Ann Hardy 26 January 2014
Hunter Regional Committee of the National Trust
Why the rush to sell the Newcastle Court House? It was quite a surprise this week when State Member Tim Owen announced that Newcastle Court House will go on the market in a few weeks. It appears discussions have already taken place with developers, however, the wider community and heritage authorities have not been consulted. The Court House is part of the city’s Government Domain, which was nominated for National Heritage Listing in 2013. The Domain is linked to Newcastle’s original settlement, where Government House and other administrative infrastructure were situated in 1804. The precinct contains the first working coal shafts in Australia, the magnificent military buildings built by imperial forces in 1842 and retains a significant cultural landscape.
The National Trust of Australia (NSW) listed the Newcastle Court House on its Register in 1976 and believes it is a heritage asset inextricably linked with its use and government ownership. Like the Post Office, the Court House is a landmark building, sited within a historic area of Australia's second oldest city. While the Trust supports the concept of "adaptive reuse" to fund ongoing maintenance, any development proposal must be sympathetic.
The building is not yet redundant. It continues to function as a Court House and may be needed for public use in the future. It doesn’t make sense to sell the building before the new court house is completed.
Buildings at the Domain have a long history of government use, assisting authorities when there is overflow from other government services. The military buildings, originally used for this purpose for only 12 years, went on to accommodate public servants, the volunteer militia, girls at the Industrial School and, finally, a mental health use. The Family Court and related services in the precinct may require additional building space in the future or the building could provide space in times of need for other public services.
Is this sale what the community wants? The Trust believes that, as the ultimate owners of publicly-owned heritage places, the community must be able to comment on their future. The community needs to be informed about any proposed disposal at an early stage in the process, before decisions are made. The Trust supports redevelopment of the Newcastle Court House if its heritage values are retained; if this cannot be assured, then this building should remain in government hands. There are many other questions, such as: Will the building be sold or leased? What is the area of land proposed for sale? What are the conditions of sale? What protective measures will be in place ensuring cultural heritage is retained?
The Court House should not be sold on a whim! Further assessment is urgently needed to explore whether it is in the public interest to keep this heritage asset publically-owned and to maintain public accessibility.
More discussion is needed before selling this important landmark building.
The community must be enabled to oppose alienation on the grounds that a publicly owned asset should be retained in public ownership as it is in the public interest to do so.