Footscray heritage scheme opens a can of worms

The push by Maribyrnong City Council to protect about 900 interwar and postwar homes in West Footscray and surrounding suburbs might seem surprising.

These are not the kind of homes you might think typically warrant heritage protection. A mix of humble weatherboards and classic “suburban” brick veneers, most are superficially unremarkable or downright ugly, and some are in poor condition, ripe for renovation or redevelopment, sitting as they do on large blocks of land just a few kilometres from the CBD.

Cameron Goodison bought his home shortly before it was granted heritage protection.Credit:Justin McManus

But in recent years the council has grown convinced that these pockets of housing stock have as much historical value as the grander period homes that contribute so much to the amenity of Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.

According to its heritage consultants, who studied the area in 2021, while the postwar properties in particular are plain, even austere, they are “representative of an important period in the city’s development … these places have, with the passage of time, accumulated cultural heritage values”.

The consultants accepted that some people would find the homes “unlovely” and not worthy of protection but noted: “Developing an understanding of the value of the postwar austerity house in particular will require a process of education, explanation and clear articulation of cultural values. It is accepted that in every place, and for each generation, the recognition of heritage value takes some time.”

The problem the council faced was what to do while it considered which, if any, of its precincts of interwar and postwar homes it should protect with a permanent heritage overlay. In late 2021 it decided to apply for an interim protection order that would safeguard any homes under “immediate threat” while the long-term change to the planning scheme, known as Amendment C172, played out. Something of a nuclear option, it meant a planning permit was required for any major works. Permission for demolition and redevelopment would be extremely unlikely if not impossible.

This interim order caught out at least a few home owners. Randall Teo told The Age his plans to rebuild were now on hold and that his property would be worth $300,000 less under a heritage overlay. Cameron Goodison, who bought in West Footscray in 2021, almost immediately found his renovation plans frustrated by the interim protection order. “We were pretty angry about it because we had a life plan, and now it’s up in the air,” he said.

It is hard to not be sympathetic. But the council’s argument is that, without an interim order in place, some home owners might have rushed to demolish or reconfigure their homes without regard to the upcoming overlay protection, frustrating the council’s attempt to preserve intact streetscapes. The move to preserve was not entirely retrospective: plans that were already approved have been allowed to proceed.

Maribyrnong’s initiative rightly recognises part of Melbourne’s history that has long been overlooked. The intact neighbourhoods of our inner-western suburbs are as deserving of protection as Victorian and Edwardian streetscapes in the east, where residents’ amenity (and house prices) are enhanced by the preservation of neighbourhood character. Maribyrnong council’s proposal, to pick out only the most significant pockets, also appears to have been made with discretion.

This is a difficult issue, from a public policy and a public relations point of view. Preserving these streetscapes is worthwhile, but so is encouraging sensitive redevelopment to increase urban density in such a desirable location. The majority of public submissions to the council last year opposed the amendment, and the independent planning panel now considering the council’s application should ensure the community’s voice is considered.

The curious case of Footscray’s postwar heritage offers a welcome opportunity to revive the discussion about land use across Melbourne: what we protect, what we choose not to and how much more of our valuable inner-city land we can afford to preserve unchanged while demand for housing continues to grow.

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