Last year, the then state heritage minister, Mark Speakman, refused to list the Brutalist block of public housing apartments on the New South Wales Heritage Register. Doing so would reduce the amount that the government, as its owner, might make from selling it. Now the NSW Land and Environment Court has ruled that the decision is invalid and must be remade.
This does not mean Sirius is now heritage-listed, let alone safe from demolition. Heritage Minister Gabrielle Upton could still decide not to list the building, but she will have to make her decision according to the requirements of the Heritage Act.
Social housing can certainly have heritage significance. We have been building it in Australia for more than 100 years, and its design and construction have been shaped by contemporary architectural and political ideas, sometimes in an exemplary way.
Depending on the degree and extent of its significance, a social housing building or place could come under any of the Australian or international legal regimes. The World Heritage Register includes social housing – the Berlin Modernism Housing Estates. No social housing from Australia has been nominated for that list, nor for the National Heritage List.
The Sirius case is about the state-level heritage regime. If Sirius were listed on the NSW Heritage Register, it would not be the first social housing to be listed. Sirius’s neighbour, the row of terrace houses at Gloucester Street, The Rocks, is listed, along with all of Millers Point. This includes 214 properties – an extraordinary mix of Georgian mansions, Victorian terraces and early 20th-century workers flats.
For many years these properties provided social housing, which is an acknowledged part of their significance. The state government has decided all these properties will no longer be used as social housing. They are being sold off, but remain on the NSW Heritage Register.