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MAV Opinion Editorial - Unprecedented opportunity to fix our building regulatory system

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The release of the Framework for Reform discussion paper by the Victorian Government’s independent expert panel looking at Victoria’s building regulatory system presents the opportunity for a huge win for local communities.

The review recognises major longstanding problems in Victoria’s building system. Significant changes are required to the building regulatory system in Victoria to improve community safety, address conflicts of interest, and restore the capacity of local building departments.

This is a not-to-be-missed opportunity to make the changes needed to give Victorians the protection and confidence they deserve.

One of the most glaring problems in the current system is the inherent conflict of interest in the private building surveyor model. We need to move to a system where building surveyors are no longer conflicted between their role as regulators and accommodating the developer that employs them.

Our current system allows developers to pick their own building surveyor who certifies the plans, carries out all the inspections, and issues an occupancy permit at the end of it.

Addressing this issue will improve community safety, consumer protection, and the integrity of the construction industry. It will also provide a level playing field for the many building surveyors already doing the right thing.

We have all seen the results of poor building regulation in Victoria, the cost and stress it creates for those left to mop up the mess is enormous. We shouldn't for a minute think the problems with Victoria's building regulatory system are contained to high-rise apartment buildings and flammable cladding.

We've seen issues with every type of building. This includes high-rise apartment buildings; flammable cladding; excavation work collapsing and endangering neighbouring properties; balconies and decks that have collapsed; residents in new estates finding mould and being told their best option is to demolish and start again; and whole suburbs covered in smoke from chemicals burning in warehouses never designed to hold them and without the necessary fire suppression systems.

Our proposed solution is targeted at the inspection phase. Inspections during construction are where the rubber hits the road for compliance.

Under our proposal, a developer can continue to get a permit issued by a private building surveyor. When an inspection is required, our suggestion is that the VBA (rather than the developer) assign someone to do the job. This way, the process has got real independence.

Those inspections could still involve a private workforce, but they would be accountable to the VBA rather than the developer.

Some current surveyors would probably choose to focus on the certification part of things, some choose to focus on the inspection side, and some continue to straddle both roles as they do currently.

We also think councils should have the primary enforcement role on construction sites, and a better defined and resourced role once construction is complete. The VBA should handle practitioner discipline, but the relevant council’s Municipal Building Surveyor should have the lead role in directing non-compliant building work to be fixed.

Many Victorians have experienced the problems of relying on centralised agencies for frontline service delivery. As the level of government closest to the community, councils are best placed to be responsive to local issues as they arise.

This increased role must be adequately resourced, rather than continuing to be subsidised by ratepayers. The state-wide building levy should contribute to this resourcing to ensure that councils across Victoria can protect their communities.

Many council building departments have shrunk significantly since the system was privatised in 1993. That doesn’t just impact their everyday functions, it has had state- wide consequences in the ability to respond to natural disasters.

Council building officers have a critical role in emergency management. After an area is declared safe by State authorities, it’s council officers that assess the safety of damaged buildings. They also issue notices and orders that can allow clean-up to begin without the need for a building permit.

During and after the 2019/20 bushfires, significant support, including deployment of staff, was provided by other councils across Victoria. One of the most sought-after resources were building surveyors and inspectors. Many surveyors volunteered, but they also faced a huge challenge ensuring their responsibilities at their home council were still met.

Bolstering the capacity of local government building departments will ensure local officers are there to respond and will improve resource sharing capacity between councils. This will make Victorian communities safer and help get back on their feet faster after an emergency.

There will be many voices claiming we can’t afford to take the steps necessary to solve these problems - the reality is we can’t afford not to.

Effective regulation is essential for public safety and the sustainability of the construction industry.

All Victorians should provide their feedback. Consultation on these reforms is open until 19 May on the Engage Victoria website.

Warm regards,

Cr David Clark
President,
Municipal Association of Victoria

This opinion editorial was published on 7 May 2021 and appeared in the Ballarat Courier, Bendigo Advertiser, Border Mail and the Warrnambool Standard.