On October 8, Friends of Erskineville held a forum on the NSW building standards crisis in apartment blocks. Greens MP David Shoebridge, currently chairing a NSW parliamentary inquiry into the issue, presented along with Labor MLC John Graham (a member of the inquiry panel) and City of Sydney councillor Linda Scott, who is also president of Local Government NSW (LGNSW), the peak advocacy body for councils.
The state government called the inquiry in July after the evacuation of another apartment building due to the risk of building defects, on display the visible and very real impact of deregulation and lack of accountability of NSW’s building industry. The evacuations are just the tip of the iceberg with many building issues kept quiet by apartment owners for fear exposure will affect property prices.
Critically, what needs to be done has already been identified in multiple reports, including the comprehensive 2018 Shergold Weir report and the 2016 Lambert report by former treasury secretary Michael Lambert that made 150 recommendations to improve core legislation governing building regulation in NSW.
Mr Shoebridge told the forum that 18 significant reports had been delivered to government since the industry was deregulated but very few of their recommendations for fundamental reform had been adopted. The inquiry’s terms of reference include reviewing the implementation of the Shergold Weir and Lambert recommendations.
In 1998, the NSW Labor government deregulated the building industry with LGNSW begging the government on behalf of councils not to offload regulation of building construction to private certifiers employed by the developer.
In NSW it not compulsory for an engineer or certifier to be registered, anyone is able to present as an engineer or certifier regardless of qualifications or actions brought against them. Someone deregistered in Queensland can still practice in NSW. Both Queensland and Victoria require mandatory certification of a structural design before construction by an independent structural engineer. NSW does not. NSW also has no building regulator; unlike Victoria’s Victorian Building Authority (VBA) and Queensland’s Building and Construction Commission, these states regulating apartment development across all phases of design, construction and post-completion.
The panel was asked why NSW is the outlier. Why, when so much investment is at stake, have consecutive governments not acted in the interest of citizens? Engineers themselves are asking for compulsory registration. What is impeding the accountability for building designers – the key factor Peter Shergold blames for the Opal Tower fail in Sydney’s Olympic Park?
NSW has a new Building Commissioner, David Chandler, but without legislative reform and powers for a regulator, the appointment is nominal. The inquiry will deliver its report later in the year. Let’s hope this one is not also thrown straight into the bottom-drawer with all the others.
Watch the forum live on the Friends of Erskineville Facebook page:
This essay documents the Kafkaesque experience when an apartment building fails: www.sydneyreviewofbooks.com/trial-by-cladding