Great oaks from little acorns grow.
Fifty years ago a group of Sydneysiders got together to stop ugly red brick flats being built in their area. Nothing remarkable about that, such reaction has almost become a standard part of the cut and thrust of urban life today, but the Paddington Society, which was started in 1964, was the first such 'inner city' action group with the professional skills to play an effective and successful political role in the urban planning of their area. The writer was fortunate to have been involved from the beginning.*
Like most inner city areas, post-war Paddington was considered a slum and a 1958 plan proposed almost total demolition, a completely new road pattern and high rise flats. Due to lack of funds nothing had happened but it was a Damocles sword waiting to fall.
The Paddington Society didn't get anywhere at first, and the three old style Labor aldermen who represented the Paddington Ward on Woollahra Council felt threatened by these middle class trendies, despite their generally left wing sympathies and wouldn't co-operate.
The Society made formal objections to the draft City of Sydney Planning Scheme but these were ignored, and even ran candidates for Woollahra Council and were winning until the Labor postal votes were counted. It was not until State elections were pending a year later that the political circumstances at the time and a bit of inspired opportunism led directly to the conservation zoning of all of Paddington.
The Liberal member for Bligh was worried that new residents like those in the Paddington Society, coupled with electoral boundary changes might unseat him at the upcoming election. He was pressed to arrange a meeting with the Minister for Local Government so objections could be made to the road proposals.
When this meeting took place, the Minister, anxious to help his mate, ignored the roads and simply asked what the Society would like him to do. The deputation hadn't expected such a helpful reaction and there was a long silence until they adlibbed that they wanted an enquiry to all aspects of the planning of Paddington, an independent enquiry outside his Department.
Who, the Minister asked, might be a suitable person to head such an enquiry? The only name that came to mind on the spur of the moment was Walter Bunning, a senior architect who had recently written a book about the need for better planning.
The Government announced the enquiry before the elections but their concern was unwarranted as their man was returned. The promised enquiry however, duly took place. Bernard Smith, the distinguished art historian, and others gave cogent evidence about the architectural importance of Paddington as one of the largest, coherent areas of Victorian terrace housing in the world, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Bunning, may his name be long remembered, scrapped all the proposed roads but went further and proposed that Paddington should be declared a precinct of architectural and historical merit and that all of Paddington should be given a 'conservation' zoning (a new zoning not known at the time) where Development Consent would be required before any demolition could take place.
In tabling the Report of the Bunning Enquiry in August 1968 the Minister accepted the complete conservation of Paddington and directed that any development in the area was to be in accordance with a Development Control Plan (DCP) drawn up by Woollahra Council.
And following the sensible maxim of not putting too much trust in politicians or waiting too long for bureaucrats to act, the Society prepared a comprehensive report that was presented to the Council in 1970 and largely formed the basis for this DCP which is still in force.
The Society can't claim all the credit of course. It was fortunate that their conservation aims and the rising prices brought about by increased middle class occupation coincided. And although the physical fabric of Paddington has been saved and restored, white has displaced 'landlady brown' and the many street trees that were planted now look as though they've been there forever, the writer has personal regrets that Paddo has lost its old social diversity and become such an expensive one-class area. No one appreciated at the time that rising prices and gentrification were the price of conservation!
Fifty years later it should be remembered that the conservation of Paddington was brought about by concerted citizen action, NOT by the State government and all those town planners, NOT by Woollahra Council and their planners, and with NO public support from the Institute of Architects or the National Trust at the time. In the end there is no substitute for democratic people power.
So great oaks from little acorns grow. The very existence of Paddo as we know it today, stemmed directly from that single opportunistic meeting forty seven years ago to object and complain. The Paddington Society is still functioning and still objecting, so we should all celebrate its continued existence and achievements.
In retrospect it all looks to have been very easy, although it didn't seem so at the time. Governments have become tougher in relation to protests and protestors have also had to become more sophisticated. I'm full of admiration for the battle that's being waged against the proposed East- West Tunnel in Melbourne by a coalition of diverse groups and their extensive daily emails that keep everyone in touch.
The moral of course, is that each of us, individually and together, should never stop objecting to bad things. There is still plenty to object to and as this story shows, change can often happen in mysterious ways.
Don Gazzard LFAIA
Don Gazzard Architect