Re-regulation of the construction industry starts today
There is not much patience for partisan politics when it comes to building regulation, with all sides and the property industry itself recognising that the system is in crisis. The deal [$] at today’s meeting of building ministers to implement all 24 recommendations of the 2018 Shergold-Weir report into the sector is a clear win for Federal Industry Minister Karen Andrews, and a step towards restoring public faith in the system that has been shaken by the Lacrosse fire in Melbourne and recent evacuations in Sydney. Set aside this week’s argument between the Commonwealth and Victoria over who should bear the cost of removing combustible cladding – Karen Andrews and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg have simply refused to accept responsibility, even though the federal government clearly has a part to play overseeing the development of and adherence to the National Construction Code. More significant is the recognition, including on the conservative side of politics, that self-regulation “hasn’t worked” in the building industry, as NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said last week.
The “Building Confidence” report, by former Howard-era head of the prime minister’s department Peter Shergold and lawyer Bronwyn Weir, was pretty damning of the decline of confidence in building regulation around the country over the past 25 years – and that was before the evacuation of Sydney’s Opal Tower hit the headlines, followed by apartment buildings in Mascot and Zetland.
The short executive summary is a sobering read. The authors wrote:
We have read numerous reports which identify the prevalence of serious compliance failures in recently constructed buildings. These include non-compliant cladding, water ingress leading to mould and structural compromise, structurally unsound roof construction and poorly constructed fire resisting elements. We have heard suggestions that large numbers of practitioners operating in the industry either lack competence, do not properly understand the [National Construction Code] and/or have never had proper training on its implementation.
We found that, until relatively recently, there has been almost no effective regulatory oversight of the commercial building industry by regulators. Those involved in high-rise construction have been left largely to their own devices. Where there has been supervision, this has generally been by private building surveyors [or certifiers] whom critics argue are not independent from builders and/or designers.
Acknowledging that the construction industry had a “keen self-awareness of the problems that exist”, the report called on all jurisdictions – including the Commonwealth – to work together over three years to implement recommendations covering the whole system, including the registration and training of practitioners, regulatory oversight and focusing on the integrity of private building surveyors. The report was scathing of the impact of private certification, finding that it had reduced the capacity of local government building authorities, carried an inherent potential for conflict of interest, was subject to minimal oversight, and had “compounded many of the problems we have been asked to examine”.
Earlier this week, Karen Andrews told Sky News Australia host Peta Credlin that many of the buildings with combustible cladding should never have been signed off at all because the National Construction Code restricts cladding on buildings over three storeys. “The issue is one of the states not complying with the relevant building codes in their state and not enforcing those building regulations,” she said, adding they had “known this was coming for a very long time, and some of those states left it to five minutes to midnight, or, in some cases, five minutes past midnight, to even act”. Andrews, herself an engineer, had to abandon the idea of a new Commonwealth-funded taskforce to implement the recommendations of the Shergold-Weir report. Instead the Australian Building Codes Board, whose secretariat sits within her own department, will do the work, which was immediately welcomed by the insurance industry. Whether or not the Shergold-Weir recommendations go far enough to fix a broken regulatory system, it’s a start.
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“What I want [the select committee] to do is actually find those success stories, and to have that as an encouragement, because rural Australia is not broken … The bush is surviving, and the bush will thrive and the bush will do better because of the collective efforts of everybody who’s involved.”
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“As you pass the ‘turn off all phones’ sign and set off on the 4-kilometre drive to CSIRO’s Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla, the first thing that catches your eye is the radio telescope looming above the rolling green fields. Deep Space Station 43, whose mighty dish is 70 metres in diameter, is the largest steerable radio antenna in the southern hemisphere ... It’s therefore easy to miss the much smaller telescope near the car park, its 26-metre dish pointed permanently at the sky ... Though few are aware of it, this telescope is how we received the first images of man setting foot on the Moon.”
“In the high-density urban growth areas of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, [Sydney solicitor Stephen] Goddard believes, the decade-long thrust upward that has transformed skylines has inevitably spawned faulty buildings subject to water penetration, or fire, collapse or cracking, through a variety of defects.”
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Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
There is not much patience for partisan politics when it comes to building regulation, with all sides and the property industry itself recognising that the system is in crisis. The deal [$] at today’s meeting of building ministers to implement all 24 recommendations of the 2018 Shergold-Weir report into the sector is a clear win for Federal Industry Minister Karen Andrews, and a step towards restoring public faith in the system that has been shaken by the Lacrosse fire in Melbourne and recent evacuations in Sydney. Set aside this week’s argument between the Commonwealth and...