Last week Melbourne residents were appalled at the news that an historic pub in inner-suburban Carlton had been illegally demolished. The Corkman Irish Pub was opened in 1857 as the Carlton Inn and was one of the few surviving buildings of that era. It was demolished a week after a fire damaged it. The Guardian reports that the developer claimed that damage from the fire made the building unsafe but a Melbourne Council building surveyor and other experts had inspected the building and found that the damage had not caused significant structural damage.
Sadly, this is not the first time that a historically valuable building has been illegally demolished in Melbourne. When I heard the news I was immediately reminded of the illegally demolished Toorak church that we passed by each day on the way home from work in the late 1980s. It stood half destroyed for years.
The problem is not confined to Victoria. Just this month in Brisbane two historically significant houses were demolished after a demolition application had been refused. Last year the New South Wales Land and Environment Court fined a developer for illegally destroying the facades of a row of shop fronts on Parramatta Road in Sydney. (You can read the full judgement from the New South Wales Land and Environment Court.)
This is not simply an issue about a collection of bricks and mortar. As the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) has observed, there is more to a building than its physical construction. The National Trust states that Illegal demolition of buildings is also an attack on a community. The interior and exterior of buildings form part of a community’s fabric. In the case of the Corkman Irish Pub, those groups such as the law students at Melbourne University, used it as a social space for many years. Communities are formed and thrive in places. The façade of a building can be an important spot in the visual landscape marking a meeting place, a form of reference to other places, a visual link between a community’s past, present and future. A building can be an important visual expression of culture.
A building is not the owner’s plaything. On those occasions I have owned a house I have known that my ownership of it is temporary. Even if I own it for the rest of my life, the house is quite likely to survive my death and become an important place in the lives of other people. I am fortunate to have possession of it, but that possession is temporary and while I enjoy the benefits of ownership, this necessarily comes with obligations. To my mind there is a lot of sense in the attitude of Australia’s Aboriginal peoples towards traditional ownership of land.
An owner of a building is a custodian of that building. The owner has temporary command of the structure and looks after it for themselves and the community, but the owner also has responsibility to future owners and communities. As recompense for taking on that responsibility building owners gain many benefits. Our society recognises the communal nature of buildings through the laws that govern the use and care of buildings.
Like the buildings they protect, these laws are also a link between past, present and future. The current state of our property laws reflect the decisions of past generations. Our living generation continues to work on these laws to reflect our current values, but given the fundamental place of precedent in our legal system, current laws are often a melding of past and present.
Illegal demolition of buildings is also an affront to a community because it shows contempt for the laws that community has developed. It shows that those transgressors only think of compliance to our society’s laws in terms of how these rules will affect their profits,. Fines are just a cost of doing business, but they are worth it because in our over-heated property market, transgressors have calculated that they can easily recoup that cost.
The illegal demolition of buildings is a clash of cultures between an individualistic mindset and a recognition that people wherever they live, are social beings who need to be considerate of each other in whatever action they do.
Where to from here? The Planing Minister for Victoria is considering new penalties for this kind of destruction and the CEO of the National Trust of Victoria has called for a discussion about penalties for illegal demolition. Fines don’t bring back buildings, and it is doubtful whether they are a good deterrent for developers relentlessly pursuing profits. A change.org petition started by Melbourne University Law Students is calling for the rebuilding of the pub and a public inquiry into its demolition. The petition won’t bring back the original building as it was but it might be a sufficient deterrent. If miscreants are forced to rebuild the buildings they illegally destroy and are denied permission to do any redevelopment on the site, then others may refrain from doing this because the potential penalties are too large a burden.
Another innovation which was used in the case of the buildings illegally demolished on Parramatta Road in Sydney was to prosecute the developer personally instead of merely prosecuting his company. A fine hurts more if you cannot rely on the limited liability of your company. The local council also withdrew permission for the developer to build on the site. If they have not already done so, councils could explicitly state that developers will have development applications refused if they have illegally demolished a building.
The communal outcry at the destruction of the Corkman Irish Pub demonstrates that Melbourne residents value their history and cultural heritage. Last week was History Week in Victoria with a wealth of great events. It is sad that in Melbourne last week it was this illegal destruction of an old building which gained the most news coverage about history.
The illegal demolition of the Corkman Irish Hotel continues to unfold:
- 20/10/2016: Trade unions have announced a ‘green ban’, banning work on the site.
- 25/10/2016: There is more bad news regarding the illegal demolition of the Corkman Irish Hotel. Asbestos-contaminated rubble from the demolition has been illegally dumped at a site in north-west Melbourne. 7/11/2016: Many have expressed concern that the fines which may amount to $20,000 are inadequate.
- 27/10/2016: The Victorian Planning Minister, Richard Wynne, explains changes to the planning overlay affecting the site allowing the Melbourne City Council time to address this issue. Under the new rules only a two-story heritage-style building will be allowed to be built on the site. Penalties will also be levied.
- 27/10/2016: According to The Age, the developers have written to the Victorian Planning Minister, apologising for the illegal demolition and have promised to rebuild the hotel. However, the Minister, together with Melbourne City Council are going ahead with an application to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to force the developers to rebuild the pub within a year.
- 28/10/2016: The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) has fined the developers over $15,000 for not covering asbestos as well as an earlier $7,500. The EPA imposed a deadline of 4pm Friday for covering the contaminated rubble. This deadline was not met, so the EPA is taking steps to do this itself. More fines are expected to be imposed when the case is prosecuted in court.
- There have been a number of articles explaining the type of heritage protection over the Corkman Irish Hotel. This article in The Age explains the ‘heritage overlay’ protection which covered the Corkman on the date of its destruction. Another article on 29/10/2016 explains the process of heritage assessment and protection generally as well as some recent examples in Melbourne where this process has been found wanting.
- 31/10/2016: The work of journalist, Clay Lucas, in reporting this issue at The Age is highlighted as an example of the importance of having strong independent media.
- 3/11/2016: Professor Stuart Macintyre argues that a greater threat to Victoria’s heritage buildings stems from “general decline and neglect”. He urges more people to get involved in the heritage process as, “[a]ll of us are the beneficiaries of the state’s heritage”.
- 7/11/2016: I have written about this issue for the blog of the Professional Historians Association of NSW & ACT.