The NSW government has suffered an embarrassing blow to plans to sell off the iconic public housing tower Sirius, after the Land and Environment Court ruled former heritage minister Mark Speakman erred twice at law when he refused to give the site heritage listing.
The decision gives the 1979 brutalist-style highrise in The Rocks – best known to motorists crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge for the sign in one window proclaiming “One Way, Jesus” – owned by the government’s Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority (SHFA), a reprieve from the wrecking ball and redevelopment.
Acting justice Simon Molesworth said Speakman, now attorney-general, “side-stepped the required assessment”, when he announced last year that he would not give the building heritage listing because it would reduce its value to developers. Speakman claimed the SHFA would be left up to $70 million out of pocket, which “outweighed” its heritage values.
“This doesn’t mean a practice that money trumps heritage. Here there is a dramatic contrast between whatever heritage value Sirius has and what would be the huge loss of funds,” Speakman said last year.
The Heritage Council unanimously recommended heritage protection for the building, which was born out of the 1970s Green Bans, when the area was redeveloped and union leaders such as Jack Mundey fought to retain the historic inner-city suburb’s working class heritage and people.
Supporters of Sirius used crowd-funding to raise $50,000 for the legal challenge to the former minister’s decision.
Acting justice Molesworth concluded that the former minister failed to properly consider the heritage significance of the building before deciding whether the cost burden was undue, comparing it to the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge.
“The financial impost associated with such iconic heritage items might be enormous, never cease, and cause the owner to suffer financial hardship – but however onerous, any financial hardship would, arguably, never be considered to be ‘undue’,” he said.
“I am of the opinion that reasoning on the basis of ‘whatever the heritage significance’ of Sirius, the Minister did not establish a relevant comparator to determine whether the alleged financial hardship caused by listing Sirius would be ‘undue’.”
It will now be up to current heritage minister Gabrielle Upton to reconsider the listing.
In 2014, NSW government announced plans to sell the 79-apartment complex, along with 121 terrace houses around The Rocks and Millers Point and relocate 400 public housing tenants, sparking widespread protests and a grassroots community campaign against the destruction of the Sirius building.
Family and community services minister said Pru Goward said the properties were being sold because they were worth a lot of money which could be used to build community housing elsewhere.
After a series of protest rallies at the side, the government erected cyclone fencing around the site in May, with the department of family and community services saying it was for “resident and visitor safety”. The building is still home to a legally blind 90-year-old woman, Myra Demetriou, one of two residents the government has not yet evicted from the site.
Last month premier Gladys Berejiklian and treasurer Dominic Perrottet delivered a $4.5 billion budget surplus $500 million more than it predicted six months earlier.