BOB REECE is Emeritus Professor of History at Murdoch University and an authority on Fremantle history. In this week’s THINKING ALLOWED he celebrates the “saving” of the J-Sheds from an inappropriate tavern, but warns locals might have another battle on their hands soon, with the imminent sale of Victoria Hall by Fremantle council.
FREOITES heaved a sigh of relief at the State Planning Commission’s (WAPC’s) rejection of Sunset Events’ plans for a large tavern at the J-Shed end of Bathers’ Beach.
But there is no reason to be complacent about this victory for the conservation cause. No sooner did Sunset give up their 21-year lease on part of the A class public reserve at Arthur Head than news came that Council was selling off Victoria Hall.
The Church of England (original owners of what was the parish hall when it was built in 1897) would be willing to buy the building for a less than-commercial price, but the cash-strapped council seems unlikely to co-operate.
What a developer might do with it is anybody’s guess, except that part-conversion into bijou apartments at the rear is a possibility.
So we may have another conservation battle on our hands, this time with council itself as the principal player and with no layer of government protection in the form of the WAPC.
What is at stake, as well as the integrity of this splendid building, is community ownership and use of one of the city’s few remaining venues for public meetings and entertainment.
All the more reason to ask what lessons can be learnt from the long-drawn out Arthur Head campaign, led by the resident artists, FICRA and the Roundhouse Guides, warmly supported by the Fremantle Society, Historical Society, other local organisations and concerned townspeople.
In the end, the decisive factors were the legitimacy of the conservation case, the professionalism of officers of the WAPC and the tenacity of the activists who were able to keep the issue alive over five years despite only fitful media interest.
It was clear from the outset that the necessary majority of Fremantle’s councillors could not be relied upon to take up this important local conservation issue on behalf of rate-payers.
Initially, only a small minority expressed opposition, while many employed the tired old mantra of ‘activating’ the site and others wavered.
Declarations of conflict of interest were inconsistent and there was a popular perception that there was cronyism at work.
The official advice given to councillors varied but tended to down-play the heritage importance of Arthur Head (remember, ‘it’s just a cliff’), while the developer-friendly Heritage Council acted as a rubber stamp.
The mantra that the conservationists wanted to ‘lock up’ Fremantle’s heritage places was freely employed.
The Fremantle Port Authority was unhappy about the plan but didn’t think it would negatively affect their daily business.
There was significant indigenous opposition but council did not take it seriously.
A late initiative by the mayor to employ a commercial firm to ‘mediate’ with Sunset bordered on farce when it only consulted with the artists.
Fortunately, the last council elections brought in some new members who could look at the issue with fresh eyes, but almost too late for them to be effective.
It had been thought by its opponents that ultimately the only way of defeating the project was to persuade the Liquor Licensing Authority that a tavern in this location would threaten public good order.
In the end, it was blocked at WAPC level on its officers’ recommendation after they had inspected the site and agreed that it was inappropriate.
Community sentiment, the principle of community ownership and well-informed and articulate opposition had played an important part in the J Shed story.
They may be needed once again when tenders for the purchase of Victoria Hall close in a few weeks’ time.