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My Opinion Pieces

Herald Sun - Victorians living in death traps mustn't be ignored

   Friday, 28 June 2019

IMAGINE you are going through your mail and find a letter from your body corporate, the local council, and some entity called the Victorian Building Authority.

The VBA tells you that your home is dangerous because the exterior of your apartment is clad in aluminium composite panels with a polyethylene core.

Polyethylene cladding is incredibly flammable and was one of the contributing factors to the Grenfell Tower fire in London in 2017, in which 72 died.

It becomes apparent that, given the fire risk, your property is now worthless, with all the consequences that has for your financial security. Then, finally, you receive word that your Owner’s Corporation, responding to a legally binding order from the VBA regarding the removal of the cladding, has passed on the proportionate cost of its removal for your apartment, often costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

You can’t afford to make your home safe. Your primary asset is worthless. You potentially live in a fire trap. So you try to speak to the builder. Blair Warren-Smith, who mortgaged herself to hilt to buy her first home, was told recently her building is clad in dangerous combustible material. Blair’s building was developed by the Corkman Cowboys, who, after making her property a fire trap,went on to bulldoze a historic pub and dumped asbestos ridden material in a residential area.

They should not be able to practice in this industry again.

Residents of a Frankston South apartment complex tried to contact their builder, too. This year they were told by the VBA that their homes were so dangerous, the VBA and the local council had posted a 24/7 fire warden at their property. They too found their builder had been dodgy for years, with various complaints against him. He was suspended. The Frankston South residents are collectively up for hundreds of thousands of dollars to make their homes safe.

Then there is the retired South Yarra couple who have put their savings into a two-bedroom apartment, only to be told it’s a fire trap and the state government won’t help them make their home safe. They are on their own.

These issues could confront thousands of Victorian apartment owners who through no fault of their own are facing dramatic challenges without support from the Andrews Government.

There are literally hundreds of apartment blocks around Victoria that have received a notice from the VBA telling owners their building isn’t safe; 71 have been classified as extreme risk, 368 high risk and 342 moderate risk. This is a secret list; the government will not disclose whose home is on it and it cannot guarantee that all tenants of every building with dangerous cladding know they are living in a potential fire trap.

Planning Minister Richard Wynne recently announced $165.3 million for a cladding rectification program, but only for government buildings and TAFE sites. Wynne’s office at 8 Nicholson St was clad in combustible material, but the VBA rectified that very quickly.

Owners of dangerous private dwellings are right to ask when funding, technical or social support will be provided by the Andrews government.

This is a massive failure of the regulator, the VBA and its predecessor, the Victorian Building Commission. The VBA approved this material for use, so when most of these relatively new apartment complexes were signed off by private building surveyors as fit for occupancy, in many cases the material had been used lawfully.

Where cladding hasn’t been used lawfully, builders should be punished for the harm they have caused.

The Andrews Government must help residents make their homes safe. This is an issue of public safety. As British Prime Minister Theresa May said: “It is of paramount importance that everyone is able to feel and be safe in their homes."

Recently the British government announced that dangerous cladding on 170 privately-owned high-rise buildings around the UK would be replaced, at the cost of about $360 million, funded by the government.

Daniel Andrews told the media he will be announcing a new package in due course, with a new authority to manage the government’s response to this fiasco. That’s inadequate. How many times have victims of this crisis been told an announcement is imminent?

The government must act now; a tragedy will result if it doesn’t. Then it must regulate the building industry — properly — so

this never happens again.