Fire risk and building controls: time for government to act instead of talking | Owners Corporation Network

Fire risk and building controls: time for government to act instead of talking

Sydney Morning Herald

COMMENT
 

Fire risk and building controls: time for government to act instead of talking

 

 

The Grenfell tower fire in London has opened the eyes of the world to the dangers of building with materials that do not conform to safety standards. Yet Australia had its own wake-up call in November 2014 when fire ripped through Melbourne's Lacrosse building, prompting the Senate to instigate an inquiry into non-conforming building products.

Since then Australia has experienced an unprecedented construction boom with high-rise buildings changing the face of our urban landscape and billions of dollars invested in new homes in the sky.

It would be reassuring to think our government considered it a priority to ensure there was a legislative framework that guaranteed the safety of these buildings.

Instead, the federal government's approach to dealing with a crisis that imperils lives as well as two cornerstones of our economy – construction and real estate – demonstrates anything but urgency.

 

On June 23, 2015, the Senate referred an inquiry into non-conforming building products to the Senate Economics References Committee for inquiry and report by October 12, 2015.

Since then, the Senate has granted five extensions to the committee. It is now due to deliver an interim report on the illegal importation of products containing asbestos by August 31 and the final report on October 31 – more than two years after its original deadline. Canberra's fiddling is reprehensible.

Fair Trading NSW has recently added a section on non-conforming building products to its website, outlining those whose responsibility it is to ensure compliance, including home owners and consumers.

The Grenfell Tower fire in West London in June tragically underlined the dangers of building with materials that do not ...

The Grenfell Tower fire in West London in June tragically underlined the dangers of building with materials that do not conform to safety standards. Photo: Getty Images

Yet apartment owners are largely powerless in the supply chain and when things go wrong, they are left picking up the bill if a builder or developer has wittingly or unwittingly used non-conforming or non-complying products.

While the real estate industry may not be at the front line in dealing with matters of product safety and construction, it is very much involved over the life cycle of all types of housing and office buildings.

It is real estate agents who must advocate on behalf of vendors, assuring buyers that the asset they are acquiring is safe and will be a stepping stone to wealth, not a millstone requiring rectification and repair. It is real estate agents who install tenants in buildings that they must trust have been built to be safe.

We do so in good faith yet the audit of apartment buildings undertaken by the Victorian Building Authority has shown that half contained non-compliant materials and while these non-compliant materials may not necessarily result in a tragedy like the Grenfell Tower, it does starkly highlight the state of uncertainty that exists.

In NSW, the state government has announced an interagency taskforce to identify high-rise buildings with a fire risk. Individual councils are also undertaking safety audits and material reviews. There is every reason to suspect they will uncover results similar to Victoria's.

There are clearly systemic failures in the regulatory system that need to be fixed at a national level. The federal government must legislate a more robust application of the Building Code of Australia, including strengthening Australian Standards through testing of both imported and domestic products by an independent body such as the CSIRO.

In addition, the integrity of the building certification process, which was privatised some years ago allowing developers to engage their own certifier, must be restored.

Also government needs to clearly identify that the chain of responsibility rests with the developer, removing the incentive to compromise the integrity of the building or the process. The buck has to stop somewhere.

All the solutions to the problem have been presented by expert bodies to the Senate inquiry and a multitude of state inquiries so surely it is now time for governments to advance from talking and thinking to actually doing something.

Andrew Cocks, owner and managing director of real estate agency Richardson and Wrench.