Why we’ll never see a ban on balcony barbies

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With summer on the way, not to mention the proposed end to bans on having friends round for dinner, apartment residents all over Australia will be dragging their barbecues out of the corner and wondering if the gas hose and valve will stand another year of not being checked by a professional.

Regular readers of this website will know that I’m not a big fan of balcony barbecues. They are, in my opinion, one of the dumbest examples of strata residents’ wilful neglect of the health and comfort of their neighbours.

They’re worse than blaring music and rogue parking for the simple reason that there are by-laws and local ordinances to deal with those.

Also, while you can get the music switched off and the car moved, the offensive odour of a badly managed barbie can linger for hours, especially if you happen to be out and have left your windows open when downstairs or next door fires up.

However, in many modern apartments, there are no impediments to the misuse of barbies, nor are there likely to be.

Try building a house with a permanent barbecue and the council will tell you it must be 10 metres from the building for safety reasons. Stick one on your balcony and no one makes a peep.

The fact that at least one of the major cladding fires in Dubai in the past few years was started by a barbecue sems to have made little impression.

A few years ago, I foolishly stood up at my building’s AGM and asked if we might put some reasonable restrictions on the use of barbecues on balconies.

I had moved here from a building that had a “no barbies” by-law, and everyone had seemed to survive.

All I wanted was some consideration to be given to the people who lived above and beside those residents who didn’t care where the smoke and smell from their sausage singeing went.

The response was vociferous and vile.  One resident took great umbrage at the suggestion that he might be denied the use of a huge six-burner beef incinerator.

Another was outraged at the very idea that he might be expected to cook fish in foil rather than let the ensuing stink drift into other owners’ flats.

The very idea that residents should be asked to clean their hot plates with detergents and elbow grease, rather than burning off the last barbie’s fat and meat fragments, was decried as unAustralian.

Limiting the use of barbies to four nights a week –  to avoid the worst excesses of people who never learned to cook and scorch cheap cuts of meat every single night – was decried as an attack on civil liberties.

At one point, a neighbour pointed at me and yelled: “This man is a vegetarian!” as if he was denouncing me for witchcraft or worse.  For the record, I wasn’t vegetarian then, but I am (mostly) now. And he was drunk.

I gave up on trying to pass a by-law and instead resorted to quiet diplomacy to have a voluntary code of conduct adopted.  It’s not bad but I don’t know how much effect it has. 

Many strata residents read “voluntary” as meaning anything between optional and irrelevant and I still have to sprint for the balcony doors when the first whiffs of burning burgers start drifting in.  

If your near neighbours happen to be Airbnb tourists – remember them? They’ll be back! – don’t be surprised if every night is T-bone night.

Strata law is no help. Smoke drift from cigarettes is officially a “nuisance”, noxious fumes from over-seared steaks apparently are not.

The scare campaigns in some newspapers before the last law changes in NSW – saying barbecue smoke would be banned – were exactly that.

Even when the Attorney General’s office was insisting barbecue smoke was included, I was saying “read the Bill – it quite clearly isn’t”.

But the years drift by like the smoke from charred chops and you realise you are at the mercy of whatever tenants and owners are in the flats below yoursand how they choose to cook their meat.

Last week, anticipating the first sausages of summer, our current strata committee issued a revised and improved barbecue code.

Alongside requests not to “burn-off” the residue from previous barbecues and to wrap fish and seafood in foil, there is a ban on charcoal and six-burner mega-barbies, plus demands that residents keep fire extinguishers on hand and a limit on how late in the evening you can start sizzling your sausages.

OK, it’s taken a few years and these “rules” are not backed by a by-law, even though the balconies are common property.

I probably could go to NCAT and try to have the by-law allowing barbecues declared “harsh and oppressive” on the grounds that we aren’t allowed to have air conditioning, which means we have to leave our windows open in summer, which is when barbecues are in almost constant use.

However, our car was vandalised the last time I campaigned against barbies all those years ago, so maybe not.

There will probably never be a by-law in this or any other building that already allows barbecues, even though considerate cooks are just as likely to be afflicted by the smoke and smell from thoughtless neighbours.

The problem is, any such by-law is unlikely to be supported by investors who tend to be reluctant to do anything they think might limit the rentability of their unit.

If you don’t have to live with the stink from anyone’s barbecues, why would you deter tenants from cooking up a storm?

Maybe what we really need is a law that says if you don’t have to live with the direct consequences of your vote, then you should leave such decisions to people who do.

And, like a ban on barbies, that ain’t gonna happen any time soon.

A version of this column first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.

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