Speculation is the root cause of apartment tower disasters

Workers remove problem cladding in Manchester, Britain.

Twice in six months, residents have been forced to evacuate apartment towers in Sydney due to severe cracking: in December, when residents were forced to move out of Olympic Park’s Opal Towers; and in June, when residents of Mascot Towers, in Mascot, had to leave their homes.

In Melbourne, flammable cladding exacerbated a fire in the Lacrosse apartment building in November 2014. Five months ago, a similar situation occurred in the Neo 200 building in Melbourne’s CBD.

Luckily no one died or was seriously injured in these two fires.

The forced evacuations of apartment towers in Sydney and the cladding-related fires in Melbourne point to a disaster in our construction industry.

The Victorian Building Authority has a list of almost 1400 buildings with combustible cladding.

A UNSW City Futures Research Centre project in 2012 surveyed apartment owners in NSW. It found that 72% of the 1000 respondents were aware of defects in their strata-title complex. For those whose apartments had been built since 2000, the percentage was higher, at 85%.

The authors believe that other states would turn up similar results.

The practices in the building industry that led to such high rates of defects are the same as those that led to the installation of flammable cladding.

The common elements are building speculation and a privatised system of building inspection.

Speculation means that apartment blocks and houses are built to maximise profit. They are not built with a view to being comfortable, safe and functional homes.

In Victoria, there is no minimum size for apartments. This meant that at one stage, developers were pushing to build apartments about the size of a parking space in a CBD apartment block.

Developers do not mind if certain rooms are so small as to not be functional, or that apartment blocks are certain to leak, or that flammable cladding or other dangerous materials are used.

Over the years, various states have exacerbated the situation by following the neoliberal path of privatising building inspectors and reducing regulation with the argument that they are cutting “red tape”.

In Victoria, the previous Coalition premier Jeff Kennett changed the Building Act to privatise building inspectors and reduce the number of inspections from five to three.

Now, a private building surveyor inspects and issues a building permit at the planning stage, inspects when the frame goes up, and checks to make sure the paperwork is filled out correctly at the end. But there is no physical inspection at the end.

Some private building surveyors are less strict than others, so they tend to be favoured by dodgy developers.

Attempts by various state governments to weaken the licencing for electricians and plumbers have led to sprinklers being installed by unlicensed plumbers and subsequently failing to operate when fires occur.

The federal government blames state governments for these disasters. But the federal government has a National Construction Code (NCC) that they have not kept up to date in regards to flammable cladding.

This is because the federal government is only interested in using the NCC to attack unions, not dodgy developers.

Workers in the building industry know shonky work when they see it, as it is usually dangerous for their own health and safety.

Workers on the Opal Towers tried to blow the whistle on dodgy construction practices, but were ignored.

That is why we need stronger, not weaker, unions to empower workers to call out shonky bosses.

To avert more disasters, there needs to be a re-regulation of the building industry and the system of private building inspections has to be abolished.

We need strong penalties for developers who create companies then close them down when they start to be exposed, only to set up again under a new name. 

There needs to be an end to attempts to introduce unlicensed electricians and plumbers.

Importantly, Green Left Weekly believes that we need strong unions willing to fight for a society where people’s needs come before developer greed — the kind of society that we campaign for each week, and hope to continue to do so.

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