A hapless of Building Ministers announcing bugger all in Sydney

There are now four heavily publicised residential apartment buildings in Sydney which are either totally uninhabitable, or largely uninhabitable. The subsequent collapse of confidence in the residential apartment market and revelations about flammable aluminium cladding created a crisis for certifiers of apartment building unable to obtain professional indemnity or building insurance.

It’s no coincidence that the collective noun for a group or flock of Building Ministers is a hapless, because no one looked more hapless than those ministers faffing around about an industry that has been deregulated now for more than 20 years, scratching their heads, and wondering what has gone wrong.

While the meeting reached an agreement between the states and the federal government to pursue national building standards, fund an implementation team to carry out the recommendations from the recent Building Confidence report and tried to do something about insurance companies acting properly by refusing to insure things that are too high risk, so what? What about the elephant?

The NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian was the first to throw her hands in the air. On 10 July she admitted “it hasn’t worked”. While she wanted to “assure the community that we know there’s a problem” she said the problem was “there’s a gap in legislation. We allowed the industry to self-regulate and it hasn’t worked. There are too many challenges, too many problems, and that’s why the government is willing to legislate.”

This was before the fourth vacant development was identified - having remained uninhabitable following a private certifier signing off that the developer had done remedial work, which apparently hadn’t been done and the toxins on the former industrial site were not remediated before the development was constructed. Sydney City is preventing its occupation because it’s too dangerous to health but where the developer had told the purchasers that the delay in occupation was due to a “planning issue”. Oh yeah.

In the Sydney Morning Herald on 13-14 July the front page ran the headline “Developers to Berejiklian: Fix building laws now” but it’s 20 years of governments doing what developers have wanted that put us precisely in this situation: less regulation, less compliance with regulation, certifiers paid for by the developers, corner cutting, cost savings, lightweight untested materials, inadequate BCA standards on flammability and on, and on.

The Premier was right. It hasn’t worked and while she’s been a member of the NSW Parliament since 2003, so coming in right at the time of the Campbell Enquiry into the Quality of Buildings that identified multiple failures of the private certification system, and a variety of other investigations, consultations, discussion papers and other reports, only now has she acknowledged It hasn’t worked. Too late Gladys, you’ll say better late than never, but what you do now, having acknowledged the folly of government lawmakers for decades, will be a test of your commitment to evidence-based policy-making. Want to fix it, or just try to get yourself off the hook for a few more years?

On 17 July the property development industry got in on the act wanting strong government action. What a hide! In what was described as an “unusual joint statement”, the Property Council of Australia, the Master Builders Association, the Insurance Council, AIG and the Building Construction Forum called for the Premier to “fix the building safety crisis” but their immediate concern is insurance for building surveyors signing off on the residential apartment buildings members of those organisations have constructed. And before we move off this group, the Insurance Council of Australia, when private certification was first proposed in NSW more than 20 years ago, opposed it because of insurance risk.

On 18 July, the morning of the Building Ministers’ Forum, the CEO of the Master Builders’ Association, Denita Warn, was interviewed on ABC News Breakfast begging for more regulation and compliance over the buildings her members built. Really, that’s a bit of an embarrassing admission isn’t it. She spoke of “systemic problems” and said “we need that safety net and that confidence that the rules are being enforced by our regulators”.

Quite an admission from the Master Builders Association but only after the indefatigable Virginia Trioli had said “I do want to pause there and get a straight answer from you” and was told that she agreed they needed a new level of “re-regulation back into the building industry as well as compliance and enforcement. The industry supports that.”

Then the hapless of Building Ministers focussed solely on flammable cladding on residential buildings, insurance woes, and at no stage acknowledged that 20 years of deregulation did us no good. Made lots of people rich but they would have done better letting the CEO of the Master Builders’ Association inform their deliberations.

This morning, the front page of the SMH lead with “Councils condemn building codes” with Independent Sydney City Lord Mayor Clover Moore describing the state government’s regulation of the building industry as “breathtakingly irresponsible” and “that a lack of independent certification had paved the way for buildings that were ‘unfit for occupation’”.

“This has resulted in arrangements that have allowed buildings unfit for occupation to be released to the market and certified for occupation”. Cr Moore called for “Independent on-site construction inspectors” and said that “engineers and building professionals working on those sites needed to be adequately qualified and registered, and all buildings should be assessed by independent, third-party inspectors.” Go, Clover!

It wasn’t just the Independent Lord Mayor. The Labor Mayor of the City of Ryde , Jerome Laxale, said  “industry-wide changes were needed, but rethinking the role of private certifiers was a ‘good place to start’”.

“I think it’s a deliberately under-regulated industry and that needs to change”.

And the Labor Mayor of Canterbury Bankstown, Khal Asfour, called for national standards and highlighted the “over-relaxed guidelines governing private certification”.

The Independent Mayor of North Sydney, Jilly Gibson wanted tighter regulation, “I think (buildings) are being certified that shouldn’t be”, she said. And the Liberal Mayor of The Hills Shire, Michelle Byrne, wanted better oversight of structural designs and a better system to monitor standards during construction.

The NSW Legislative Council Public Accountability Committee has established an inquiry into the regulation of building standards, building quality and building disputes including the role of private certification, the adequacy of consumer protections, the role of Strata Committees in responding to building defects, case studies related to flammable cladding on NSW buildings, the defects discovered in Mascot Towers and the Opal Tower, and the current status and degree of implementation of recommendations of reports into the building industry including the Lambert report 2016, the Shergold/Weir report 2018 and the Opal Tower investigations final report 2019.

The inquiry will be chaired by the David Shoebridge as Chair, Robert Borsack from the Shooters is Deputy Chair, two Liberals, two ALP and one member of the Nationals. Here’s a link. We’ll be putting in a submission by Friday as well.

The NSW Liberal Government in the late 1980s introduced amendments to the Local Government Act to allow Councils to contract out (that means, privatise) building and development approvals, with no considerations of risk, no insurance protections and one of the most flawed pieces of legislation that the Minister for Local Government at the time, David Hay, had the pleasure to introduce in 1989. Not one Council ever used this option.

That’s 30 years ago. Governments of both persuasions have supported this and it’s time to bring all of development control, regulation and compliance back to local government with a new Building Commissioner established to operate exactly as the historic Builders Licensing Board operated from 1971 to 1987.

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