There are extensive lists and registers of historic heritage items in all Australian jurisdictions, but the listed places do not present a cohesive, comprehensive or representative selection. Some lists, such as the National Heritage List, are incomplete because they are relatively recent and require additional resources. Other longstanding lists may include more places, but have usually been compiled in an ad hoc manner with particular focus on history and aesthetics, rather than a comprehensive values-based and representative approach. The incomplete list of statutory registers gives rise to a number of anomalies and undesirable outcomes, including a reactive approach when major developments occur, and inconsistency in regulation between local, state and national governments.
Many aspects of our planning system, building codes and standards affect historic heritage management and could be improved. There is a compelling argument to provide substantial resources for sustained and systematic assessment, because in the long term this can lead to better decision-making, incorporation of heritage values into strategic planning processes and improved heritage conservation outcomes.
The outlook for historic heritage is likely to be greatly improved if governments at all levels implement common criteria and consistent development assessment standards. Perhaps the most anomalous contemporary standard relates to sustainability and the notion that Green Star rating points are not awarded for heritage conservation outcomes. The current sustainability guidelines are prejudiced towards removing historic buildings and fabric and replacing them with recycled materials and new energy efficient structures, rather than retaining significant existing building materials and upgrading existing structures to make them more energy efficient. This ignores both the embodied energy in the existing materials and structures, and the heritage values of the buildings. Greater adaptation and flexibility in guidelines may reduce pressure for demolition and replacement of historic buildings.
In a similar vein, the outlook for historic heritage would improve if governments were to provide better incentives for private owners of historic heritage places. While recognising the value of historic heritage and the fact that most historic places are privately owned, the Productivity Commission took the negative view in its 2006 report that places should not be listed where owners object.90 Alternatively, a positive response that recognises the contribution made by private owners and seeks to increase available incentives, such as advisory services, development concessions, tax relief or advantageous land valuations, would reinforce the community value of heritage and might stimulate even greater private sector conservation efforts.
Better outcomes require some fundamental rethinking and recognition that our nation has a vast historic heritage that cannot all be retained and maintained in pristine condition. Perhaps if major physical changes or even regression to ruins were recognised as part of normal historic processes for some places, there may be a more positive outlook.
Historic heritage in Australia faces resourcing challenges because the number of listed and unlisted places is high relative to our land area, our population and the purchasing power available to fund heritage conservation. There is also a marked and accelerating downward trend in the skills base and specialist expertise available in historic heritage.
However, many of the human threats to historic heritage are matters of perception. Changing perception will change outlook. Where places are valued for their non-economic contribution as well as financial performance, the value of heritage will be more highly regarded.