Former Treasury secretary says that the Opal Tower is “the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to evading building regulations. He reviewed Opal Tower’s regulations in 2015 and condemned the lack of action taken by the NSW officials in this matter.
Michael Lambert, the former secretary of NSW Treasury, was commissioned by the government to find out the shortcomings of building regulations in New South Wheals after a building in Bankstown burned down in 2012 and authorities found inconsistencies in following building codes.
During the fire two young women jumped from the fifth floor to escape it. Connie Zhang died while Ginger Jiang was severely injured.
Investigations showed that there was an illegal roof installed over the atrium that kept smoke in. There were also other breaches of fire safety requirement that weren’t followed.
After this incident the government changed the policies and created a much restrictive certification for fire safety systems for high buildings. But Lambert says that there were also 150 recommendations that have been dragged or forgotten.
Lambert says it if frustrating that in the last three years there weren’t any other measures taken to enforce building regulations. “It’s been three years. The fire safety issue was a time bomb so they did something on that, but they haven’t implemented the rest of the report,” he said.
Just before Christmas cracks in the 34-storey Opal Tower lead to the eviction of hundreds of residents. This brought again into the public eye NSW’s building regulations and more important the question if Australia is able to overcome the legacy of substandard buildings after this housing boom.
The Lambert report found that there are significant building defects and they seem to happen predominantly in the NSW area.
His supposition is not backed up by audits of buildings but from people’s complaints about the builders to the NSW Fair Trading.
In 2012 City Futures commissioned the University of NSW to do a survey among strata owners regarding building regulations. 72% of the respondents know about at least one essential defect in their complex. 85% of the buildings respondents owned apartments in were built after 2000.
Lambert thinks that the problems got worse as the building boom started developing.
Unprofessional developers, who don’t work with professionals have sprung up more and more in the industry, which means that unqualified people are working on major projects.
In the NSW builders who work on commercial buildings are not required to be licensed. And those who work on residential projects only need to hold their licenses in order to qualify for warranty insurance.
Lambert told Guardian Australia. “There are hundreds of smaller projects, mainly medium rise in the suburbs, that will have problems.” He thinks that “The Opal Tower is likely the tip of the iceberg.”
Michael Lambert published a draft of his report in 2015 and the final version was made known to the public in October 2018. In this report he outlines a series of building regulation in NSW that are not followed.
The main culprits for this situation are the government, the lack of proper funding for the agencies in this field, the lack of requirement for the certifiers to have proper qualifications and audits to be constantly checked if they are doing their job.
He gave 100 recommendations, 12 of which should have been implemented within six months from the publishing of the report.
He continued to support the use of private certifications to sign off on building work, but ion order for avoid future incidents he also recommended an evaluation of the system in order to strengthen it.
One of his recommendations was to appoint a minister to be responsible for building regulations, keeping the communication line between agencies open, introducing reforms and professionalism standards in order to make them more accountable and introducing more frequent audits which finally will make the people trust that the certification system is a fair one.
Another point he made in his report is that the NSW government needs to properly resource the regulators, as they under budgeted.
After the incident in Bankstown, the government changed the policy regarding fire safety standards. The Fire Safety Association is now asking for those who certify the buildings to have competency in the area, as opposed to the situation before the fire when not having those competences was legal.
Lambert asked for a reevaluation of all certifiers in order to grant them independence from the developers, who pay for their services. This would professionalize the industry, as certifiers won’t be pressured to sign off anything as long as they are payed.
In NSW developers can choose between a council mandated inspector or a private certifier to evaluate building standards. But most developers opt for the private ones especially when it comes to big projects, like residential buildings.
After Lambert’s recommendations were published the government promised a new law to deal with private certifiers by the second half on 2017.
The law wasn’t only delayed until October 2018, but it also didn’t meet Lambert’s expectations. Matt Kean, the spokesman for the fair trading and innovation minister, said that this law will come into force in the next months.
This law “clarifies a certifier’s role and responsibilities, enhances independence, strengthens disciplinary procedures and facilitates better coordination of certifier functions,” as the not on the bill states.
Lambert told Guardian Australia that he tried to present the law to different ministries: fair trading and innovation but “the bureaucrats don’t want change and ministers do not seem motivated to push change.”
Lambert’s recommendation, that one ministry should be in charge of building regulations was met only partially. The ministry for planning is in charge of the building codes at state level. But the licensing residential builders and certifiers is seen as a consumer issue, so it’s the minister’s of fair trading responsibility.
To respond to Lambert’s report, the government made a lot of promises, including the consolidation of the law, but nothing visible has happened. A spokesperson said that the government is still committed to the cause, but it is a matter of finding the best tools.
Another promise that didn’t materialize is the instauration of a high level committee of regulators and a consultation committee to advise on the reform.
Lambert noted that he met up with the minister to set up the committee, but he wasn’t interested. “I arranged for the current minister, Matt Kean, to meet with industry and he had agreed at that meeting to set up a committee to help fast-track the reforms and provide feedback. But later he walked away from it.”
Another problem showed in Lambert’s report was the bureaucracy in this field. It is hard for buyers to find out if the building has been properly certified as the building’s papers are spread across councils, the Department of Planning and the certifier’s files.
Lambert admits that a system must be set up in order to digitize this exchange. The government also agrees, at least at a discourse level with Lambert’s proposition.
“As a priority step to fill data gaps, amendments will be prepared for introduction into parliament before the end of 2016”, the government said in its response to Lambert. “These will provide the power to require certifying authorities and accreditation holders to report certain building and development data.”
But this step is also only half implemented, as the system is under construction.
After the Opal Tower evacuation, Kean announced an audit for 25% to 30% of the industry. The details for the audit program are not yet made public, so it is unclear if the buildings are up to date with the certificates or they will only check the paperwork.
Kean doesn’t see the absence of response to Lambert’s report as being slow, or that there is a lack of progress in this field.
“Michael Lambert was asked to review laws regulating certifiers. In October, I passed nation-leading certification reforms, implementing Michael Lambert’s key recommendations, with serious penalties for certifiers who do the wrong thing,” Kean said to Guardian Australia.
He also states that progress has been made. “The Lambert Review was superseded by the Shergold Weir report that was initiated by the federal building ministers’ forum. NSW has led the nation in implementing the recommendations from this report.”
After the Grenfell tower disaster in London, when the building industry took a better look at using aluminium composite, Prof Peter Shergold AC and Bronwyn Weir investigated the building regulatory systems across the country and other problems that might impact the effectiveness of the national construction code.
The building ministers across the country learned the report’s conclusions in April 2018 at a minister’s forum.
Kean is expected to give his response to Shergold Weir report in February, before next building ministers’ forum.
Unfortunately, the lack of building minister’s answers and creating new policies doesn’t stop the biggest building booms in Australia. Hundreds of projects are developed right now in a climate that is not regulated properly.
The Opal Tower incident is emblematic for the current system. It will take some time until a culprit is found. To investigate the cracked tower’s safety, the government asked two engineering professors.
“I do not want to pre-empt Professor Hoffman and Professor Carter’s investigation into the Opal Tower,” Kean said. “What we have seen at the Opal Tower is clearly unacceptable and my heart goes out to the residents.”
He also hinted that there is something to be done, but he didn’t mention it. “Your home is often your biggest investment and people have every right to expect that their home is safe and free from defects. That it is especially the case when it is a new building like the Opal Tower.”
Once this saga is sorted out, it would be wise to reflect on the full cost of the regulatory system.