Why it took 16 years to reject a heritage listing for Oaks Estate
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Why it took 16 years to reject a heritage listing for Oaks Estate

The ACT government has revealed why the ACT Heritage Council ruminated for 16 years about placing Oaks Estate on the heritage register.

Canberra's forgotten corner was dealt another blow earlier this year when after more than a decade-and-a-half, the heritage council rejected a bid to provisionally list the village.

Hiroshi Yamaguchi of Koitoya Design / Make / Teach outside his Oaks Estate workshop.

Hiroshi Yamaguchi of Koitoya Design / Make / Teach outside his Oaks Estate workshop.

Photo: Finbar O'Mallon

While two expert reports recommended heritage protection for Oaks Estate, the council ruled the village was not historically or architecturally significant enough to meet the criteria for a listing.

But until now, it was unclear why it had taken so long to reach a decision.

Antique Conservation: Antique furniture restorer Martin Lott in his workshop at Oaks Estate.

Antique Conservation: Antique furniture restorer Martin Lott in his workshop at Oaks Estate.

Photo: Karleen Minney
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According to the ACT government's response to the Standing Committee on Environment, Transport and City Services' recommendation to look into the delay, Oaks Estate was a lower priority because of the "low development pressure" on the precinct.

Each year the council makes a priority list of places a objects to be assessed.

While Oaks Estate was added to that list in 2014 and was under "active assessment" until April 2017, "during the 16-year timeframe hundreds of other nominations for individual places, precincts and objects were afforded priority and assessed and had registration decisions made", the government wrote.

"Oaks Estate formed a lower priority for assessment to the other 12 garden city precincts because of the low development pressure on the precinct," they said.

The ACT government has revealed why it took 16 years to consider the heritage significance of Oaks Estate.

The ACT government has revealed why it took 16 years to consider the heritage significance of Oaks Estate.

Photo: Graham Tidy

"Garden city precincts generate the majority of development applications referred to the council for conservation advice each year.

"Development applications for dwellings within garden city precincts made up to 69 per cent of all development applications received by the Council in 2016-17.

"In comparison, the council has provided advice on 15 development applications for Oaks Estate since 2007."

The Oaks Estate Progress Association's Kate Gauthier said she was sceptical of the numbers provided.

"They quoted ours as a whole number and the other areas as a percentage, which means you can't compare. That's how you fudge the numbers," Ms Gauthier said.

However she believed having the heritage listing hanging over the suburb for so long had deterred people from filing development applications.

"The heritage nomination stole equity from the people in this community because for 16 years people didn't know what was going on, because there are a lot of different things you can and can't do with a heritage overlay," Ms Gauthier said.

She said the heritage process had been "completely politicised and subverted to deliver the outcome the ACT government needed, which is to maximise the development potential of an area where you have large swathes of land they want to develop".

But former heritage council head Duncan Marshall said Oaks Estate was a challenging area to assess.

"It wasn't entirely clear cut for a period of time [which way the heritage assessment would go]. If it was a simple matter would have been more quickly dealt with," Mr Marshall said.

"Where places were under no immediate threat council felt it had no immediate pressure to make a decision, but where there was outside pressure and where decision could be meaningful, that was reason to give something a higher priority."

Mr Marshall said heritage assessments nowadays had to be more "robust" as they were more likely to attract the scrutiny of ACAT.

This made assessments a more resource-intensive exercise.

The heritage council is slowly whittling down a substantial backlog of claims since a peak of 320 nominations in 2008.

Currently there are 108 nominations on the list.

The Heritage Act was recently changed, with no annual limits or statutory timeframes on nominations.

While this will mean a longer nomination list, the government said it would "greatly improve heritage conservation outcomes as nominations are afforded protection under the Heritage Act".

Katie Burgess is a reporter for the Canberra Times, covering ACT politics.

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