It’s a measure of the deep, dark stain with which the property developers’ dollar has coloured Adelaide’s political and property culture since the 1990s that a major study of the value of its heritage tourism was only initiated and released for the first time late in 2015. Nobody noticed.
Town Hall, which commissioned it, wrote to the state tourism minister and the federal heritage minister to let them know. It was a naïve attempt to draw attention to research both ministers should have initiated years ago. That neither had done so spoke much about the politics of conserving and championing Adelaide’s heritage fabric as a vital tourism attraction. Its economic benefit shores up much-needed gross state product, to which the city of Adelaide’s gross regional product contributes 20 percent – a crucial contribution as the state struggles under economic malaise and the nation’s highest unemployment rate. The study highlighted significant tourism value in the city’s and North Adelaide’s heritage stock. Annual direct tourism spending attributed to heritage tourism is worth $383 million annually (2013–14) and direct tourism spending retained in Adelaide as a result of its attractive character is worth $119 million. Unfortunately, however, the December 2015 release of the report coincided with the tail end of a four-year government development plan-amendment rezoning drive across the city and its edges, pursued by the city’s planning minister, John Rau. It will go down in history as one of Adelaide’s most destructive planning eras. It’s been a period during which the development plan provisions that directly affect the future integrity of heritage residential and commercial streetscapes have been revised in favour of provisions benefiting the ‘new’ high-rise champions – much of whose money is escaping from China’s jittery stock market, with the remainder coming from local, interstate or international speculators (including Malaysia and Singapore) who care only for investment portfolios quarantined from the roller-coaster ride of today’s equities markets. That such property growth has been destroying the character of Australia’s bigger cities in recent years is not news, but Adelaide’s recently changed skyline illustrates that the infection has at last spread south. The report, ‘Economic value of heritage tourism in the City of Adelaide’ assessed the economic benefits of cultural heritage tourism within the city (including North Adelaide). “It demonstrates that an average 27 percent of total visitor spend in Adelaide could be directly attributed to ‘cultural heritage-related tourism’.” It concluded: “A place’s cultural heritage is a tangible asset to both community and business.” There are 647 State Heritage places and 1856 Local Heritage places in the City of Adelaide – 1022 of them in historic North Adelaide. But for most of big land and property speculators, heritage listings and historic conservation zones are a pest and a complication, prompting constant backroom lobbying to have them neutered or altered, fertilised with generous (and often untraceable) political donations to both sides of parliament. In recent years, such lobbying has succeeded beyond many developers’ wildest dreams, but most residents are unaware of the extent of change to these plans, and therefore of the likely future damage to the fabric of Adelaide’s streetscapes at, and adjacent to, the rezoned sites. It has long been accepted in Adelaide’s political and business circles – certainly since the 1990s – that heritage protection remains a ‘dirty’ concept, and that ‘heritage listing’ is a mechanism intent on frustrating land and property speculation. But to publicly say so has been taboo in political and property circles. In 1993, soon after a ‘heritage faction’ of the city council voted to recommend the listing of hundreds of historic buildings, upon the election of a new development-friendly faction the planning minister axed the bid. Many sound, highly regarded landmark buildings were subsequently demolished. It said everything about the city’s priorities then, underscoring a deeply embedded two-party government ideology whose realpolitik planning policy was to aid and abet big developers, on the time-tested ‘you scratch my back’ principle. It has worked very well since, for both sides. The city’s listings tally has since grown slowly, and only after major struggles, in a metropolis where examples across Adelaide’s 175 years of built form evolution could once be found to represent every era of settlement – from early Victorian through to post-war-modern – in the CBD, frame districts, and especially in the residential areas of North Adelaide. One of the most public struggles occurred between 2002 and 2006 to get listed hundreds of buildings and places there, with the residential victors scoring declaration of a historic (conservation) zone, protecting mainly heritage residential places seemingly forever from the developers’ destructive grasp. Fast forward to 2013 and there began another fight on the south edge of the city for a similar protective zoning – a struggle to have listed 251 places that continues in 2016 under the complexities of new planning laws that planning minister John Rau tried to ram through parliament late last year. One reason for the stalling of the south-side bid is that minister Rau promised ‘new heritage [protection] practices’ in the bill, but never delivered. It repeated an old theme – that Adelaide’s political administrations have since the 1990s have paid lip service to heritage protection but have aggressively stalled on supporting bids to ensure development plans better protect Adelaide’s diminishing tourist-attracting heritage streetscapes. In fact, plans have been significantly weakened, opening up opportunities for grossly out-of-scale development within heritage streetscapes. The reason is simple: there’s no money for developers in heritage protection and therefore no related contributions to political parties. The contemporary theme in Adelaide is that Australian-speculative or Asian-fleeing property money in 2016 is talking, and government is listening. Meanwhile, a key new Adelaide tourism heritage study highlighting economic significance to SA has sunk without trace.