Following a number of issues concerning property, the Canberra Auditor General last year undertook a comprehensive investigation into the ACT building regulatory and licensed practitioner regime during which several projects were case studied and the entire gambit of private certifier controlled residential development was examined.
Not surprisingly, the findings – which have been the subject of considerable public attention – are worrying and reflect broader concerns about private certification throughout the nation.
In short, the AG found that:
- Safeguards for minimising undue influence upon development applications were inadequate.
- Safeguards designed to evaluate building certifier discretion needed to be bolstered. The wide ranging and powerful discretions of certifiers dictated a high level of probity and controls introduced to ensure that probity was not compromised.
- Auditing powers of private certifiers were considered insufficient and needed to be improved and it was considered that more targeted audits of certifiers to ensure statutory compliance were required.
- Certifier training needed to be improved along with improved dissemination by the ACT departmental regulator of information that shed light on that which can be exempted on development applications.
- Penalties for certifier misdemeanours were considered to be ‘small’ and the penalty regime needed to be overhauled to ensure that penalties were sufficient to dissentivise questionable conduct.
Furthermore, some of the case studies that were reviewed by the auditor general established that some abodes had been built in circumstances where the development applications were granted retrospectively. In two cases, documentation submitted to the certifier did not include key assessment criteria.
In one Civil Administrative Tribunal matter, it was noted that a certifier had ‘cut corners.’ A number of directorate offices had opined that some of the relationships between builders and certifiers were ‘potentially improper.’
Moreover, the report found that certifiers needed better training, better communication and the departmental directorate needed to better manage the auditing and investigation regime.
It was noted that only 10 per cent of development application examinations were audited. It was also found that the discretionary powers afforded to certifiers in the ACT created a risk of problematic influence and there was no evidence of independent review of development application assessments in the case studies.
In response, the Auditor General made a number of recommendations, including better communication of regulatory breaches of investigation, improved certifier training, prescribed minimum levels of documentation for development applications, better promotion of awareness about the role of certifiers by the directorate and beefed up penalties.
These issues are not new, nor is the need for this sort of thing restricted to the ACT. Last year, for example, my colleague Stephen Smith called for a number of reforms to private certification more generally, including not only mandatory auditing and CPD for certifiers, independent peer review, more oversight powers and higher penalties, but also a regulated floor on certifier fees to ensure these cannot drop to a level which would compromise professional standards.
The Auditor General has hit on a number of serious issues which extend beyond ACT borders.
Policy makers throughout the nation should take note.