town Centre.

In a previous column, I called for developers to contribute to the local amenity, and to make greater efforts towards fostering goodwill among the community. However, it is especially disappointing that we’ve seen no efforts by the owner to find a compromise solution that incorporates the preservation of the heritage cottage into the design of the development.

Since the decision of the planning panel, many constituents have voiced their concerns in relation to the importance of preserving those sites that embodied important cultural values which define Epping.

In coming to the decision that they did, the planning panel accepted the independent advice of Stephen Davies from URBIS heritage consultants and Chairperson of the NSW Heritage Council. Mr Davies found that the cottage was not significant enough to preserve. I read the report, and was surprised to have read his assessment that the cottage was ‘only important to the community for amenity reasons’ and had ‘no known social significance with the site.’

With respect to Mr Davies, I and the majority of local residents disagree with that conclusion. This leads me to ask the question: what are the objective set of criteria in which heritage is assessed that takes into account the community sentiment?

In the absence of any criteria, should we be making changes to the manner in which we regulate heritage and conservation laws? Of course, this may be something we all support anecdotally, but what does it look like in practice? How do “experts” gauge community sentiment? This is a question which must be answered by the consultants in their reports.

I would also suggest Planning Panels should do more to interrogate the findings of experts in relation to heritage findings.

Leave a Reply