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There has been some confusion in the wider community over the status of elements of the James Fletcher site and whether they have already been listed on the State Heritage Register. After checking with the NSW Heritage Branch we can confirm that no part of this site is currently heritage listed. However here is an email from Mr Rod Caldwell kindly explaining the history of the James Fletcher site’s national heritage listing and the possible source of the confusion as to what is and is not listed on the national listing.

To members of the Newcastle Government Domain Committee

I refer to our meeting of this Committee last Monday 5th July 2010: I agreed to send an email as to how elements of the Newcastle Government Domain had previously been given full national heritage recognition and explain what that may mean now. That advice follows:

Parts of the area now defined by what we call the Newcastle Government Domain have been given national heritage recognition (and previously had conservation protection under the 1975 Australian Heritage Commission Act) by listing on the “Register of the National Estate” as the item: “James Fletcher Hospital Group”. This listing was made and the item accorded full legal status of ‘registered’ on 21st October 1980 as item No. 101838. The Military Barracks; Parade Ground; Matron’s Residence and Nurses’ Home; Fletcher House – originally the Gate House; with other landscape features and outbuildings, are included in the listing. It can be accessed at the website: http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/ahdb/search.pl?mode=place_detail;place_id=101838.

A copy of the listing is also attached for your convenience.

But what does this registration mean now? It is important to note that in Australia, government involvement in historic heritage conservation only began in the mid-1970s. This action resulted from the political activism and ‘green bans’ of the 1960s and 1970s, expressing a sympathetic, popular appreciation for protection of our built heritage. This community pressure encouraged enlightened governments to adopt formal arrangements for the identification of historic heritage places, including mechanisms for their protection and conservation.

Following a lead set by the States, the Australian Government first undertook legislative action to protect Australian heritage places, from recommendations of the 1974 Hope Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the National Estate. A “Register of the National Estate” was established under a new Australian Heritage Commission Act of 1975, and the independent Australian Heritage Commission was set up in 1976 to administer the newly established Register. The Act provided for protection of heritage places registered under the Act. By the year 2006 the Australian Heritage Commission had entered more than 13,000 places onto the Register. During this enlightened period, if a heritage place had been nominated and was successfully ‘registered’ onto the Register of the National Estate, it was considered by its nominators to have been accorded the highest level of heritage significance possible (apart from world heritage listing), and therefore could be considered for protection under the powers of the Heritage Act.

However, in 2004, responsibility for maintaining the Register shifted to the Australian Heritage Council, established under a newer Australian Heritage Council Act 2003 (AHC Act). And on the 6th April 2005, the Government’s standing Productivity Commission was commissioned to undertake “…an inquiry into the policy framework and incentives for the conservation of Australia’s historic built heritage places”.

Despite the determined submissions and pressure put by many conservation groups, the heritage industry was shocked when the Productivity Commission’s much-maligned report “Conservation of Australia’s Historic Heritage Places” was finalised in April 2006. As a result of its recommendations, the Australian Government amended the Australian Heritage Council Act 2003 to ‘freeze’ the Register of the National Estate on 19 February 2007. This meant that the Australian Heritage Council could no longer add places to or remove places or a part of a place from the Register. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act), and the Australian Heritage Council 2003 were amended to, among other things, consolidate the freezing of the Register.

This ‘freeze’ heralded a sudden and dramatic backing away by the Australian Government from protecting the 13,000, or so, heritage places that had so lovingly been entered onto the Register with the many nominating communities’ expectations of national protection. The reasons for this were stated to be:

“Places may be protected under appropriate States, Territories and Local Governments heritage legislation. Under an agreement between the Commonwealth and States and Territories it is intended that Registered places will be considered for inclusion in appropriate Commonwealth, State/Territory heritage lists.

Registered places can be protected under the EPBC Act if they are also included in another Commonwealth statutory heritage list or are owned or leased by the Commonwealth. For example, registered places owned or leased by the Commonwealth are protected from any action likely to have a significant impact on the environment.

There is no provision in the EPBC Act for Register of the National Estate places to be transferred to the National Heritage List or the Commonwealth Heritage List”

To completely side-step the old Register of the National Estate, the amendments established two fresh heritage registers: the “National Heritage List” (to list natural, indigenous and historic places of national and world significance); and the “Commonwealth Heritage List” (which lists Australian Government owned or controlled places of heritage significance). Taking a very hard stance, the Government made no provision in the EPBC Act for Register of the National Estate places to be transferred to the National Heritage List or the Commonwealth Heritage List. In over three years since its establishment, about 107 places (including natural, indigenous and historic) have been entered onto the National Heritage List.

The old Register of the National Estate will continue as a statutory register only until February 2012. During this period the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts (the Minister) is required to continue considering the Register when making some (conservation and development) decisions under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). This transition period also allows states, territories, local and the Australian Government to complete the task of transferring places to appropriate heritage registers where necessary and to amend legislation that refers to the old “Register” as a statutory list.

From February 2012 all statutory references to the Register of the National Estate will be removed from the EPBC Act and the AHC Act. The Register will only be maintained after this time on a non-statutory basis as a publicly available archive.

Rod Caldwell