• Touring the Past

Heritage Impact Statements – some observations

Updated: Feb 9

'The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong question.' – Peter Drucker
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Owner-developers today are required to diligently address heritage issues when proposing change within the historic environment. (Source: author's collection, Blue Mountains)

Touring the Past is aware that some owner/developers and their designers view the whole heritage impact assessment process as a run-of-the-mill, even tiresome, activity. We can empathise with this attitude (without agreeing with it) as we do not believe that heritage professionals have done enough to decode and promote the wider importance of this process.

We are fervently of the belief that heritage assessment, if carried out effectively, can bring informed, interpretive and contextually savvy change to heritage sites and precincts. All of the latter are core ingredients for 'good design’ which makes a positive contribution to the sustainability, financial or otherwise, of built projects.

Heritage conservation and urban development are in a complicated, often tense, relationship that is deserving of reflection and critical probing. Here then is Touring the Past’s modest contribution: 8 insights into the heritage impact assessment process.

Right at the outset let us state that these musings are personal and open to debate. We offer them not as dogma but in the spirit of fostering a greater and wider public understanding of contemporary heritage impact assessment.

1. It all seems so subjective?

Heritage impact assessment rests on a wide body of conservation philosophy, theory and well-tested practical processes. The examination of heritage impact is not done lightly or in a haphazard manner. It is misguided to read or treat contemporary heritage impact practice as purely subjective.

Naturally, while heritage practitioners do make subjective value judgments (like many other professionals), we work within established impact frameworks and a myriad of criteria which are supplemented by empirical data (such as physical materials used, forms and construction dates) as well as established tenets of conservation philosophy and theory.

These processes, understandings and forces merge to produce informed and justifiable judgments concerning the heritage impact of proposed change. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that our findings are subject to critical review and probing from regulatory authorities as well as affected communities. Unsupported value judgements will be treated as such.

We suggest that it is also kept in mind that the concept of heritage impact is influenced by time and place. Impacts that were considered unacceptable even a decade ago are now deemed tolerable or normal, and vice versa. Of course, heritage impact must be assessed in relation to the conditions and attitudes of the present period but with an eye to the future. In attempting to understand the impact assessment process, it is worth being aware that ‘impact’ is not an absolute, unchanging concept.

2. Size doesn't matter

This may sound obvious but it is worth keeping in mind. The concept of heritage impact is relative. The magnitude of a small change – for instance the reconstruction of a balcony’s detailing – is not restricted by the small size of the proposal. Similarly, a large-scale proposal – perhaps landscaping or the construction of a tall building in the vicinity of a heritage item – may not necessarily generate a sizeable impact. It comes down to the context of the heritage significance in which a change is taking place.

3. Reasonableness

When development at or in the vicinity of a listed heritage place is contemplated, heritage professionals balance the magnitude of the impact alongside the necessity and reasonableness of the development that initiates it.

While not an explicit principle of The Burra Charter (2013), the grounding document within contemporary Australian heritage conservation, the importance of reasonableness has been repeatedly highlighted in the findings of the NSW Land and Environment Court when dealing with heritage matters.

‘Reasonableness’ is something we always seek to explore. For example, the heritage impact that arises from a proposal which seeks to remain within the reasonable development expectations of a site and its context should be assessed differently to a change that pushes or exceeds the boundaries of site reasonability. The addition of a car parking space to the front of a residence in a heritage conservation area which is devoid of similar examples is a entirely different ballgame to a similar situation in another heritage conservation area which comprises alternative parking solutions.

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Questions of reasonableness regularly feature in impact considerations for historic streetscapes. (Source: Braidwood, author’s collection)

4. Are there alternatives?

Best-practice Heritage Impact Statements are required to describe and evaluate the range of development options, particularly when it comes to change at places with highly sensitive heritage values. Often it is not enough to declare a proposed option as the best way forward without explicitly exploring alternatives.

The reasoning here is practical. Consent bodies need to be assured of the rationale behind the selected proposal. This often means elaborating on alternative design options for a heritage place. If the foundation of a design is sound, this rarely proves a problem and, in fact, provides a means of highlighting to consent bodies the degree of conscious thought which has gone into work affecting a heritage place. If this is not the case, assessments can get more complex. While Touring the Past will always attempt to connect with the proponent’s aspiration for a site, it cannot ignore poor heritage designs, especially if a reasonable change could be made to enhance or mitigate an adverse outcome.

5. Compliance and non-compliance

As the recently released NSW State Government publication, Design Guide for Heritage, makes clear, consent bodies and communities deserve and expect high-quality design responses in the context of the historic environment. In our opinion, merely ticking compliance or non-compliance will not consistently result in such desired aims. At Touring the Past, we consider and treat the development control plans (DCP) as anchoring documents, while avoid treating them as omnipotent.

There is more to design within heritage contexts as well as related impact assessment than applying quantitative development standards to a project and then deciding its merits on the basis of whether or not a tick is achieved. Such an approach too often sets the bar at the bare minimum and does not take into account individual contexts. Adhering to an overly pedantic interpretation of planning scheme is rarely helpful. Rather we try and view them as a whole and look for their overall intent.

Going deeper, our approach always asks ‘is the design achieving the conservation of significant heritage values?’. In our experience, this approach can enable more innovative but still viable developments within heritage settings. Such a methodology is also in-sync with the decisions of the courts, which for several years have stressed the need to judge every development on its own merits and specifics.

6. Warts, wrinkles and all

As with any text, a Heritage Impact Statement can be (and almost always is) interrogated for its silences and omissions. Reports which depict proposals through rose-tinted glasses are unlikely to stand up under regulatory and/or community scrutiny.

By their very nature, Impact Statements should be critical in their approach. They should unpack a proposal and its potential impacts, ‘heritage warts and all’, within the context of heritage significance in a transparent and accountable manner. There are developments that will not merit an A+ verdict. As a client, you should not necessarily expect to see a singularly positive and approving report. Potential negative or undesirable outcomes must be acknowledged and explored as part of the impact assessment process.

Let me state emphatically that this is not the end of the world for your proposal. Affirmative and deleterious impacts must also be viewed in the grand scheme of things. In many cases, a proposal does not have to be perfect from a heritage perspective. The good might outweigh the bad, and vice versa.

Potentially negative impacts can be mitigated or made explicit within a design proposal while minor impacts may be palatable.

7. Ethical assessment

Good heritage impact assessment is underpinned by professional ethics. Impact assessment professionals have a social contract with civil society, both present and future, to conduct their work with integrity and accuracy. Significantly, this does not make it a zero-sum game or a matter of picking sides (the tired old dichotomy, heritage vs development, is eager to retire).

An ethical heritage impact assessment, one that does away with deliberate bias and misrepresentation, saves you from putting forward a ‘dud’ proposal. It also provides the confidence of a well-reasoned, justifiable heritage opinion in the face of regulatory or community issue.

8. Not a decision-making document

Lastly, a Heritage Impact Statement, which articulates the heritage impact assessment process, is not a decision-making document. It is required by regulatory authorities when it is considered likely that a proposal may impact heritage value and it advises decision-makers on what might happen if a proposed action goes ahead.

Of course, ultimately, it is the relevant consent authority which makes the actual decision.

The heritage report provides the relevant body with access to the objective of the proposal and the informed opinion of a heritage professional. In the NSW system, as in much of Australia, the impetus for providing the appropriate context in which a planning decision can be made is given to the proponent and their team of consultants. This gives a pre-eminence to Heritage Impact Statements that offer an appropriate level of detail and well-reasoned opinion for the digestion of the decision-makers. Reports that propound an unsupported position or marginalise inconvenient elements are useless.

To find out more about Heritage Impact Statements contact us.

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The historic environment is one of our most precious resources. It contributes actively to our cultural identity, economy and sense of place. Change to it should be well-thought out, justifiable and based on sound conservation principles. (Source: Bank of NSW, Maitland, NSW, Athel D’Ombrain collection, Cultural Collections at the University of Newcastle)