Are Trees and Car Parks more Important than People?

Thursday, July 4th, 2013
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You would think so, if Legal Penalties and Local Government Resourcing Are Any Indication.

The removal of a tree often has a negative aesthetic and amenity impact. Furthermore, we need trees for photosynthesis and healthier air. But are trees more important than compliance with building “regs”? If fines for non-compliance are any indication, then the answer is maybe, as the highest fine that can be handed down for carrying out building work under the Victorian Building Act 1993 without a building permit in the case of a natural person – a human being – is $10,000.

When one considers the raison d’etre of building regulations is public safety and the protection of life and limb, one wonders why people are the poor and distant relations of fern and fauna? There must be greater parity with respect to fines for illegal tree removal vis-à-vis fines for building-related offences. There is a bewildering inconsistency and it needs to be fixed; fines for building related offences should assume parity or even greater potency than fines relating to detrimental impacts upon aesthetic amenity.

The poor relation status of building compliance is further borne out by the fact that planning departments in local government receive far more funding than their building counterparts. Planning offences are about amenity and aesthetic diminution and prejudice, yet people don’t get physically injured on account of aesthetic diminution. Carnage can, however, be visited upon people when municipal authorities shy away from building regulation enforcement, with the building collapses in India and Bangladesh this year serving as prime examples. These catastrophes were all about building failure, which leads one to ask why so much funding is afforded to municipal planning departments and enforcement and not building departments.

Also relevant is the issue of resourcing. While driving Queen Street on Saturday, I witnessed parking infringement officers scampering from car to car doing their very best to issue infringement notices. This is incredible resourcing, because car fines are great for revenue raising. But again the question has to be asked, is it more important to resource parking infringement departments, where the infringer cannot prejudice life and limb, or building departments? This issue must be answered notwithstanding that the latter may be a drain on the public purse. The answer has to be ‘of course not,’ the rate payer believes it to be a given that our buildings are safe.

Before concluding, let’s not forget that frequently forgotten provision in the Building Act, section 212, which states that councils are responsible for administering the regulations in their municipalities, save for certain exemptions. Whether local government likes it or not, it stands front and centre in terms of municipal building control. Councils need to get with the program and provide much better fiscal and human resourcing to council building departments. Building departments have to be better funded, better resourced and need to be given the financial backing to properly discharge their obligations under section 212 of the aforementioned Act.

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