Protecting the World Heritage Environs Area

July 2022

The RHSV congratulates the Minister for Planning, the Honourable Lizzie Blandthorn, MP, on her decision to extend the protected area (the World Heritage Environs Area or WHEA) around the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens World Heritage Site. This represents a major step forward in our campaign to implement better protection for Melbourne’s only World Heritage Site.


The Royal Exhibition Building is perhaps Melbourne’s most historic building. Constructed in 1880 as the venue for the great Melbourne International Exhibition, it was eight years later used for the even larger Centennial International Exhibition. These two grand events put the flamboyant gold-rich ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ on the international map in the late nineteenth century. The building was also the venue for the opening of Australia’s first Federal Parliament after federation in 1901, and the inauguration of Melbourne as the nation’s first capital. It was from the flagpole on its dome that the new Australian flag was first flown in 1901.


In 2004 the Australian Government nominated the site for World Heritage listing, arguing that: ‘The Royal Exhibition Building in its original garden setting is the most authentic remaining example of an in situ Palace of Industry from a significant international exhibition’. The eminent UK historian, Professor David Cannadine wrote: ‘There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world today’. UNESCO and the International Council on Monuments and Sites agreed, and today the Royal Exhibition Building and its surrounding Carlton Gardens is Australia’s first and Melbourne’s only World Heritage cultural site.

In seeking World Heritage listing the Australian Government promised a buffer zone around the Carlton Gardens, ‘including the southern Central Business District area’. In this zone, ‘all planning policies [would] discourage the demolition of Victorian-era buildings and require any development to enhance heritage values. But in 2007, when the buffer zone (now known as the World heritage Environ Area, or WHEA) was proclaimed, it was cut back, and half of what was left was weakened by being deemed an area of lesser sensitivity. This made possible aberrations like the 60-story twin tower at the corner of Exhibition and La Trobe Streets which will dwarf the Exhibition Building and overwhelm the Gardens.

The RHSV has been fighting for greater protection of the site, alongside the National Trust and the Friends of the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens. In April 2020 we were designated a key stakeholder and invited to participate in a review of the WHEA, to which we have made several major submissions. The review process resulted in a set of recommendations that reflected most of the RHSV’s positions. 

The Heritage Council was to hold hearings, at which a representative from the RHSV was to speak, and to make recommendations to the Minister. This process was aborted in February this year because it was found that only the Minister for Planning could alter the boundaries of the WHEA. The then Minister, Richard Wynne, accordingly asked the Heritage Council to advise him.


Image credit: Shutterstock (still from a video), Spotmatic Ltd.


On 28 July 2022, the newly appointed Minister, Hon. Lizzie Blandthorn, gazetted extended boundaries for the WHEA. The new boundaries are consistent with the RHSV’s 2020 submission and they restore the boundary as originally promised to UNESCO. This is a major achievement.

The hearings will now be resumed, and the RHSV will be seeking the remaining reforms recommended in the review process, including:

  1. Restoring the integrity of the WHEA (buffer zone) by removing the distinction between the Area of Greater Sensitivity and the rest of the WHEA.
  2. Protecting the views to the tower of the Royal Exhibition Buildings and the outlook from the viewing platform at the tower.
  3. Designating Heritage Victoria a Determining Referral Authority so that all planning applications within the WHEA must be considered first by Heritage Victoria

With this success, we can hope for significant improvement in the protection of one of Australia’s most important historic buildings. As Professor David Cannadine said in 2004: ‘There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world today’.


To read the RHSV response from September 2021 click here 

To read the RHSV submission to the Department of Environment in August 2021 click here

To read the RHSV submission to VCAT in August 2021 click here