A breach of faith

VINCENT SAMMUT of Franklin Street, Leederville, is concerned by Vincent city council’s tougher approach to heritage protection, saying it tramples individual property rights.

I APPLAUD Vincent mayor John Carey and councillors for their great leadership in the fight to keep Vincent free of amalgamation. However, they are not infallible.

Concerning the heritage listing of a shop at the corner of Charles and Newcastle Streets, questions arise (“Council takes tougher line on heritage, Voice, June 28, 2014). The re-categorisation of a previously unlisted property gives cause for serious challenge to council thinking.

The 1894 shop in question is not invisible. Various Vincent councils over the years have had ample opportunity to deliberate over its appropriate heritage status. With respect to the “consent” rules, it was not listed because the owner withheld consent, as was his right. Now, a retrospective change in the heritage status of the building to “category B” is proposed for which consent is not a requirement for listing.

The owner has had the rug pulled out from under him. What of his loss of benefit from his investment, believing in good faith, the property was unencumbered by heritage provisions?

We must assume the original heritage assessment was made only after a prescribed process was followed and all contingencies were carefully considered. Then, what previously unknown factors were discovered to warrant a different assessment?

If not its age, history or physical character, what changed? If the council cannot produce tangible evidence to support its decision is it fair to conclude it based its decision on collective sentiments, personal preferences and “gut” feelings, all of which are unquantifiablly subjective and hardly a basis for making important and binding decisions affecting the lives and welfare of individual owners.

A decision or ruling made by the council is a kind of contract of understanding: an implied relationship with all the normal expectations implicit in a relationship. One trusts each will hold faithfully to the contract. Contracts can change by mutual agreement but when the council, without consultation, changes the terms of understanding, it loses trust, integrity and it shows lack of faith: it looks fickle.

As for the hapless victim of its indefensible change of heart, he is left with a powerless inability to act as an equal partner in the matter. His rights are squashed. It seems the council can make decisions without reference to an accountable, transparent system of rule-making. Ratepayers should have the right to demand legislation that is formulated on understandable, concrete grounds and not on shifting value judgements.

All ratepayers want certainty so they can confidently plan without fear their plans and dreams may be nullified. Once the council gives its approval it must stand by its decision. If the council can change decisions merely through exercise of power that is government by edict.

Do we want government by power or by principle? If the council can entertain the desire to “unilaterally list commercial buildings” without first providing a comprehensive ethical, argument with sound premises, demonstrating that all parties will be dealt with in an equitable manner and there will be no financial victims, then what is to prevent it from “unilaterally” listing all categories of buildings, including homes?

If no principles or policies are adhered to and it so easy to change existing decisions, where does that leave us? It certainly isn’t certainty.

The council has a responsibility to stand up for individual rights. This is not happening. It is the law that the vendor of a property has an obligation to disclose any information about the condition, history or any adverse proposed planning decisions relating to that property which might cause the prospective buyer to cancel the purchase.

Surely, councils have an obligation to inform a possible buyer of any intention to change the heritage status of a building before purchase is settled. If this isn’t practicable then council should stand by the heritage status existing at the time of purchase.

Ask yourself, “if this were my property, how would I feel about the council destroying my investment potential without full compensation?”.

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