Legislation and other protections for cultural heritage

Historic cultural heritage is looked after by all levels of government in Australia (local, state and national). They have different roles in identifying, managing and protecting heritage places and objects. Their responsibilities are explained below.

This page also explains the role of other groups that protect Australia's cultural heritage, including the UNESCO World Heritage List and the Burra Charter.

Read more about the differences between local and state heritage listing.


Local

Planning and Environment Act 1987

All municipalities in Victoria are covered by land use planning controls, which are prepared and administered by state and local government authorities. The legislation governing such controls is the Planning and Environment Act 1987 as amended in 2000.

Heritage Overlays are one such planning control. Heritage Overlays include places of local heritage significance as well as heritage precincts.


State

Heritage Act 1995

The Victorian Heritage Act 1995 is administered by Heritage Victoria. It is the Victorian Government's key cultural heritage legislation.

Public consultation into a review of the Heritage Act was recently undertaken and the feedback has been summarised (PDF 3.6 MB).

The Act identifies and protects heritage places and objects that are of significance to Victoria, including:

  • historic archaeological sites and artefacts
  • historic buildings, structures and precincts
  • gardens, trees and cemeteries
  • cultural landscapes
  • shipwrecks and relics
  • significant objects.

The Act establishes the Victorian Heritage Register, the Heritage Inventory and the Heritage Council of Victoria.

Some changes to the Act came into effect on 1 Dec 2008.

The Act establishes a legislative framework for heritage protection in Victoria, replacing the Historic Buildings Act 1981, the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1981 and part of the Archaeological and Aboriginal Relics Preservation Act 1971.

Maritime heritage legislation

Shipwrecks are protected in Victoria under the Victorian Heritage Act 1995 and the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976.

All shipwrecks and shipwreck relics in Victorian waters that are at least 75 years old are protected by these two laws. Some shipwrecks less than 75 years old can also be protected. Both laws are administered by the Maritime Heritage Unit, Heritage Victoria.

Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006

The Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 links the protection of Aboriginal cultural heritage in Victoria with planning and land development processes.

Aboriginal heritage places are not always identified within Heritage Overlay controls so check first with your local council. You can find out whether there is an Aboriginal place recorded on your property by contacting the Office of Aboriginal Affairs Victoria.

This Act replaced Part IIA of the Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 and the Victorian Archaeological and Aboriginal Relics Preservation Act 1972.


National

Environment Protection Biodiversity and Conservation Act 1999

This Act is administered by the Commonwealth Department of the Environment. The Department develops and implements national policy, programs and legislation to protect and conserve Australia's natural environment and cultural heritage.

The Australian Heritage Council uses criteria to assess whether a nominated place has heritage values and makes a recommendation to the Minister. The Minister for the Environment makes the final decision on listing.

The Department of the Environment also administers the Australian Heritage Database.

National and Commonwealth Heritage Lists

The National and Commonwealth Heritage Lists were established in January 2004 with the amendment of the Environment Protection Biodiversity and Conservation Act 1999.

The National Heritage List is a register of places of outstanding Indigenous, historic and/or natural heritage values.

The Commonwealth List is a register of important Commonwealth-owned places. Heritage places can be on one or both lists.

Burra Charter

Conservation is an integral part of the management of places of cultural significance and is an ongoing responsibility.

The Burra Charter provides guidance for the conservation and management of places of cultural significance (cultural heritage places). It is based on the knowledge and experience of Australia International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) members. ICOMOS is a non-government, not-for-profit organisation of cultural heritage professionals formed as a national chapter of ICOMOS International in 1976.

The Charter sets a standard of practice for those who provide advice, make decisions about or undertake works to places of cultural significance, including owners, managers and custodians.


International

The UNESCO World Heritage List is a list of places of outstanding cultural and natural heritage that are considered to have importance for all humankind.

The list is established under the Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which was adopted by UNESCO in November 1972.

How does it work?

One hundred and eighty five countries have adhered to the World Heritage Convention. Any one of these countries may nominate sites within their borders for inclusion in the World Heritage List.

Each nomination is assessed by the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) (cultural sites) or the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) (natural sites). If the site passes rigorous assessment against criteria for establishing the outstanding universal value of the site, it is added to the World Heritage List. The World Heritage Committee, made up of 21 State Parties to the Convention, makes the final decision on whether a site should be included in the List.

In June 2004, Victoria's Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens was added to the World Heritage List as Australia's first built heritage site of outstanding universal value. In 2007 the Sydney Opera House became Australia's second built heritage site to be added.

How many sites are on the World Heritage List?

There are over 800 properties on the World Heritage List forming part of the cultural and natural heritage that the World Heritage Committee considers to have outstanding universal value.

Further information

For a complete listing of all state and territory heritage agencies and other related organisations, visit our list of heritage organisations.

Page last reviewed on 1 February 2016

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