The proposed construction of Parramatta Powerhouse and the associated desecration of Parramatta’s local heritage has been, along with the Sirius Building and the Windsor Bridge, one of the prominent heritage battles in NSW’s recent history.
The complex battle to save both the Powerhouse Museum at Ultimo and protect the heritage items at the proposed new Powerhouse site in Parramatta has been running for six years and has seen more than 620 letters of concern and outrage published in letters to the Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald,1 generated more than 1300 submissions during the project approval phase, and a further 179 submissions into the Parliamentary Inquiry. This is an extraordinary testament to the depth of public concern around the project, but what can we learn from this campaign?
What was the issue with the proposal?
The first battle started in 2015, when the NSW Government announced plans to abandon the Powerhouse Museum at Ultimo and relocate it to a new site in Parramatta. There was wide outcry at the plans. The Powerhouse Museum was more than a world renowned museum; importantly, it was also a former industrial building that was eminently suited to house and display a collection of large significant moveable heritage items. The proposal to move its collection and sell the former powerhouse to developers as part of Sydney’s urban renewal horrified people, and was seen as yet another example of the sale of important public assets that would have no actual benefit to the public.
Wide scale campaigning during late 2015 and early 2016 by many individuals and organisations, including the Powerhouse Museum Alliance, generated over 12,000 signatures on a petition to keep the Powerhouse Museum at its Ultimo site, while also supporting a specific cultural facility in Parramatta.
The public outcry gained political attention and, in 2016, the NSW Legislative Council began an Inquiry into museums and galleries that focused heavily on the proposals for the Powerhouse Museum.
The Inquiry’s final report (February 2019) was damning, stating:
After much evidence, it seems that the decision to relocate the Powerhouse Museum has been based on poor planning and advice, a flawed business case and insufficient community consultation. Nothing so far has demonstrated the necessity or purpose for relocating this world renowned cultural institution, an institution that is much loved and internationally well regarded.
Given the significance of this project, the lack of detail, analysis and evidence regarding costs and logistics associated with the relocation has been staggering. Add to that a total disregard for Treasury guidelines regarding a cost benefit analysis for the project, and what remains is simply an expensive and unnecessary project built on poor foundations.
How did the battle play out?
Despite the Inquiry’s scathing review, it took another 16 months for the government to finally abandon its plans for the Ultimo site and commit to retaining a Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo. The Powerhouse building was, for now, saved as a public asset.
One year later, the government allocated $500 million to an overhaul of the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo, but there were caveats. Only the largest industrial moveable heritage items would be retained at Ultimo, the rest would be moved to either storage or to a new museum and the Ultimo museum would instead focus on fashion and STEM technologies. Suddenly the win of retaining the Ultimo Powerhouse as a Museum didn’t quite seem like the win the community was hoping for – this was a very narrow focus for a Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.
Meanwhile, the NSW Government continued to press ahead with its plans for developing a new museum site in Parramatta and another battle started, this time to save Parramatta’s local heritage. The location of the proposed new Parramatta Powerhouse was in a flood-risk zone beside the Parramatta River, and its construction would involve the demolition of two historic properties, Willow Grove and St Georges Terraces.
The community, together with heritage organisations, did not oppose a world class museum in Parramatta; they simply did not believe it should come at the cost of losing other heritage items.
The National Trust repeatedly stated to government and media that we welcomed the decision to retain the Powerhouse at its Ultimo site and that we applauded the listing of the original Powerhouse Building on the State Heritage Register, but at the same time we held grave concerns over the proposed new Powerhouse Museum at Parramatta and the heritage impacts its construction would have on Parramatta’s local heritage. Our voice added to the myriad of other concerned voices across the state arguing the same thing, most notably the Powerhouse Museum Alliance, North Parramatta Residents Action Group (NPRAG) and Save Willow Grove.
In October 2020, the government announced that St Georges Terrace would be retained, but this came with the concurrent announcement that Willow Grove would be “dismantled” and moved to an undisclosed location in Parramatta where it would eventually be reconstructed.
The community and heritage advocates fought long and hard – galvanising immense public support, launching petitions and gaining regular media attention. The National Trust maintained that the retention of St George’s Terrace was not properly considered and that the “reconstruction” of Willow Grove was in fact its demolition –its fragile materials would simply crumble when dismantling commenced. A CFMEU Green Ban was placed on the site and an appeal against the approval of the project by NPRAG was launched in the Land and Environment Court.
With a backdrop of immense community pushback and the phenomenal cost of the project, with each iteration the proposed Parramatta Powerhouse became quite possibly the worst example of the deficiencies in the process, management and care of heritage in NSW – and all to facilitate a museum which should celebrate such things.
Undoubtedly, there have been some wins from six years of community and organisational campaigning. If the original proposals had proceeded the Ultimo Powerhouse building would have been sold for private development, there would be no Powerhouse Museum in central Sydney, and St Georges Terraces would have been completely demolished.
The advocacy of heritage organisations like the National Trust and the community resulted in keeping the Ultimo Powerhouse building in public hands, its retention as a museum, and the saving of Parramatta’s St Georges Terraces.
In August 2021, following the Land and Environment Court’s rejection of North Parramatta Resident’s Action Group’s appeal, the CFMEU lifted their Green Ban on Willow Grove and the final death knell for Willow Grove, and for the campaign, was sounded.
How do we keep the flame of advocacy burning?
There is a grave danger for those who dedicate their time to advocacy that they will burn out and become dispirited by the losses they encounter and the decisions their hard work failed to impact. It could be easy for the community, after the long and drawn out campaign for the protection of the Powerhouse at Ultimo, St George’s Terrace and Willow Grove, to become disheartened and overwhelmed by their losses. The National Trust has been advocating for the protection of NSW’s heritage for 75 years – the lessons learnt in that time have been hard, but they sustain the longevity of our advocacy.
Yes, there were losses, but advocacy proved it can influence change – our collective efforts stopped the Powerhouse at Ultimo being sold to developers, they kept a museum in the building and the saved St Georges Terraces will remain in Parramatta. More importantly, they proved that communities are not apathetic and that people are willing to stand up and fight, again and again, for the protection of our heritage. This is greatest win out of the campaign: the community activated and found its voice.
And we have to keep advocating – we have to keep fighting and keep making sure our message is heard. The only way to keep heritage protection on the radar, and to make sure that policy makers and the public understand what is needed and why, is to keep at our advocacy indefinitely. We have to see advocacy as something that never stops.
The campaign experience that many community groups gained over the last six years is an invaluable resource for the future. Win or lose, these battles have built a movement through their collective efforts — a community of supporters, advocates, experts, donors and volunteers who care deeply about our heritage. These supporters will continue to care if we give them a reason to and if we nurture those hard-won relationships, and they will join us for the next campaign. What comes next is up to us.
Perhaps, in fact, it was the battle that we lost, not the war.
The National Trust acknowledges and gives our full respect to every individual, member, group and organisation that preserved, activated and dedicated their time to this collective advocacy campaign.