James Colman, The House that Jack Built: Jack Mundey Green Bans Hero,
NewSouth, Sydney, 2016, paperback $49.99, ISBN 9781742235011
Readers of the Dictionary of Sydney with an interest in heritage, conservation, urban planning and design – or the lack of it – and urban history and politics will find Jim Colman’s highly readable book insightful and stimulating. Colman has not simply produced a biography of the famous activist, conservationist, communist and unionist, Jack Mundey, though his book has certainly achieved this. He has written a beautifully contextualised history of the urban environmental movement in Sydney from the late 1960s. Though other places in Australia and overseas are mentioned from time-to-time, this book is about Sydney.
Colman lived through the times and events that he writes about and his philosophical and political positions on heritage and the environment are clear. But the book is not partisan. Drawing on a raft of historical evidence, Colman provides a balanced account of the last half-century of Sydney’s urban growth and activism. He pays particularly attention – perhaps around one third of the book – to the turbulent 1970s. As the book’s title suggests, the Green Bans are the main focus here. (A total of 42 green bans were imposed from 1971 to 1975, stopping around $4 billion of construction.) And The Rocks, appropriately, attracts special treatment.
A green ban was placed on The Rocks from November 1971 until 1975 which stymied Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority’s (SCRA) scheme for the virtual destruction of the historic area. SCRA responded by modifying its scheme on a number of occasions but these were rejected by the local Residents Action Group with the Builders Labourers’ Federations (BLF) backing. Mundey was its radical, high profile secretary. When one of these revised plans was sent back in early March 1973, a newspaper reporter observed that ‘the most powerful town planning agency operating within NSW at the moment is the BLF’. In August 1973, Mundey put the BLF’s position bluntly: ‘My federation will lift its ban when the residents are satisfied with what is being put forward by the authority’. New plans eliminated high-rise buildings to accord with the ‘people’s plan’ and the Sirius Apartment building was constructed to provide public housing for displaced local residents. Ultimately, the area’s history and heritage – colonial and working-class – was recognised and SCRA – somewhat shamelessly – dropped the word ‘Redevelopment’ from its name.
The ‘battle for The Rocks’ was a major, perhaps the major urban coup for the heritage movement in Australia. It destabilized the dominant ideology of progress which had largely gone unchallenged throughout Australia’s past and brought to the fore participatory democracy in civic affairs. It is not co-incidental that a raft of state heritage legislation, amongst the earliest in Australia, was drafted and passed not long after this landmark and other associated struggles such as that over Woolloomooloo: NSW’s Heritage Act came into being in 1977, the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act was passed two years later and the Land and Environment Court Act brought that jurisdiction into being in 1979.
The House that Jack Built does not present Mundey or the environmental movement in a celebratory light. Rather, it paints a realistic picture of the movement from – literally – go to woe. Ironically, the Sirius Apartment Building in The Rocks is both an artefact and a symbol of the battle for The Rocks and broader developments in the heritage movement and participatory democracy. Recently, the Heritage Council of New South Wales adopted a nomination to have the building listed on the State Heritage Register. But this was rejected by the Minister, Mark Speakman, who insisted that this did not indicate an attitude of ‘money trumps heritage’. But it clearly does during a time in the history of the environmental movement that has seen heritage legislation and agencies gutted and the Federal Productivity Commission call for greater rights for private property. It can only be hoped, as Colman does, that we do not see a complete return ‘to the cowboy days of Sydney’s property boom in the 1960s’ (p287).