Yesterday, the NSW Land & Environment court overruled former Heritage Minister Mark Speakman’s decision not to include Sydney’s Sirius building on the state heritage list. The court ruling was a massive coup for the community of locals and residents who had fought tooth and nail to save the iconic Brutalist building – which has served as affordable housing since the 1970s – from the government’s planned demolition.
Although the ruling represents a temporary roadblock for the government, the future of the Sirius building is still uncertain. After yesterday’s ruling, current NSW Heritage Minister, Gabrielle Upton, has 14 days to decide whether or not the Tao Goffers-designed building will be added to the state heritage register.
As the fate of the Sirius building once again hangs in the balance, A&D sat down with one of the Sirius building’s most outspoken defenders. Although Shaun Carter, founder and president of the Save Our Sirius foundation, says he is “not optimistic” about the building’s future, he believes that Sirius has the potential to contribute to social justice in the city for at least “another 200 years”.
Can you run me through what happened yesterday in the NSW Land & Environment Court?
Shaun Carter: The acting justice handed down a judgement to have the minister’s decision annulled. The decision in question was that of [then NSW Heritage Minister] Mark Speakman, that whatever the heritage value of Sirius, it should not be listed on the state heritage register. He wanted to demolish the building and have the affordable housing it provided moved elsewhere, but it was never clarified what the word “elsewhere” meant. We think it means in the backlogs of Sydney, far away from transport and amenities; a move that would further entrench the social disadvantages that affordable housing is meant to overcome.
What we know about affordable housing is that these people [who live in developments such as Sirius] are the very people that make our cities and suburbs work. They need to be located in every suburb of Sydney, not just the far reaches. To get rid of people from a site because you like the location and it has good amenity is a bit of a fallacy. This government has got $4 million in the kit. If it really wanted to address affordable housing, it could've addressed this years ago. But it’s never really been about money. This government paid $109 million more than the book value of a building, which is more than the sale of Sirius would have funded. How can you pay $109 million more of the public’s money for a building in the city, and then come up with a political con job to remove people from their homes so you can sell the land to developers for more apartments?
What were the steps that led to this decision, in a nutshell?
SC: People know when something doesn’t ring true. People know when a political action doesn’t pass the pub test. From the moment Mark Speakman made the announcement [that the Sirius building wouldn’t be included on the state heritage list], it didn’t sound right. We were getting information coming in that suggested this didn’t seem right against the various articles of the heritage act. We referred the matter to the Environmental Defender’s Office – the EDO – and their conclusion was that there was a reasonable chance at success if we challenged the minister’s decision. All we needed then was to find the money to fund a court case, which included enough money to afford a loss – to pay for the opposition’s legal fees – if it came to that.
We started a crowdfunding campaign and we originally sought to raise $35,000, and in the end we raised $50,000, which is pretty phenomenal.
We had our day in court yesterday, represented by Bruce McClintock as special counsel, and they did a remarkable job. I think our arguments were very strong and the acting justice obviously considered those, and at every point we sought to have the government challenged, we won.
Since yesterday’s decision doesn’t necessarily require Sirius’ inclusion on the state heritage register, what does it mean for the future of the building and its residents?
SC: This is a legal victory and it’s symbolic, but all it does is annul the minister’s decision. The court has ordered that the heritage minister – which is now Gabrielle Upton – remake that decision. Yesterday the court set out two quite detailed yardsticks for how a minister needs to go about making such a decision; the decision to list a building or not to list a building on the state heritage register. My understanding is that the timeframe [Upton has] to make the decision is 14 days. But bear in mind, Speakman took 128 days to make the original decision not to list it. Clearly the timeframe set out by the legislation is not something the government always adheres to.
We have asked Gabrielle Upton and the premier [Gladys Berejiklian] to listen to the community – to understand the incredible community force behind this action – and to list Sirius. Let’s get with continuing to use the building as it’s always been intended to be used. It can be deployed for the next 200 years as social affordable housing. If it really is a key fundamental platform of this government [to provide affordable housing], then let’s see it act decisively.
Let’s remember that Brutalist buildings are our civic castles. They are built like fortresses, and can stand for centuries with very little maintenance. These buildings are virtually indestructible. This building just needs a bit of a spruce up. Since it was constructed [in the 1970s], this government has virtually done nothing [to maintain Sirius] and it’s still in perfectly good nick.
Are you optimistic that the Heritage Minister will decide to list Sirius on the state register following such a groundswell of support from the community?
SC: I’m not optimistic in the short term. I’m not sure this government understands the value of social and cultural heritage. Already we’ve seen statements from [NSW Minister for Social Housing], Pru Goward, who has come out very aggressively reiterating that Sirius will be sold and demolished and that the government will find a way to do this. We think this is an unfortunate statement, but we’ve already approached premier [Berejiklian] to sit down with us and discuss paths forward.
At this point it’s not too late. [The government] can still turn a big negative into a big positive and deploy the building for social housing. Let’s list the building, and let’s get on with letting these [residents] live their lives. At a time when so many government high-rise housing projects have failed, from an urban design and social perspective, Sirius never did. Sirius was always successful. It did all the urban things right, it put a building on the front door of the city, it put local people from the community into that community, and there’s no reason this can’t continue for hundreds of years to come.
Will the old residents be able to return to their homes?
SC: That’s a good question. The residents that have been moved out of Sirius are not homeless – they were offered other places and I believe they’ve been put in there – but many were elderly and were moved into places where they had no connections. We all have grandmothers and grandfathers, and we know that it’s so much harder for 60-year-old and 70-years-old and 80-year-old people to remake firm and strong friendships.
In an ideal world, it'd be great if the residents could move back into their home [at Sirius]. But even if they can’t, let’s Cherie [Johnson, 59, one of two residents who refused to be kicked out of Sirius] stay there. Let’s let Myra [Demetriou, 90] stay there. In fact, I don’t reckon you could get Myra out with a crow bar at this point. But there are still Millers Point residents who are incredibly stressed about losing their homes; about being kicked out of their community. Let’s leave these people alone, and let residents that want to move back, move back.
Is there anything else you’d like to say, as the minister re-thinks the future of Sirius?
SC: Just that this action – I suppose you’d call it a political action – but it has never been a political, partisan thing; it’s been a community-based, grass-roots-led campaign. We ask premier [Gladys Berejiklian] – and I think Cherie said it beautifully in court yesterday – to have a heart; to listen to the community. Let’s sit down and talk about all of the good things that Sirius could be used for; all of the social justice, community values [and] environmental values that it stands for in our city. It could be a great day for the premier, to have the chance to address all of these things at once. I guess you’ll just have to stay tuned.