The Building Products (Safety Bill) 2017 is a long overdue attempt to address the significant concerns of residents and construction experts surrounding the use of unsafe building products, in particular flammable aluminium cladding. The bill gives the Commissioner for Fair Trading the power to ban building products believed to be unsafe, and he will be empowered to identify buildings in which these materials have been used. Local councils are required to enforce rectification works when they have been identified. Significantly, many important clauses from an earlier version of the bill have been omitted, which I will address shortly. This legislation has been introduced in response to tragedy. On 14 June 2017, in the dead of night, emergency services received a report that the Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, London, had caught fire. Sixty hours later, 71 people were dead and another 70 were seriously injured. Eighteen of those who died were children and seniors who were unable to escape the flames.
The fire is thought to have been started by a faulty refrigerator on the fourth floor. The flames spread quickly, allegedly due to the aluminium composite rain-screen used to clad the building, trapping residents in their flats. This tragedy reverberated around the world, sparking urgent investigations and regulation of dangerous cladding. It also sparked rounds of recriminations in the United Kingdom as it became apparent that Government officials were warned about the danger, and did nothing. It is concerning to know that this State Government knew about the dangers of aluminium cladding as far back as 2015 and it, too, did nothing. The construction union wrote to the State Government in 2015 to let it know of the union's concerns about the use of unsafe cladding, but it was allegedly told by the Government that it had not received complaints. It was not until the shocking disaster at Grenfell that the Government was jolted into action, establishing a cladding task force.
In August this year the task force revealed 1,000 buildings in New South Wales contained nonconforming, highly combustible cladding. That is more than 1,000 buildings that pose an unacceptable risk to home owners and tenants in our State. It quickly became apparent that aluminium-polyethylene cladding, such as that used in Grenfell, is commonly used in Australian buildings. A survey of new buildings in Melbourne revealed that almost half of the 150 buildings surveyed used flammable cladding. In fact, Australia has flirted with disaster. In 2014 the Lacrosse building in Melbourne caught fire after the composite panels used to clad the building's balconies allowed fire to race up 13 storeys in just 15 minutes. It is clear that action must be taken. In fact, it should have been taken years ago. Many of my inner west constituents have raised concerns about aluminium cladding following the terrible tragedy of Grenfell. Understandably, they want to know their buildings are safe and that the many new apartments they see being built rapidly around them are also safe. The residents are used to dealing with defects.
A University of New South Wales survey found that up to 85 per cent of strata owners reported experiencing two or more defects in buildings built after 2000. My office is regularly contacted by outraged and exasperated residents who are struggling to fix defects that appeared shortly after they took possession of their properties. Time and time again, developers and builders cut corners, leaving walls cracked and units waterlogged and damaged. In the push and pull between developers, architects, structural engineers, hydraulic engineers, builders, and subbies the imperative to keep costs low wins out. Unfortunately, that means many of the new buildings in my electorate look worse for wear only years after they have opened. Chipped concrete, water-stained facades and cracks in walls are common. Our once-proud heritage neighbourhoods begin to look shabby. Once-busy shopping strips are replaced with cavernous, vacant glass and concrete boxes that are promoted as "commercial opportunities" but kill main street life.
Perhaps most concerning of all, peace between neighbours fractures as entire buildings are embroiled in protracted strata disputes. It is understandable that residents begin to wonder about the defects they cannot see. It is understandable that they have lost faith in the quality of construction in our suburbs and in the materials that are used. So when an issue such as cladding safety is raised, it is also understandable that they want the strongest regulation possible. I am not sure this bill delivers that. In July this year the Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation shared an early draft of the bill with key stakeholders from the building industry. A letter from the Building Products Innovation Council reports:
Industry came away from the meeting satisfied that the draft bill included all of the key aspects of the model nonconforming building products chain of responsibility legislation that Queensland had introduced and that were fully supported by all sectors of the industry.
The bill we are debating today is a poor cousin to that bill, omitting key clauses that would tighten regulation and provide greater certainty to builders and home owners alike. The Building Products Innovation Council further states:
...is incapable of delivering on the Government's commitment to the Building Ministers' Forum, to the industry and incredibly, to its own 10 point plan.
So what is missing? There are insufficient mechanisms to ensure that owners and residents are notified of unsafe products. There is insufficient attention to chain-of-supply responsibilities that protect home owners from rectification costs, which some reports suggest might leave owners tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket. Greater regulation is required to improve product declarations, to ban the supply of dangerous materials, to enforce compulsory recalls and to order remediation. This should be linked to existing consumer protection laws to ensure a more cohesive and effective response when dangerous products are identified. Parliament must do more to proactively audit buildings for aluminium cladding and other dangerous materials. Parliament should not wait for a disaster such as Grenfell to spur it into action.
I am concerned that renters will once again be left behind by this Government. Renters have as much right to know if they are living in a dangerous property as anyone else, yet under the proposed regime it is left to building owners to inform residents about the potential risks. I have learned over the past few years that it is often renters who are the last to know about a threat to their home. For example, during the early home acquisitions for WestConnex property owners failed to inform their tenants that their home was to be acquired.
This left renters scrambling at the last minute to find alternative accommodation, with few rights and little support from the Government. Ensuring greater transparency about the use of dangerous materials is in everyone's interest. It will also ensure that tenants are not left in the dark about information that may result in life or death. The Tenants' Union of NSW has suggested using a public register of towers clad in incendiary materials modelled on the disclosures of loose-fill asbestos. The current Residential Tenancies Act does not include provisions that allow tenants to end their tenancy in the event that they discover their property is clad in a dangerous material. They have no rights if this information is wilfully withheld from them.
It is clear that the danger posed by aluminium cladding is present. For that reason, members on this side of the House support the bill as a necessary step towards ensuring public safety. However, I note the significant concerns of stakeholders and call on the Minister to adopt Labor's sensible amendments. This will strengthen the bill and protect home owners from the proliferation of dangerous cladding. I also ask the Minister to consider the rights of renters and to ensure they are aware of the dangers that these materials present. We can act together proactively now before we suffer another tragedy that caused so much heartbreak in London.