RECENTLY in the Post, Pete Granger wrote about St Paul’s Boys' Home in Newhaven. Despite being listed on the Victorian Heritage Register it is heading toward ruination.
Pete mentioned the council’s failure to make the owners protect the site from vandalism and the elements.
Sadly, under state planning and heritage laws, councils have no power to compel owners of historic properties to protect them.
A report by the Wonthaggi Historical Society at the time pointed out its historical importance: “All the detail in the document is further argument – nay, conclusive argument – that the building must not be demolished. A photocopy of the original specification document – the Bake Hall and Loading Yard, the construction of the building, including roof trusses, flashing, spouting, purlins, windows, sashes, doors, plinths – is available in the museum for members and visitors to study.”
Pictures and words are all that’s left of it now. So what went wrong? A regulated process!
The council of the day had no valid reason not to approve an application to redesign the bakery conditional on retention of the façade.
After the roof started leaking, the building began quietly decomposing. As it fell into further decline, part of the rear of the building collapsed. The façade took on a dangerous lean toward the road as well as separating along its length.
Council issued a “make safe” order that specified emergency works, including shoring up the façade. When the owner applied to demolish the building as the ultimate iteration of “making it safe”, it was impossible to argue against.
Hopefully the new building will give a nod to what’s been lost but that’s up to the owners and architects. Legally, the only condition we can apply to preserve the history would be to include a condition to mount a plaque or a similar marker of the past.
Grandma’s axe rule (three new handles and two new heads but it’s still Grandma’s axe!) has never been legislated.
A planning permit has been issued to convert the buildings into apartments. As with the old bakery, however, we can’t force the owners to start rebuilding though time extensions for commencements have been approved.
Obviously there is a public safety regulation to enforce, which amounts to securing the building so people can’t illegally enter.
This week I visited the site again and noted that the lawns had recently been mown and boards replaced on the doors and windows. My understanding is that this is done on a regular basis by a local maintenance company.
There’s still no fence but it’s private property and we can’t force the owners to build one. Such a fence could provide a challenge, both to willing trespassers and enforcement officers on the lookout for squatters and anti-social behaviour.
A public document lists all properties in Bass Coast that are under a council heritage overlay. There are 182 of them, including a surprising number of farm houses across the shire.
There is another list of properties nominated by Heritage Victoria which includes Wonthaggi Railway Station and the recently re-assembled goods crane. Any application to alter or demolish buildings on that list can only be approved by the Executive Director of Heritage Victoria.
People often refer to “council” as if it is a monolith that needs to be persuaded, poked or punished. Here’s the truth – it’s a collection of people. We get disheartened, too, when history, any history, is lost to a commercial imperative.
As a council, we’re committed to preserving the character of the buildings we own, such as Wonthaggi’s old Post Office, while putting them to good use.
Parks Victoria also has a mandate for preservation and is progressively repairing the Rescue Station, as well as preserving the State Coal Mine. Across the state, Parks Victoria is responsible for protecting around 3000 historic assets.
Planning is never simple and can become a system under which everyone loses. Demolition by neglect is a phrase we often hear. As councillors, however, we have to make decisions on the bare, indisputable facts presented to us.
I sometimes feel our job isn’t done until everyone is just a little bit pissed off.
Geoff Ellis is a Bass Coast councillor. The St Paul’s Boys' Home is in his ward.