The fire engineer who approved the Neo 200 building in Melbourne – the most recent high-rise cladding fire in Australia – has gone to court to try to have his licence revoked, allegedly so the he can’t be pursued for this and other issues.
According to a story in the Age (thanks to OCN for passing it on) Bruce Thomas wants the court to cancel his licence to practice, while the Victorian Building Authority wants to force him to keep it, apparently so that it can pursue him over the blaze.
This got me thinking about how everybody else in the chain of responsibility for apartment blocks seems to be potentially able to find some way of shirking their responsibilities … apart from the victims of whatever disaster befalls us.
Dodgy developers can shut up shop, ending their responsibility for their work, and appear days later under a different name but with the same directors, business address and phone numbers.
Politicians, certifiers, architects, engineers, strata managers and lawyers can, if they wish, all walk away, mumbling “not our problem”.
And there, right at the end of the daisy chain of irresponsibility, sit we apartment owners – the only group who, by legal definition, have an absolute virtually unlimited responsibility to maintain and repair common property.
And it occurred to me, why are we, the apartment owners, allowing ourselves to carry the can.
Trust me, while state authorities are charging around, ordering apartment blocks to replace flammable cladding at crippling expense, it would be a very different story if it was the government, developers or builders – in short, the people responsible for putting it there – who were having to foot the bill.
I guarantee that the warnings would be considerably muted and there would be all sorts of alternative plans afoot for making buildings safe, if they had to pay.
So maybe we should turn the tables, and for that I have a cunning plan.
First, of course, you make your building as safe as it can be. Ban smoking and barbecues on the balconies for a start – all three serious apartment block fires in Australia have been started by carelessly discarded cigarettes.
Then you insist on every balcony having a fire extinguisher in place. And make sure the inside of the apartment has smoke alarms and sprinklers. Feeling safer now?
OK, invite a specially created off-the-peg company to buy all the external cladding from the owners corporation for a peppercorn fee with a little incentive payment going the other way.
Once that’s done, the cladding is no longer common property – it’s owned by a private company – so when the government and/or council come around and say “what are you doing about this?” the owners corp joins the chorus of “not our problem.”
The powers that be can pursue the new owners of the cladding with the same diligence they use to chase down phoenixing builders and developers.
And since they have long disappeared in a puff of non-smoke, the question falls back on the authorities – if this is such a big deal what are YOU going to do about it?
I don’t expect anyone to actually do this, but I’d love it if some building did, just to highlight the ludicrousness of the situation.
Those raising their hands in horror, citing the terrible Grenfell tragedy in London almost three years ago, might want to consider this. That refurbed block was a disaster waiting to happen.
If there was a tower in Australia that had the genuine potential to be another Grenfell, the residents would already be living somewhere else. There have been two major apartment block cladding fires in Australia and zero injuries, let alone deaths.
Meanwhile, state and federal governments fall over themselves to go and pour money into drought-stricken farms and flood-hit towns … as they should. But there is no Akubra-clad photo-op in helping apartment owners to deal with the financial tsunami of having to replace the dangerous cladding on their buildings.
Apartment owners have to cop it and cop it again because, deep in their hearts of heart, our politicians don’t give a flying firehose about apartment dwellers.
Look at the boost to tourism, they say when Airbnb-style lets invade our homes. But who cops all the downside and none of the benefits? Apartment residents, of course.
Self-certification allows buildings to go up quicker (although not cheaper) and who suffers when it all starts falling apart, literally. You guessed it, the mugs who signed up for 25 years of debt and zero consumer protection.
So, while I’m not seriously suggesting selling your cladding to a phoenixer as a long-term solution to the problem, wouldn’t it be great if an enterprising apartment block tried it for a laugh, just to turn the tables for once.
Most politicians treat us with contempt anyway. Let’s give them a good reason.