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Thursday, March 23, 2023
Arch-i-text: Marching backward on heritage protection
Brian Marshall (Supplied)

Way back in 1972, UNESCO published the World Heritage Convention. This document called on countries around the world to not only protect built-heritage, but to also give “heritage a function in the life of the community.”

Among its far-reaching list of recommendations for inclusion in heritage legislation is one given special emphasis, which is to institute “financial measures” for “rehabilitation” (typically in the form of tax credits).

In fairly short order, all of the G7 countries had become signatories to the Convention. Canada signed on in 1976 but to date remains the only G7 nation whose heritage legislation neither protects built-heritage nor endorses their reuse.

That’s right folks, the federal Historic Sites and Monuments Act offers no protection to designated national historic sites. It simply “commemorates” them.

Ontario’s provincial legislation (Ontario Heritage Act) is a toothless tiger and kicks most of the responsibility for oversight and enforcement down onto the municipalities. And realistically how big a stick can municipalities wield when their primary source of revenue (property tax) needs to be devoted to the maintenance of aging infrastructure?

So how does this compare to other countries in the G7?

The United Kingdom’s “Town and Country Planning Act” establishes an over-arching protection for built-heritage. This is implemented through the “Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990,” the “National Planning Policy Framework” and various other pieces of legislation. Further, there’s an extensive list of tax measures which have been instituted to support these properties.

American legislators have gone even further. The U.S. Historic Preservation Act, passed to ensure the “preservation of historic American sites, buildings, objects, and antiquities of national significance,” is supported by at least 27 other laws protecting their built-heritage. Incentivizing rehabilitation of historic income properties is a 20 per cent tax credit (amongst others) and their “Public Buildings Cooperative Use Act” requires that first option on federal leases be given to heritage properties.

Meanwhile, here in Canada, not only does our built-heritage lack proper protection but, our federal tax system (which has not changed in this regard since the 1940s) actually encourages demolition through a series of lucrative tax advantages which incentivize the replacement of old buildings with new. This federally generated bias has, in many cases, been adopted by other levels of government.

The problem with this type of bias within the ossified government bureaucratic mindset is that it becomes the perpetuated measured norm.

Consider the fact that if one builds new housing that adds to Canada’s housing stock there is a GST rebate. However, if one creates new housing within an existing residential building (like a basement apartment) the rebate doesn’t apply. Or, the “substantial” renovation GST rebate available only if the “renovation” removes a minimum 90 per cent of the building’s non-structural elements.  

What a challenge for builders who might otherwise engage in adaptive reuse of existing (historic) buildings!

Our country’s governments are stuck in the internationally repudiated (e.g. Brundtland Report, 1987) philosophy of planned obsolescence vis-à-vis our existing national building stock and our politicians’ sustainability rhetoric is simply politically correct smoke and mirrors. 

In a sad way it’s fascinating to note that the renovation/rehabilitation/reuse of existing buildings contributes more than $120 billion annual to Canada’s GDP, completely eclipsing the revenues of new construction. Apparently, simple economics cannot effect change on the government level?

Provincially, our recently elected government has stated its intention to move forward with recommendations contained within the Ontario Housing Affordability Task Force report; many of which would gut what little protection our built-heritage is currently afforded to follow a failed model.

Canada has been left behind in the global theatre in this regard and our government seems determined to march steadily backward.       

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