Friday, September 15, 2017 - 14:19

On 11 September 2017, the Cape Times and IOL published an article by Dr Piet Claassen entitled 'Heritage house owners should be compensated by a property tax cut' (click here to view). Below is a comprehensive response compiled by the team from CTS Heritage

Dr Claassen raises some important points in his article that require further interrogation. However, before proceeding it is important to establish some basic principles regarding heritage management in South Africa.

One such important basic principle is that “heritage”, this vague and difficult-to-define concept, has an important role to play in the spiritual well-being of citizens and has the power to contribute to building our nation. It has the potential to affirm our diverse cultures, and in so doing shape our national character. It is therefore something to be valued.

As such, the heritage resources, much like mineral resources, of this country are managed by heritage authorities on behalf of all of South Africa’s citizens. Again, much like mineral resources, as much as someone can own a structure or piece of land, no one person can own the “heritage value” of a place. This value is what requires conservation and management by an authority that takes the interests of all citizens into consideration over the interests of a particular landowner when it comes to heritage management.

Another important principle to emphasize is that, as alluded to by Dr Claassen, just because something or someplace is old does not mean that it has heritage significance or value. In a similar way, just because something or someplace is not old, does not mean that it has no heritage value. For example, Community House in Salt River has tremendous heritage significance for the role that this place played in the democratic journey of this country and for this reason, was declared as a Provincial Heritage Site in 2010.

Lastly, what is often overlooked in South Africa is the important role that heritage can play in making a place special, not just for tourists which is usually the argument put forward for heritage, but also for citizens and communities. In terms of the South African Bill of Rights, every citizen has the right to live in an environment that is protected for the benefit of present and future generations.

In light of the above principles, the National Heritage Resources Act lays out a process through which potential or possible heritage resources can be evaluated for heritage significance before they get destroyed. As explained by Dr Claassen, this heritage significance is assigned a “grading” based on the level of heritage value a resource is demonstrated to have. Decisions around what should and shouldn’t happen to a heritage resource is then based on this assessment of significance or “grading”

The NHRA has a list of general protection mechanisms that provide a stop-gap measure to ensure that no significant heritage resource is lost or destroyed. The most (in)famous of these is the dreaded “60 year rule” (section 34 of the NHRA), but the general protections also include burial grounds and graves not managed by municipalities, archaeological and palaeontological resources. Basically, the 60 year rule allows for a heritage authority to determine the heritage significance of an old structure before deciding whether or not what is proposed for that structure is appropriate.

In a city like Cape Town where there are over 40 000 structures that are older than 60 years, this reactive approach to heritage management obviously creates an enormous administrative burden on the heritage authority, Heritage Western Cape, which functions with a very small staff contingent (currently there are only 6 officials) and an even smaller budget (approximately R5 million per year).

The general protections, however, were always only ever intended to be a stop-gap measure as the NHRA provides pro-active mechanisms to be employed. In terms of the NHRA, municipalities are required to conduct an audit or inventory of all the heritage resources that fall within their jurisdiction at the time of revising their Spatial Development Frameworks (section 30 of the NHRA). The idea being, precisely as indicated by Dr Claassen, that municipal authorities have a far better idea of what is of heritage significance at a local level. These inventories would identify and assess all potential heritage resources following which those old structures that have no heritage significance (or are not conservation-worthy) can then be exempt from compliance with the “60 year rule”. Also, those heritage resources that are significant can then be placed on a heritage register for management as part of the planning process by the relevant local authority. In addition, clusters of structures that contribute to a “sense of place” or areas of special significance can be declared as heritage areas with specific planning guidelines to ensure that any new or future development takes cognisance of this heritage significance.

These “pro-active” management mechanisms provide landowners, homeowners and local authorities with guidance and certainty, just as in the planning process. Developers who would like to invest in industrial developments know not to purchase land that is not zoned industrial. In a similar way, the proactive identification of heritage places provides a way for people who wish to invest in heritage places with certainty that the heritage significance of a place will not be eroded through poor decision-making.

As Dr Claassen points out, one other possible solution to improve the administrative burden placed on Heritage Western Cape (in addition to the completion of heritage inventories) would be to give decision-making authority to municipalities for their grade III resources. This is absolutely possible in terms of the NHRA and as Dr Claassen points out, the City of Cape Town has made such application to HWC. However, the NHRA requires that a number of requirements be satisfied before this can take place. The first being that the officials at municipality who will be responsible for heritage decisions must have adequate staff, expertise and experience in heritage management (section 8 of the NHRA). The second being that, in order for a municipality to manage its own heritage resources, it must have conducted an inventory of these resources.

Thus far, only a few municipalities have attempted to conduct these inventories (they can be expensive and usually aren't budgeted for). HWC has attempted to provide mechanisms through which the process can be made less expensive and can be conducted in an iterative way. However, in the City of Cape Town for example, the drafting of a heritage inventory has been ongoing for the last 6 years and remains incomplete. In addition, very few municipalities employ any officials with sufficient expertise and experience in heritage management.

In addition, heritage inventories must go through a thorough public participation process before approval which would go some way to mitigating Dr Claassen’s very valid concerns regarding public participation in heritage management. For the most part, heritage and the management thereof, is dominated by organisations and community groups that are predominantly white and middle class in their composition. The reasons and results of this phenomenon will provide enough fodder for another 5 page article on heritage management and so we won’t delve any further into this quagmire here, except to say that HWC has made a concerted effort to try and register more conservation bodies than the currently 54 registered conservation bodies in the province.

Dr Claassen makes much of the costs involved in the heritage permit application process - in fact, this is the basis for his opening statement that heritage house owners should be compensated by a property tax cut. We would argue that for the average homeowner of a structure older than 60 years, these costs are not exorbitant (at all). Owners are able to apply to the CEO of HWC for an exemption from paying the R330 permit application fee, in addition, pensioners and NPO’s are automatically exempt from payment.

As indicated by Dr Claassen, most structures older than 60 years are not conservation-worthy and have little to no heritage significance and as such, the permit application process is purely administrative. Owners of these structures will have their heritage permits approved with very little effort. Structures that have some heritage significance, or could have some heritage significance, may require what is known as a Heritage Statement in support of their permit application however these are often only required for applications that are considered controversial in nature.

In situations where an owner genuinely is unable to afford appropriate interventions for their significant heritage structure, section 40 of the NHRA provides for SAHRA to establish and manage a National Heritage Resources Fund that can be used in such circumstances. The status of said fund is unknown at present.

In light of the above, we strongly disagree with Dr Claassen that implementation of the provisions of the NHRA arbitrarily “deprives an owner of property rights”. Landowners do not and cannot own the heritage value of their property. This value is owned and managed by the state on behalf of all citizens in the country. In addition, the NHRA provides many mechanisms and processes to ensure that any “deprivation of rights” is not at all arbitrary.

We couldn't agree more strongly with Dr Claassen that conserving our heritage is of extreme importance and it must be done fairly, equitably, transparently and at acceptable cost. However, unlike Dr Claassen, we believe that the mechanisms to achieve this are already present in existing legislation.  As citizens we are all responsible for ensuring that that which will be inherited by future generations (ie. our shared heritage) is conserved and managed properly for their, and our, benefit.

CTS Heritage is one of South Africa's leading heritage services companies. Click here to find out more.

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