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New South Wales State of the Environment
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Human Settlement

SoE 2003 > Human settlement > 2.6 Heritage

Chapter 2: Human Settlement

2.6 Heritage

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2.6 Heritage

Recognition and identification of NSW's cultural heritage has increased and improved

The monitoring and management of heritage items and sites has improved in recent years, as has the representation of Aboriginal communities and individuals in heritage decision-making processes. It is now accepted that pro-active heritage management is more effective than reactive management. The NSW Heritage Office recorded 37,491 heritage items in local, regional and State plans in 2003. The National Parks and Wildlife Service currently has over 39,000 sites listed in its Aboriginal Heritage Information Management System.

The number of registered sites is only a portion of the potential sites that could be included across the State. The condition of the registered sites has not yet been assessed.

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NSW Indicator


Status of Indicator

2.15 Number of cultural heritage items recorded

The methods and mechanisms for recording cultural heritage data are improving, although this does not necessarily reflect the level of protection of the sites or their condition.

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Importance of the issue

The term 'heritage' refers to those places and objects that possess aesthetic, historic, scientific or social qualities and attributes that are of value to the community. Heritage values are defined by people and thus differ among and between individuals and groups with different cultural backgrounds. A diverse range of heritage values is recognised across NSW, largely due to its multicultural population.

Heritage values in NSW are often divided into the categories of 'cultural' and 'natural' heritage, although these may often overlap at a site. Cultural heritage comprises both indigenous and non-indigenous (historic) heritage and takes physical and/or non-physical forms. Physical forms are generally places or objects showing evidence of occupation, such as buildings, roads, stone tools, engraving sites, midden deposits and scarred trees. Non-physical forms may include places which have intangible qualities such as people's associations with or feelings for a place, including those of spiritual, customary or cultural significance like songs, stories, cultural practices and initiation/ceremonial/story places.

At a simplistic level, natural heritage refers to the physical forms of the terrestrial and aquatic environments, such as landforms and landscapes, flora and fauna, and marine, estuarine and inland waters. Natural heritage encompasses a wide range of values. These include the simple value of existence through to those values that are culturally based (Lennon et al. 2001).

Distinguishing between natural and cultural heritage is often difficult because they can be elaborately intertwined. For example, Aboriginal people have always had culturally specific associations with the natural landscape, making their cultural values inseparable from natural values. The cultural dimension of the natural environment has now also become part of the common experience of many other people in NSW.

A number of pressures can affect heritage values. For example, increasing population and housing density in urban areas can lead to the loss or degradation of heritage items and places as land uses change and residential areas and their infrastructure expand and intensify. Conversely, a decrease in population in some towns and rural areas can leave heritage buildings and sites abandoned.

The demand to develop land for urban and other uses has resulted in more heritage sites being recorded in recent times as they are discovered when development is proposed for an area and during inspections to determine site suitability.

Natural heritage is covered in more detail in the Biodiversity chapter. The indicator for this issue is limited to identifying the number of heritage items that have been recorded. Data on whether the State's heritage is adequately protected and conserved is currently limited. As a result, the condition of the identified heritage items and the pressures and threats facing heritage in NSW are not reported here. In order to identify trends or changes to cultural heritage, additional indicators need to be reported against and further baseline data established.

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Response to the issue

Key responses include the listing of places and items with heritage values, legislative and planning controls to protect them, and partnership programs to support the involvement of Aboriginal and other communities in heritage conservation and management.

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Heritage listing

The Heritage Amendment Act 2001 updated the Heritage Act 1977 and established the State Heritage Register, which will eventually become a comprehensive list of heritage items of State significance. The amending Act recognises the substantial role played by local government in listing and managing items of local heritage significance and sets out a stronger role for the community in identifying and listing items. There are now a number of listings or registers of heritage items compiled by local, NSW and Commonwealth government agencies, community groups and professional bodies.

State Heritage Inventory and Register

The State Heritage Inventory comprises all items and places listed on NSW statutory registers, including the State Heritage Register and heritage schedules to local environmental plans (LEPs). As at 2003, a total of 37,491 statutory heritage items across NSW were recorded on the State Heritage Inventory by the NSW Heritage Office (see Table 2.6). Over 80% of these items are privately owned; more than 70% are of local heritage significance and listed by local councils.

Table 2.6: Number of statutory heritage items




Total items







Heritage Act: State Heritage Register







Heritage Act: s.170 State agency heritage register(b)







Regional environmental plans







Local environmental plans














Source: NSW Heritage Office data, as at 2003

Notes: Some items may appear on more than one list. The application of the data categories is patchy and partial across the system.

(a) 'Metropolitan' includes all local government areas within and bounded by and including Wollongong, Camden, Campbelltown, Liverpool, Blue Mountains, Hawkesbury, Gosford, Wyong, Lake Macquarie and Newcastle local government areas.

(b) Includes items listed on State agency heritage registers which are compiled as a requirement of the Heritage Act.

The most comprehensive list of places and items of State heritage significance are those recorded on the State Heritage Register, which is a statutory responsibility of the Heritage Council of NSW and NSW Heritage Office. The register comprises 1508 items including 121 new items listed in 2001–02. Around half of these items are publicly or State-owned. Table 2.7 shows that the majority (70%) of items on the register are buildings. As a general rule, the older the listing the less reliable is the data associated with it, and the more likely it is to be an item of 19th century built heritage. A broader concept of what constitutes cultural heritage has only developed over the last 15 years. More recent listings as a result of the innovative regional State Heritage Register Project record the condition of the item at the time of listing. This data will provide the benchmark for future surveys of the condition of these listed items.

Table 2.7: Type of physical items on the State Heritage Register




Total items

























Source: NSW Heritage Office data, as at 2003

Notes: Aboriginal heritage items can be found within each of these categories.

(a) 'Metropolitan' includes all local government areas within and bounded by and including Wollongong, Camden, Campbelltown, Liverpool, Blue Mountains, Hawkesbury, Gosford, Wyong, Lake Macquarie and Newcastle local government areas.

(b) 'Moveable' items include historic machinery, railway items, ferries and significant collections held in museums or historic places.

While Aboriginal sites and relics are primarily cared for under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974, Aboriginal sites or places of significance can be listed on the State Heritage Register. The Heritage Council's Aboriginal Heritage Committee has facilitated the listing of important sites on the register, which are recognised as being important to more than one Aboriginal community, such as the Day of Mourning site in Elizabeth Street, Sydney. This is despite 'State significance' being a problematic concept for Aboriginal communities, because their affiliation is to 'country', rather than the abstract concept of 'State'.

Aboriginal Heritage Information Management System

Until recently, Aboriginal objects ('sites') were narrowly defined. However today there is an increasing move to record locations that are important to Aboriginal people, recognising linkages to the post-European settlement period and the importance of contemporary places to them. In 2001, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) replaced the NSW Aboriginal Site Register with the Aboriginal Heritage Information Management System, which classifies sites according to site 'features' to better capture the multiple facets of many places of significance to Aboriginal people.

As at June 2003, the NPWS had registered 39,298 Aboriginal sites and 52,221 features at a total of 41 Aboriginal places across NSW (Table 2.8). The datasets only include sites brought to the attention of NPWS and in no way represent the greater numbers of sites across the landscape. Many 'intangible' sites and places which have high sensitivity and significance to Aboriginal communities may not be recorded with government.

Table 2.8: Registered NSW Aboriginal sites by feature

Site feature


Site feature


Aboriginal ceremony and the Dreaming


Habitation structure


Aboriginal resource and gathering






Modified tree




Non-human bone




Ochre quarry


Ceremonial ring


Potential archaeological deposit


Conflict (massacre)




Earth mound


Stone arrangement


Fish trap


Stone quarry


Grinding groove




Total number of features


Total number of sites


Source: NPWS data, as at June 2003

Note: One site may contain a number of features. These sites do not correlate with those listed by the NSW Heritage Office and must be considered separately. They are found both in and outside national parks.

Other lists

Heritage items considered to be of national significance by the Australian Heritage Commission are listed on the Register of the National Estate. The register contains a list of natural, historic and Aboriginal places. As at April 2003, there was a total of 3877 registered and interim places in NSW on the register, comprising 222 indigenous, 521 natural and 3134 historic listings. Some places on the register also appear on the State Heritage Register and local lists.

At an international level, areas with natural and cultural heritage which are considered to be of 'outstanding universal value' and meet with the strict criteria of the World Heritage Convention may be entered onto the World Heritage List. Four such areas have been listed in NSW: the Central Eastern Rainforest Reserves of Australia, Lord Howe Island, Willandra Lakes and the Greater Blue Mountains area (see Biodiversity 6.1).

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Legislative and planning controls

The Heritage Act 1977 was introduced in response to community concern over the escalating loss of its built heritage through the perceived excesses of post-war development. The legislation has mainly focused on protecting the built environment using permanent conservation orders typically made over properties under threat of demolition or large-scale development. These have frequently been privately owned colonial buildings in the Sydney metropolitan area.

The Heritage Amendment Act 2001 has encouraged measures to promote the long-term conservation and reuse of listed heritage items. All owners of State Heritage Register items are now required to observe minimum maintenance standards to prevent the deterioration of listed items. The preparation of conservation management plans is encouraged, both to aid long-term conservation and management and to assist owners to adapt properties without repeated reference to the Heritage Council for development approval. The Act also allows for the use of interim heritage orders over built places which appear to be of heritage significance but have yet to be listed on the register. Ten of these orders were made in 2001–02. A number of rural councils have been authorised to use these interim orders at the local level.

The Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 provides local councils with the power to protect items and places of local heritage significance through the land-use planning process. Councils can incorporate standard heritage provisions and schedules of heritage items and places within their local environmental plans (LEPs). These provisions outline council requirements for development involving listed and unlisted heritage items. Development control plans contain further detail of how items and places listed in LEP heritage schedules are to be managed. The assessment of environmental impacts, including on Aboriginal heritage, in the land-use planning and development approval process is also established under the Act.

As well as protecting natural and cultural heritage through the formal reserve system and the National Parks Estate, the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 provides statutory protection for all Aboriginal objects and those Aboriginal places in NSW declared by the Minister as having special significance to Aboriginal culture. A Heritage Impact Permit (previously known as a Consent to Destroy) is required when a development proposal has a potential impact on an Aboriginal object or place. As a consent authority in the integrated development approval process, the NPWS must consider the impact on all Aboriginal heritage values prior to agreeing to the development. The Act also provides opportunities to return ownership of national parks and reserves to Aboriginal people and ensure that parks are managed by Aboriginal people in partnership with NPWS.

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Working with the community to conserve heritage

Over the last five years there has been increasing emphasis on working in partnership with Aboriginal communities to support their aspirations to manage their heritage. Positive outcomes include:

  • 18 agreements as at 30 June 2002 between NPWS and Aboriginal communities covering Aboriginal co-management of protected areas and access to cultural sites
  • increased Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander representation on NPWS regional advisory committees and management trusts with representation on 44% of committees as at March 2002
  • establishment of a three-year NPWS Repatriation Program to return Aboriginal ancestral remains and cultural material to communities
  • formation of the Aboriginal Heritage and Land Management Network, which provides a mechanism for Aboriginal staff from NSW Government agencies to work together.

The NSW Government has been working with ethnic communities to develop increased awareness of multicultural heritage and assist with the listing of places which are particularly important to these communities. One such initiative is the Ethnic Communities Consultation Program, launched by the NSW Heritage Office in 1997. Initially focusing on the Chinese and Italo-Australian communities, the program has led to the listing of items as diverse as the Yiu Ming Temple in Alexandria, market gardens in south-eastern Sydney, and the New Italy archaeological site near Woodburn.

There are a range of funding programs that support the community's identification and management of heritage. These include:

  • the NSW Heritage Incentives Program, which has funding for projects to assist Aboriginal and ethnic communities identify, conserve and manage places or objects they value
  • the Commonwealth Cultural Heritage Projects Program, which provides funding for built heritage and indigenous projects for items on the Register of the National Estate or State Heritage Register
  • local council grants or loans to assist heritage projects
  • the Commonwealth's Natural Heritage Trust and the NSW Environmental Trust Program which fund community environmental restoration and rehabilitation projects.

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Effectiveness of responses

It is difficult to gauge how effective the legislation has been in protecting heritage in NSW. The inclusion of new items on heritage lists and registers reflects increasing recognition and awareness of heritage. However it does not necessarily demonstrate the effectiveness of the heritage protection system itself. While inclusion on statutory heritage lists or registers affords legal protection for items and places, current data systems do not allow for a systematic assessment of their condition.

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Future directions

All levels of government need to play a part in the ongoing management, enhancement and protection of natural and cultural heritage. Governments should work in partnership with Aboriginal communities to facilitate access to places and gathering of resources, and ensure that communities have an opportunity to actively participate in the identification, assessment, interpretation and management of their cultural heritage.

Government also needs to focus on capacity building within its own ranks and in communities. This could be achieved through cultural training for government employees, computer (and internet) access for Aboriginal communities, placement of Aboriginal extension and liaison staff, and assistance to look after the land.

Government needs to assess the quality of heritage sites and their condition in order to be able to identify trends or changes to cultural heritage over time.

Developers should ensure there is appropriate assessment prior to development in areas which may contain Australian heritage, including consultation with the local Aboriginal community where applicable. NSW environmental impact assessments currently focus on physical heritage items and there is an argument for a broader definition of heritage, although this raises issues relating to categorisation and identification.

Individuals can actively participate in the identification, listing and management of items and places of cultural significance to them. All individuals can help to prevent damage to sites and behave appropriately when visiting heritage places.

Government and the tourism industry should continue to develop the potential for mutual benefit through the promotion of heritage-linked tourist activities.

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Linked issues

6.1 Terrestrial ecosystems

6.3 Terrestrial species diversity

6.6 Aquatic ecosystems

6.7 Aquatic species diversity

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