Serving our heritage

Keith Lester & Tom Uren

The past, present and future: an integrated vision

In all aspects of his life, Tom Uren has displayed a remarkable understanding of the key factors basic to the quality of life of ordinary people. His particular blend of pragmatic idealism has enabled him to make a major contribution in the fields of urban and regional planning, architecture and allied arts, heritage and conservation, housing practice, and the environment. Throughout, Tom Uren has used his personal skills to guide, motivate and inspire a network of talented people from all walks of life to work together towards egalitarian social outcomes.

Tom Uren was born in May 1921, in the then working-class suburb of Balmain. He left school during the depression to help support his family, joined the Army in 1939, and was a prisoner-of-war on the infamous Burma-Thailand railway and in Japan from 1942 to 1945. After the war, he was variously a builder's labourer, professional boxer, rubber millman and Woolworth's manager before entering politics as Member for Reid in Sydney's western suburbs in 1958.

It was as Minister for Urban and Regional Development in the Whitlam government that Tom Uren initiated many projects that have had a deep impact on Australian cultural life. These include the development of the Australian Heritage Commission and consequent compilation of the Register of the National Estate, the restoration and effective re-use of derelict inner city areas such as the Glebe Estate and Woolloomooloo, the reclamation of Duck Creek and the creation of the Chipping Norton Lakes Scheme. Through projects such as these, Tom Uren has played a pivotal role in the development of the heritage and conservation movement in Australia, a movement in which the university also participates through the education of professionals for these fields.

He was also largely responsible for stopping the building of a freeway through Glebe, which would have destroyed a substantial portion of this historic suburb. This has been a major benefit to the amenity of the University, its staff, students and visitors.

Tom Uren has played a key role in the development of innovative social housing policy through the re-housing of the original inhabitants within the area, which ensured a social mix, and by advocating that new infill housing should be of high architectural quality. He also laid the foundations for current community housing programs, and his actions and advocacy for tree planting were precursors to the development of Greening Australia.

After leaving parliament in 1990, Tom Uren continued his involvement in conservation issues, particularly his longstanding concern for the wellbeing of Sydney Harbour and its foreshores. Most recently this led to his being invited to present the inaugural Tuhbow Lecture at the Sydney Opera House in April, 2001.

Tom Uren has been instrumental in changing the way Australians value and treat their natural and built environmental heritage. His work transcends politics. Now in his 82nd year, he has dealt with the past, present and the future as one integrated vision. His contribution to Australian society is of such magnitude that the university is itself honoured to be able to honour him.

Loving Sydney Harbour

Tom uren

My friends, this is a very humbling experience for me. I thank the members of the University Senate for bestowing upon me this great honour. I also thank those faculty members who nominated me for this award. I have had a long public life; people have been a real power and influence in my evolutionary process.

We, who live in Sydney, are privileged people, some more than others. I could speak about some of the social and planning problems of the Sydney metropolis. Today I want to concentrate my comments on our Sydney Harbour, its history, its foreshores and the catchment area of the Harbour. I had prepared a longer contribution, the history of our evolutionary process from Aboriginal pre-European days through to our present period, and looking into the future. Because of time, I've been requested to limit my contribution. I will do my best.

I have had a love affair with our Harbour since I was thirteen years of age. I lived at Manly then and travelled by ferry to and from the city every day. Those moments are still with me. Even in my eighties, when I feel a little low, I take a ferry ride to Manly to get me back on track. Our Harbour has captured so many hearts. Lloyd Rees said of Sydney Harbour:

The first glimpse-a picture in a circular frame, opal blue

water, a band of golden sand, another of silver green trees,

above them a skyline of coral pink shimmering against the

limpid air. In that first long look, Sydney cast her spell and it

remained with me ever since.

This was Manly seen from a porthole of SS Canberra in December 1916 in his book, Small Treasures of a Lifetime. (Lloyd Rees has played an important part in my life, particularly in my years of longevity.)

In my involvement, over forty years, to protect our harbour foreshores, I was inspired by Niels Nielsen who was a Minister for Lands in the McGovern Labor governmentin 1910. Nielsen persuaded the McGovern Cabinet to allocate 150 thousand pounds to acquire land in the area which now carries his name from the Wentworth estate. They also purchased Strickland House and Heritage Reserve. Nielsen's long-term vision was to progressively acquire harbour foreshore land to maximise access for ordinary people. His vision remains with me and will never leave me.

In more recent years, there have been some intense struggles to protect the public foreshore land around our harbour. In October 1996, the Howard government proposed that 120 residential sites be sold to the private sector on Georges Heights and Middle head. There was wide public protest, irrespective of party politics. There was strong agitation for Premier Carr to make his government's attitude known on the four defence sites of Middle Head, Georges Heights, North Head, Woolwich and Cockatoo Island. On 19 August 1997 Premier Carr made an historic speech at Woolwich. He dealt with publicly owned land, now in possession of the Commonwealth, state and local governments, but he went further to spell out his government's approach to future redevelopment of industrialised sites on the Parramatta River. He said:

The harbour is too precious to be sold off for the exclusive use of Sydney's silvertails. And the state government opposes the Commonwealth government's decision to sell defence land to the 'highest bidder' rather than earmarking it for public use.

The Commonwealth reply was made by the Prime Minister on 5 September 1998. Mr Howard announced the setting up of a Sydney Harbour Federation Trust to administer for 10 years the Defence lands at Georges Heights/Middle Head, North Head, Woolwich and Cockatoo Island for 10 years. He stated $96 million would be provided from the Preservation Fund. They set out how that fund would be expended. Mr Howard went on to say that all other development and rehabilitation of lands would come from 'commercial activities'. That meant the sale of lands and long-term leases of heritage buildings The Senate amended the legislation. I was not backward in proposing to Labor, Democrat and Green senators certain changes to the Bill. The Howard government dropped the 'commercial activities' aspects of the Bill. The final Bill is not without criticism. But its great strength is that all the Defence lands were to remain in the public domain.

Another great achievement in the Bill amended by the Senate is that any of the buildings, heritage or otherwise, could not be leased for a period longer than 10 years unless it was referred back to parliament - not the government, but the parliament. The Howard government appointed Kevin McCann, a dedicated lover of our harbour shores, as the Chairman of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust. The Trust employed Geoff Bailey, a brilliant, tenacious public servant and planner as the Executive Director of the Trust. They have acquired some of the most brilliant and sensitive architects and landscape architects and planners in our nation to advise the Trust in its rehabilitation and future development of the Defence lands.

The Federal Trust's document, "An Appreciation of the Trusts Lands on Sydney Harbour", is impressive. It appears to me that the NSW government can learn a lot from the Trust's approach. Contrary to the Howard government's early statement that the Trust should be financed by 'commercial activities', it has been reasonably generous to the Trust with federal finance. This year, they allocated $12 million, so that it is making real progress. Originally, I was opposed to the formation of a Federal Trust. I am now a strong supporter of the progress the Federal Trust is making.

There have been some intense struggles against the action and proposed activities of the NSW government:

  • Wharves 6 and 7 at Walsh Bay were to be privatised.
  • The Sydney Harbour National Park want to privatise the Quarantine Station by granting a 45 year lease to a private developer; and
  • Strickland House near Nielsen Park is another area under threat.

This is a negative side of the NSW government. On the other hand, on 19 August 1997, Premier Carr reversed the decision of the Fahey government for the sale of the BP site at Waverton, and declared it should remain in public ownership and integrated into the planning of Balls Head reserve. Not all is lost. In the lead up to the 2000 Olympics, they created the Bicentennial and Millennium Parks. They front onto Parramatta River, a major tributary of the Harbour. And early in 2002, the Carr government resumed a magnificent headland, Ballast Point, at Balmain, from private developers. This achievement was only achieved by the intervention of Premier Carr's determination to save this outstanding land peninsular, to ultimately become a part of a much greater Sydney Harbour National Park. On 19 September 2002, Premier Carr announced that a further 86 hectares were to be added to the 425 hectares, which include the Bicentennial and Millennium Park. It will follow the banks of the Parramatta River from Newington Nature Reserve to Wilson Park, ending at Silverwater Road.

The state government has also recently decided not to proceed with the sale of public foreshore land at Hunter Hills High School and made a guarantee that all lands at Callan Park will be retained in public ownership and protected for future generations. It gives further hope that Premier Carr is asserting his influence over state treasury and exercising the views that he expressed in 19 August 1997 speech at Woolwich.

I know that I am a privileged person. For shelter, I live in a home that stimulates and enriches me every day. It was created by architect Richard Le Plastrier and master builder John Simpson. It has a due northerly aspect which captures, in its frame, our harbour and Balls Head and inhales the beautiful northern sun all day in mid-winter.

Our first guest to our new home was Lloyd Rees, who I know is much loved at Sydney University, which he served for so long. Lloyd loved the house and was very enthusiastic about the overhang roof and the harbour. He said, 'Few homes blend in with the harbour, but this house complements it.' Ric was a little embarrassed and said 'It's only a single building and a small one.' Lloyd replied 'What else is a city if it is not a gallery of beautiful buildings?'

Sadly, developers and sometimes architects, when designing buildings on or near our harbour foreshores, only cater to the people living in those dwellings or units. They do not consider that their buildings might affect people's attitudes when travelling on the harbour and looking back at the scars that have been created on its shores. I have contended for many years that when foreshore land is publicly owned by Commonwealth, state or local governments; it should remain in public ownership and be progressively rehabilitated and developed in the interests of future generations.

For some time, I have been advocating that the state government create a Sydney Harbour Urban National Park Trust. It should include all the lands that are now a part of the Sydnrey Harbour National Park which include Nielsen Park, the Islands of the Harbour and the 1979 lands in the Fraser/Wran transfer agreement. It should also include Balls Head, Berry Island reserve, the Edith Walker home and its surrounding lands of Concord and Woolwich lands including Kelly's Bush and Clark Point, as well as other state-owned areas. The federal government's Defence lands should be added to the Park as they are transferred to NSW.

There are barriers to creating such an authority by the existing bureaucracy, at ministerial and public servant level. Treasury will argue that the Trust must be a self-financing authority. That was federal treasury's aim on the creation of a Sydney Harbour Federation Trust. That was overcome by the intervention of Prime Minister Howard. If this Trust is to be created, it will need the drive, support and authority of Premier Carr. This proposed Trust follows the principle he set out in the Premier's 19 August 1997 Woolwich speech.

NSW publicly owned lands are extensive. The NSW Government has a multitude of authorities that are administering our harbour foreshores, waterways and catchments. The Sydney Harbour National Urban Trust authority that I propose must also recognise the catchment system of Sydney Harbour. We must also ensure that all the local committees and their knowledge is retained, embodied and maintained within this new management system.

It is very important how the Park Trust be set up in legislation. It should not be oriented as a revenue raiser or financially self-supporting. It will be an enormous asset to the city of Sydney, the state and the nation. In time, it will become part of world heritage. This will be an even greater magnet to international visitors to come and experience the beauty of our harbour.

It is vital that the park trust board be independent of political directions, while at the same time, being responsible to state cabinet. The Trust should encompass a living heritage, Aboriginal history and its people, marine support activities, urban waterfront life, the harbour catchment and recreational passive parklands. Appointees to the Trust should have expertise in the environment-architectural as well as landscape-and in Aboriginal, maritime, and human values. This new Trust should work in a co-operative and sharing partnership with the federal Federation Trust for the harbour foreshores protection and enhancement. At this moment, we have the opportunity. Are we going to set up a framework that will guarantee the future of the heart of the city or are we going to let it slip gradually into greedy hands of developers and lose it forever?

Might I, in conclusion make a few personal comments. In your professional lives, you will find giving and serving our human family can be wonderful and rewarding. Be true to yourselves.

If I might speak to the medical graduates. I served three and a half years as a prisoner of war of the Japanese in World War 11. I never saw a doctor that was not a giver and a server to his fellow prisoners during those long, arduous and difficult years.

For a year and a half, I served under Weary Dunlop on the Burma-Thai Railway. His inspiration and leadership has remained with me all my life. Weary had two quite remarkable doctors who worked with him, Arthur Moon and Ewan Corlette. They were very special doctors and human beings. Both were graduates of this University.

Thank you again for the honour you have given me.


Professor Keith Lester is Acting Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Health Sciences) at the University of Sydney. This is the text of his speech at the admission of Tom Uren to the degree of Doctor of Science in Architecture (Honoris Causa) at the University on Friday 8 November 2002. The Hon Tom Uren, AO, is a former President and Life Member of the Evatt Foundation. This is the text of his speech in reply.


Suggested citation
Uren, Keith Lester & Tom, 'Serving our heritage', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 8, December 2002.<http://evatt.org.au/news/serving-our-heritage.html>