Hiding Australia’s high-rise tinder boxes

Australian authorities are putting property prices ahead of people's lives.

Tarric Brooker

Topics Politics World

In the wake of the disastrous fire at Grenfell Tower in London in 2017, in which 72 people died, governments around the world began investigating their own nations’ apartment blocks. They were looking for the same type of flammable cladding that had turned Grenfell into such a death trap.

In this, Australia was no different. Individual states and the federal government launched inquiries to discover the extent to which the same type of combustible cladding had been used on Australian tower blocks.

A report commissioned by an Australian construction union concluded that more than 3,400 residential tower blocks have flammable cladding. This affects 170,000 apartments.

Given the incredible scale of the number of tower blocks using the combustible material, its replacement has become a major political issue – not to mention a financial headache – for states throughout Australia. The total projected bill for the cladding’s removal and replacement comes to over AUS$3 billion according to one report.

In recent years, flammable cladding hasn’t been the only problem to afflict the construction industry. There have also been a large number of major structural defects discovered in relatively newly built tower blocks. In some cases, multiple tower blocks have been evacuated after investigations by engineers revealed they may be structurally unsound.

Yet, despite the obvious risks to residents of living in tower blocks built with combustible cladding, multiple state governments have refused to reveal which blocks were constructed with it.

According to statements from some state and council authorities, the reason for not notifying residents about whether their home was built with flammable cladding was the risk of terrorism. However, in one recent case, the New South Wales state government also referred to the potential effect on property prices as part of the reason why it would advise against releasing a register of at-risk buildings.

This advice comes at a time when housing prices in Australia’s two biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, dropped by more than 10 per cent between June 2017 and May 2019. Apartment values dropped by more than 30 per cent in some areas.

With such a high risk of further government revenue reductions as a result of falling property prices, it appears multiple levels of government have concluded that they would rather leave residents unaware of the risk of their home becoming an inferno than lower property values. It is a shameful decision. Government is effectively withholding information that may end up saving lives.

Ultimately, it appears that Australia’s state and federal governments are choosing to protect property values and government revenue streams, at the cost of risking the lives of over 300,000 people currently living in what could be high-rise tinderboxes.

Tarric Brooker is a journalist.

Picture by: Getty.

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Forlorn Dream

12th November 2019 at 1:08 pm

On the whole people aren’t stupid. In the absence of a list of affected tower blocks people will just assume they’re all affected. This assumption will drive down apartment prices across the board. It makes no sense to hide the list.

H McLean

12th November 2019 at 3:33 am

This is not surprising. For decades in Australia politicians have been in the (very deep) pockets of property developers and the building industry. Apartments are typically overpriced dehumanising shoeboxes that are not fit for purpose. They stick a few fancy kitchen appliances in them then market them as ‘luxury’. And here in Canberra the local government then have the cheek to charge upwards of $5k a year in rates.

Jim Lawrie

12th November 2019 at 9:39 am

The Timber frame construction used in this country, sometimes involving plywood sheeting, has rendered some property unsaleable 20 years on.

On one building site I saw on a hillside in the North of Scotland, I couldn’t figure out what was unsettling me. Passing by and taking another look a few hours later, I realised what it was. A 350 house development without a brick, block or cement mixer anywhere. 3 years later cracks were revealing the outline of the 8′ by 4′ sheeting used to build the things. Weightless in the wind, and with sprayon, lightweight render to give a nice finish. Much was made of the white Scottish sand and white Scottish crystalline aggregate used in this process. One woman I met who lived in them said it was like living in a house made of papier mache. But at least the timber frames don’t present as much of a fire risk now that the dampness is in them.
In the same area, we bought 2 ex council houses, brick cavity construction, and knocked them into one. Bizarrely, had we applied for a rates reassessment as one house, the amount payable by my partner and me would have risen from £858 each house to £3,330. The SNP think anyone living in a 7 room house must be made to pay for the privilege. They are now talking about a daily charge for overnight stayers, to bring us in line with commercial tourist premises, who think we should pay it because they do.

Forlorn Dream

12th November 2019 at 1:30 pm

Jim, it’s not so much the timber framing that’s the problem, it’s the constant corner cutting and penny pinching within the construction industry. I see this all the time in my role as a building services designer.
If the timber frame is properly protected and then covered with a double skin brickwork shield it’ll last as long as any other type of construction. Unfortunately I’ve seen them shrouded with cheap lightweight block then painted or worse, like you said, plywood nailed to them and coated with a thin layer of render.
Nothing is made to last these days and most builders are only concerned with seeing out their 10year warranty period, after that who cares? The worst builders will close down their business after a few years then open up a new one the next day. A perfectly legal, if despicable way to cancel all those pesky warranties.
All the above said, I have also seen builders who truly care about the quality and sustainability of their constructions so it’s not all bad. Even so, I live in a house that’s 120year old and would never consider buying anything built post WW2.

jan mozelewski

12th November 2019 at 11:14 pm

I live in a timber framed house. It is 400 years old. But then the timber is oak and the infill is brick and cob. Often it isn’t the method of construction that is the problem….its the quality of the materials and the skill and care (or lack of) put into it.

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