By Sue Williams and Jimmy Thomson
The NSW Government-appointed expert who wrote its report into building industry standards says that had his 2016 recommendations been followed, the Opal Tower crisis, where cracking in support walls has led to hundreds of residents being evacuated, might never have occurred.
And Michael Lambert, whose review of the Building Professionals Act contained 150 recommendations for improving quality control in new buildings, claims there are thousands of other defective buildings whose plight is never reported.
“I tried to persuade them [the government] to do something, but after two years, I gave up and sat back and felt very frustrated by it all,” said the former Treasury Secretary. “[The problems are] bureaucrats resisting any changes and Ministers who don’t feel motivated to override them.”
Mr Lambert says that defects in 85 per cent of the state’s newly built apartment blocks, as revealed in a UNSW study, are the result of a systemic problem that will only get worse at “massive costs to individuals and society”.
“There are thousands of Opals out there,” he said. “The Opal Tower happens to be on a very large scale but there are so many smaller scale buildings with problems that haven’t been in the papers.
“Defects are cheap if they can be fixed before the building is completed,” he said, claiming that the costs would be one tenth of fixing issues after the matter, while avoiding residents having to move out and having their lives disrupted.
“But there needs to be an effective regulatory system,” he added. “There’s a problem with this being in Fair Trading which is very reactive and passive. They don’t have a proactive approach.
“I hoped that the Opal Tower would be a wake-up call for the Government but I’m running out of hope now,” he said. “In the three years since I wrote the report, very little has happened.”
However, Better Regulations Minister Matt Kean, whose department takes in Fair Trading, says the Lambert report has since been overtaken by a national review of building regulations which he will be discussing at a federal level.
“The Lambert Review was superseded by the Shergold Weir report that was initiated by the federal Building Ministers’ Forum,” said Minister Kean. “NSW has led the nation in implementing the recommendations from this report.”
Minister Kean added that in October he had passed “nation-leading certification reforms, implementing Michael Lambert’s key recommendations, with serious penalties for certifiers who do the wrong thing.”
Since this story was first published, Mr Lambert has also spoken at length to the Guardian, adding to his withering assessment of the State Government’s failures in this area.
“The Opal Tower is likely the tip of the iceberg,” Mr Lambert told the online newspaper. “There are hundreds of smaller projects, mainly medium rise in the suburbs, that will have problems.”
While Mr Lambert backed the continued use of private certifiers to sign off on building work, he suggested a top-to-bottom overhaul of the system, including
- making one minister responsible for building regulation
- bringing agencies together
- introducing reforms aimed at greater independence and professionalisation for certifiers
- making other professionals in the system more accountable
- introducing a system of audits so that the public could be confident that certifiers were performing their role
- properly resource the regulators to boost their independence from developers and to professionalise the industry.
“I arranged for the current minister, Matt Kean, to meet with industry and he had agreed at that meeting to set up a committee to help fast-track the reforms and provide feedback,” Mr Lambert told the Guardian. “But later he walked away from it.”
Meanwhile building engineers say that if the government had listened to their pleas to pursue the Lambert Report’s most critical recommendations 18 months ago, the Opal crisis could have been avoided.
“NSW has by far and away the worst regulation in this country. Even Queensland is far better,” said Robert Hart, a former member of a past Engineers Australia committee that looked looking into problems in the building industry.
“Matt Kean has tabled some changes to the Building Professionals Act but they’re all to do with certifiers. He’s set completely the wrong target.
“The one thing the Government has been spectacularly successful at is failing to understand the role of the certifiers and being able to articulate that role to the wider public.”
A version of this article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.