COLIN NICHOL is a former committee member of the Fremantle Society and in his heyday hung out with the Beatles as one of Britain’s famous Pirate DJs. In this week’s THINKING ALLOWED, he argues that following the closure of the Whalers Tunnel, Fremantle Council needs to reassess its priorities and pay more attention to the city’s heritage.
THE cliffs above Whalers Tunnel at Arthur Head on Fremantle’s seafront are coming down around the ears of the city council, the body trusted by the state with its care.
Access has been restricted as areas of this central part of the port city’s history and heritage and major attraction of state-wide importance, are now deemed unsafe. Visitors mill about confused due to lack of suitable signs.
The Roundhouse on top, itself showing signs of wear, is said not to be in danger of slipping off the hill—or through it—and the tunnel below is reported to be safe.
Fremantle council infrastructure director Graham Tattersall says: “There are no safety concerns with the structural integrity of the tunnel itself.”
He adds remedial work was, “previously carried out in 2014 to address safety concerns. Because of these on-going issues the city conducts regular monitoring of cliff faces”.
The city received a detailed report in February and subsequently “made the decision to implement the current precautionary safety measures”.
The director presages another wait: the city has, “provided their first proposal for the short-term works, the shaving back of the overhang to the section of cliff face near the railway line to state heritage, to be discussed at their development committee meeting on 24 April.”
They hope to complete that by mid-May, allowing re-opening of that footpath.
The dramatic ‘overnight’ closure bespeaks of urgency: council has seemingly been caught on the hop and further, Fremantle mayor Brad Pettitt refers to “areas where there is a high risk of a rock fall.”
Now suddenly, the situation is of “high risk”.
Disappointingly, relevant government ministers appear to be ducking the issue with no response to requests for “comment” and “comfort” for the citizens of Fremantle. Council is “currently pursuing the design and hire of a scaffolding structure to be erected at the ocean-side tunnel entrance to provide temporary protection to the public and allow us to re-open the tunnel.
“We are hoping to have this in place by the end of April.
“There is no timeline for other works.”
South Metropolitan MLC Simon O’Brien, a long-time friend of Fremantle, says: “The problem with vesting some assets with local governments is sometimes there is no plan or capacity to maintain the asset.
“The tunnel for example, has previously been the recipient of very expensive repairs, so I find it hard to believe there is no ongoing plan of monitoring and maintenance.
“Questions are rightfully being asked as to why this situation was allowed to get so bad, but right now what is needed is for the state government to move decisively to protect this heritage site”.
He followed up with a question in the Legislative Council and achieved a response on behalf of the government:
“Officials from the City of Fremantle and the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage have met to discuss an appropriate way forward for managing the deteriorating cliff face.
“Discussions included short-term stabilisation of the cliff face to ensure public safety risks are addressed and the development of a long-term conservation strategy.
“The department will continue to offer its advice and support to the city as both these plans are developed, finalised and executed.
“The City of Fremantle is responsible for maintenance of the Arthur Head precinct under a management order from the state”.
No mention of who pays—the ratepayer?
The city responds that costs have not been determined but “will be significant”.
“Given the heritage significance of the site we would hope both the state and federal governments will make a contribution towards these works.”
No budget provision?
Local government shadow minister Tony Krsticevic was unimpressed: “I understand that concerns have been raised with the City of Fremantle about the stability of the cliffs for a number of years and the recent closure of the tunnel shows that this issue has not been adequately addressed.
“As the custodian of a heritage place, the city has a responsibility to protect, promote and preserve this historic landmark.”
Mr Krsticevic calls for the new heritage legislation to be enacted urgently.
That act “will enable the minister to issue a ‘repair order’ to sustain the long-term viability of heritage places and prevent demolition by neglect”.
Care of the showplace city centre is paramount.
Neglect of Arthur Head—a metaphor for the city’s shortcomings—might be seen as representative of a malaise at the Town Hall and an oft-observed casualness about heritage.
It could be seen a problem of narrow focus, resulting in this so public embarrassment for a council that needs to reassess its priorities.