The independent body responsible for deciding the heritage status of sites and advising on development applications in the ACT has been suspended to allow a snap review of its operations after complaints that it is dysfunctional and holding up significant projects.
Heritage Minister Rebecca Vassarotti said a surging workload and a range of workplace issues had prompted her to suspend the ACT Heritage Council’s work and order the review, which should be completed in September.
She said the Council’s work in recent months had been marked by delays, a deteriorating workplace environment and breakdown in the relationship between it and ACT Heritage in the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate.
Since 2014, demand for heritage advice related to urban infill projects, greenfield development, and residential works has more than doubled, resulting in the processing of applications from both industry and community blowing out from 60 days to between 80 and 120 days.
“I was made aware of the increase in demand for heritage advice, which had resulted in extended timeframes,” Ms Vassarotti said.
“There have been unacceptable delays for many stakeholders and I have heard significant frustration in the delay of approvals.”
The Council’s effectiveness had been questioned, amid concerns about how it was operating, its interpersonal relationships and the way Council members and ACT Heritage staff were dealing with each other, in the face of an increasing and challenging workload.
“I have formed a view that these circumstances have impacted on the ability of the Council to effectively perform its functions under the ACT Heritage Act 2014,” Ms Vassarotti said.
“Most importantly, I was concerned about how the circumstances may be impacting on the wellbeing of members of the Council and staff of ACT Heritage.”
The Nous Group will conduct the review, which will inquire into the Council’s operations and member relationships, how it engages with ACT Heritage, and its workflow and capacity.
A decision on whether the review will be made public will be made when it is completed, subject to the findings and recommendations in the report.
According to the terms of reference, Council members and ACT Heritage staff will have the option of voluntary individual interviews with Nous Group, or making written submissions, both on a confidential basis.
The final report will not personally identify anyone unless they want to be.
“While the review into the state of affairs is sensitive, the review and subsequent actions taken is critical to supporting the Council to fulfill their important role,” Ms Vassarotti said.
“I have written to Council members to advise of the review and recommend that, until further notice, all meetings and business activities of the Heritage Council be suspended.
“I am pleased by the positive response by Council members for this review and their willingness to restore a successful and cooperative council.”
The most pressing issues before the Council are the provisional registrations of the Former Commonwealth Bank Building on the corner of London Circuit and Ainslie Place in the city, Kingston Post Office and Belconnen Library and Pedestrian Plaza.