Few people would be surprised to hear that the planning system is currently skewed in favour of big developers at the expense of environmental, social and cultural concerns, but the destruction that is its legacy continues to come to light. Construction of a KFC restaurant in Newcastle recently brought the issue of adequate protection of sites of significant Aboriginal heritage to broader notice.
The development was that of Australia’s largest KFC restaurant, built approximately one year ago. The site is located on Hunter Street in Newcastle west and was formerly occupied by the Palais Royale building, which was demolished in 2008. Disturbingly, this fast-food restaurant has been constructed over one of Australia’s most significant Aboriginal heritage sites.
The excavation report on Aboriginal heritage on the site was not released until almost a year after the restaurant was built, thus making its assessment of the heritage impact of the development largely redundant. The report states that the site had “high to exceptional cultural and scientific significance” and has revealed that the site contained more than 5,700 ancient Aboriginal stone tools with unique stonework and campsite remains. The artefacts date back a remarkable 6,700 to 6,500 years. This makes the artefacts the oldest evidence of human settlement in the Newcastle region.
Excavation reports are commissioned by developers as a condition of receiving an Aboriginal heritage impact permit. Remarkably, it is unclear whether there is any obligation for a developer to make these reports public. In this instance the report was released only because local groups brought enormous pressure on the developer to make it public.
In addition to the ancient Aboriginal artefacts discovered, the report has also revealed the presence of a large array of colonial-era artefacts. This amalgamation of historical pieces has been primarily destroyed through the construction of the KFC building.
Surely, had this report be made public earlier, evidence of such a significant store of artefacts would have been sufficient to justify retention of the site as a State-significant site of Aboriginal cultural heritage.
The justification for allowing excavation and construction on the site before relevant information was available was based upon the developer holding an Aboriginal heritage impact permit. Essentially, these permits are issued when it is known that a development will have an impact that is more than transitory on Aboriginal heritage sites. The Government then allows the developer to permit the destruction of the heritage. Because of lax regulation, this can mean that the development is allowed to progress without the information from the excavation report even being known to those giving the permits.
Members of the local Awabakal people have stated that the final excavation report “highlighted the lack of rigour in the state government’s assessment of Aboriginal heritage”.
With new laws regarding Aboriginal heritage currently proposed, it is essential that we use this opportunity to get it right, and at the centre of that must be the recognition of Aboriginal peoples as the owners of and prime decision-makers about their heritage.
Adapted from an adjournment speech delivered in the NSW Upper House by Greens NSW Heritage spokesperson David Shoebridge.