Heritage forum speech by Paul Connell

In Parliament |

Paul Connell is the organiser for the Public Sector for the CFMEU. Paul led the campaign to save the NSW Heritage group within Public Works from privatisation.

This speech was delivered at '40 Years of the NSW Heritage Act - A Forum' on 18 April 2017.

Good Morning, and I have to say, it is a real pleasure to be part of this gathering today celebrating 40 years of the NSW Heritage Act. 

As you have heard, my name is Paul Connell and I am the CFMEU Public Sector Organizer for NSW. 

I have been ask to speak on the role of the government stonemasons and heritage workers into the next 40 years in looking after our heritage buildings. 

To qualify this, I firstly need to explain my involvement with this group; their industrial issues over the last two years; their history; what they do now and what their continued role might be in the next 40 years, as well as some of the challenges to overcome. 

Prior to being a union official, I had the privilege of being employed as a Stonemason by the former NSW Public Works Heritage Services, now named ‘Heritage Stone Works’. It is based at Alexandria, at a depot affectionately know as The Stone Yard. 

In my 13 years there, I had the invaluable opportunity to be involved with an amazing team of skilled artisans – and, also, the chance to get up close and personal with some equally amazing heritage buildings and monuments of this State. 

To give you a complete picture of the team at The Stone Yard, working alongside the stonemasons are a skilled group of heritage roofing plumbers doing slate, copper and lead work; heritage carpenters; as well as a small team of scaffolders. 

We worked in partnership with a number of heritage architects from the Government Architects Office. Their role was to research, prioritize, monitor, and plan future work to be done on the State’s government-owned, heritage buildings.

Through the wisdom of this current government, this important partnership has now been disbanded. The three heritage architects’ that remain working for the newly formed Public Works Advisory now contract their previous work out to the private sector. This has resulted in a loss of years of valuable knowledge – this is the cost of doing away with an in-house team. 

Now, as an official of the NSW Branch of the CFMEU, I represent these workers industrially. 

In the last 2 years, this group was under the threat of closure by the Baird Government. The NSW CFMEU led the campaign to keep this important heritage asset in public hands. 

And we won. 

It is only because of the success of this campaign that I can stand here today and reflect on this group’s role over the next 40 years in looking after heritage buildings. 

Part of the answer of what their role might be, comes from understanding how this group came into existence. 

In the years leading up to Australia’s Bicentenary Year and with increasing community support for the need to preserve our Sandstone Heritage buildings, NSW politicians could see that the government-owned, sandstone buildings needed restoration for both aesthetics and public safety. 

At the same time, they recognized that the number of skilled stonemasons and heritage workers had declined to such a level that the heritage trades had almost died out. 

And, at that time, a monopoly existed as there was only one company supplying the stone needed. This made it a very expensive prospect to get restoration work done. 

Three things were identified as needed

• To train apprentices in heritage trades;

• source and stockpile stone; and

• restore and maintain these assets, including making them safe for the public. 

So this group was created within the NSW Public Works. 

In some ways, the situation that created this group still exists and will continue into the next 40 years. 

The skills of stonemasons and other heritage workers would still easily be lost if we don’t maintain the training of apprentices in these trades. The public sector group is the major employer of apprentices for the heritage Industry, and this cannot be replicated or maintained by the private sector. 

There are still only two major suppliers of sandstone for building restoration in NSW. The Stone Yard remains one of them, thereby maintaining competition in this small market. 

Government-owned heritage buildings continue to need maintaining for both restoration purposes and for public safety. 

The Stone Yard remains the right group do this work into the future, although there are some challenges. 

The recent period of uncertainty, created by the Baird government, caused great stress on this group of people and resulted in a number of its highly skilled workers leaving the public sector. Some left the heritage industry altogether.

Heritage Stone Works will need time to rebuild. I have no doubt this can be done under its current leadership team, although it will need a supportive government and some creative solutions along the way to do this. 

To remain a supplier of stone, it needs to source and replenish the sandstone stockpile. This is a constant task of negotiating with major building companies to gain access to good quality, yellow block, sandstone that can be quarried out of building sites being excavated for underground car parking. It needs this government and successive governments to be prepared to fund this process, both sourcing and acquiring stone. 

Another challenge is the current government’s sale of significant heritage buildings, such as the Education Building and Lands Building in Bridge street.

Once these assets are sold off they are left to be maintained and/or developed by their private owners.

There are plenty of examples where this has failed before.

Australia Post’s sale of its Heritage Post Offices is one. These were sold off to private owners some years ago and, in the main, they have been left to deteriorate or have been unsympathetically redeveloped. 

The private sector either does not have the money to maintain these buildings or, in some cases, the will to preserve them.

The buildings being sold now are the very buildings once diligently maintained by the workers of The Stone Yard. The intimate knowledge of these buildings rests with this government body, but because it is only funded to work on government-owned buildings, it is now locked out of these privately-owned, heritage assets.  

For the continuity of care of these buildings, it makes sense that the government heritage workers remain involved in the preservation of these buildings, perhaps by continuing to maintain these heritage assets or advising on any redevelopment.

How this could be achieved is a bigger discussion but, ultimately, we need to decide if we want to protect our heritage buildings or not - whether they are publicly-owned or privately-owned.

These buildings cannot, and will not, get the care they need into the future if we leave them to be purely maintain by private owners. 

Selling them off should not be a way of dispensing our public responsibility to preserve our past. 

The artisans at The Stone Yard are committed to continue to do their highly skilled job. They are committed to training apprentices in Heritage trades; and they are determined to source new stone to keep the market on a level playing field into the next forty years and beyond.

This can only happen if successive governments are also committed to valuing this State’s heritage and the work of The Stone Yard because these workers are one of the key elements to the preservation of this State’s heritage buildings.