Super City's consultation of Brisbane heritage protection champion is an encouraging move.

At last the powers that be within the Super City are floating an idea that, if adopted, would give some flesh to all those slogans about liveable and transformational and world class. And, unlike the rail tunnel or the cruise ship terminal, it won't cost a penny of ratepayers' money.

The proposal is to turn the planning rules upside down, and declare every pre-World War II house a protected building unless owners can produce a convincing case for altering or demolishing it. Predictably, the suggestion has caused a few palpitations among those who believe the only thing a local authority should be engaged in is collecting rubbish and building more roads. But to me, it's the breath of fresh air I've been waiting two years for - the first sign of a radical approach to old problems from our new masters.

Not that radical, really. In the early 1990s, Brisbane's "timber and tin" suburbs were succumbing to death by a thousand cuts, as developers began picking off the classic Queenslanders - their equivalent of Auckland's villa - and replacing them with modern structures. In 1995, the city council brought in "a blanket layer of protection", recognising that demolishing one "character" house affected the whole surrounding area, not just the section it occupied.

Google the Brisbane real estate news and you find these rescued "character homes" are all the rage. Jess Boyd from Harcourts was cooing about how she had "recently purchased a worker's cottage in the inner-northern suburbs of Brisbane and can't take the smile off my face". Within 5km of the city centre workman's cottages were selling from $630,000 to $825,000. "Due to the low turnover of these lovely cottages we continue to experience huge demand and competition to secure these types of properties."


The Brisbane City Council's guide to heritage places and character homes explains that owners can add and restore and even lift properties as long as the character of it and the surrounding area is preserved.

The guide says: "While Brisbane can't boast buildings that have stood for centuries or cobbled streets steeped in history, we still have a rich collection of homes, shops, schools and places of special indigenous significance that tell the story of where we came from."

It says the "most significant and stately of our older Brisbane homes, mostly Queenslanders, are heritage listed" but there are too many to list. However, "a grouping of well-conserved houses can tell the story of people long gone equally as a heritage-listed place". It points to older suburbs where "whole streets of Queenslanders remain intact. These streets are among the most charming places in the city."

In October 1995, in the aftermath of the property boom that followed the World Expo 88, Brisbane acted to protect these old suburbs from the white-anting of developers, zoning them Demolition Controlled Precincts (DCP) and labelling pre-1946 dwellings "character homes".

Within a DCP it's difficult to get approval to demolish a character home, or even part of one. "If a character home contributes to the look of a street, has not been substantially altered and is capable of repair, council will probably say 'no' to your application."

There are a few streets in Ponsonby and Mt Eden in old Auckland City that have special heritage zoning, along with much of old Devonport, but the protection in either is nowhere near as comprehensive as in Brisbane. The old Auckland heritage zoning was all about facadism. Old villas could be gutted, the landmark pressed steel ceilings and all the other interior villa features ripped out, as long as a Disneyland approximation of a villa remained as the street frontage. Modern carports and fake pop-top attics with twee dormer windows still get the go ahead.

Contrast that with Brisbane, where there seems a genuine attempt to preserve the old. "Extensions or renovations to pre-1946 homes must ... complement their architectural style and the style of other older homes in the street."

Also, while you can demolish post-1946 homes in these zones, "anything built in their place must complement the older style of the neighbourhood".


Of course, preserving the old runs counter to Auckland Council planners' - and Mayor Len Brown's - desire to intensify. So it's encouraging that Mayor Brown's staff invited Brisbane architect and champion of heritage protection in that city, Peter Marquis-Kyle, to Auckland last week for discussions. Let's hope the message got through.