One of Australia’s largest urban renewal projects is set to take place over the next 30 years as part of the Parramatta Road Corridor Urban Transformation Strategy.
Like all major public sector initiatives (think ‘BER’) it would seem the perfect opportunity for the project to undergo the customary acronym substitution process. After brainstorming ideas on their whiteboards, the sharp suited executives in the marketing department probably didn’t take too long to decide that using ‘PRCUTS’ as a working title for this project might have presented a risky subliminal message to their political paymasters. Instead, the promotional materials have simply abbreviated it to ‘The Strategy’ with the claim that it is a “vision of land use and transport principles to accommodate 27,000 new homes and 50,000 new jobs in a range of industries across the Corridor over the next 30 years.”
Whilst strategic planning for land use on this scale has been sadly lacking across Sydney and its greater surrounding regions, the ultimate proof of its success or failure will be measured by what is actually delivered in terms of the functionality of the planning and the quality of the built environment assets including the associated infrastructure works. As far as roads and public transport infrastructure components go, past evidence would suggest that they will inevitably be far more expensive than what is anticipated in any preliminary project estimates. Just ask the NSW Premier who is desperately trying to explain a $549 million cost blowout before any works had even commenced on the light rail project.
However, the engineering construction works associated with the new infrastructure can confidently be predicted to be of a high quality standard. Fortunately, quality control has remained, and it must continue to remain, part of the expected outcome for all engineering infrastructure works carried out within NSW and Australia – albeit at a very high cost. It importantly defines us as having the status of a first world country.
So if we can be reasonably confident of that parcel of works, what of the quality standards of the 27,000 new homes that will become part of ‘The Strategy’? Going by the evidence collected over the past decade, the people who will eventually own and occupy these new dwellings are likely going to get a raw deal. Whilst they will indeed pay prices that are ‘world beating’ in terms of the cost rate per square metre for their newly constructed homes and apartment buildings, the unpalatable truth is that many of those new homes will be riddled with both major and minor defects.
And let’s make no mistake, this unfortunate but entirely avoidable outcome will be directly attributable to the intentional inaction of the NSW government and its lackadaisical approach to the ways in which it chooses to continue with its outdated requirements toward the licencing of building contractors in this state. NSW could learn a lot from their Queensland counterparts!
In Canberra, the House Economics Committee review met recently to quiz Australia's big four banking ‘pillars’ about their business operations. The CEO of Westpac, Brian Hartzer was asked whether his bank had any concerns about risk in the property sector, in particular that of the residential apartment market.
Hartzer offered an insight into what he and his bank thought by suggesting that there appeared to be many new low-quality apartments along Australia’s eastern seaboard. He was quoted in the AFR’s report as saying "What we are seeing is a number of those foreign buyers who put the money down to buy the apartments are now having trouble settling and that is creating a bit of a glut in supply which may or may not be what the local buyers want."
He went on to suggest that owners may find it difficult to sell those types of apartments as local buyers would reject the lower quality units in favour of higher quality developments. Whilst it’s fair to say that the Westpac chief’s commentary was probably focused on the available floor space and size of the new residential apartments being built in his reference to ‘low quality’, he may actually be very surprised to learn that a bigger apartment with more bedrooms will not necessarily guarantee that the apartment block has been constructed free from any aspects of bad workmanship, non-compliant materials, defective fittings and poor services that will be detrimental in terms of rectification cost and resale value.
This matter was raised in an article published last year by the consumer watchdog ‘CHOICE’. They issued an unequivocal warning to prospective purchasers which stated:
“To be clear, these defects aren't maintenance or repair issues. These are problems which wouldn't have arisen if it weren't for subpar construction, materials or design. Building defects, according to the UNSW study authors, may exist at the construction phase, but they can also arise later in the building's life, triggered by faults in the original construction or design.”
The top ten faults found in the study related to:
- Internal water leaks
- Cracking to internal or external structures
- Water penetration from outside
- Guttering faults
- Defective roof coverings
- Defective plumbing
- Tiling problems
- Building movement
- Noise break-through
- Defective balcony balustrades
CHOICE’s article cited an expert who operates in the area of property construction, Dr. Jonathan Drane. He suggested the incidence of defective building works had probable links with regulatory settings including the rise of new and inexperienced entrants to the market.
"Anyone can be a developer, for buildings over three stories, the barriers to entry are low – it's largely unregulated and a license isn't required," he was quoted as saying.
The problem seems to be inherent across most of Australia’s cities. A feature article in The Age newspaper by Clay Lucas focused on the poor standard of residential apartments constructed in and around Melbourne. The article was titled Poor quality buildings will be a scourge for future generations, and in it, the author was drawn to conclude that “so many hopeless builders get away with it over and over again, rebirthing their dodgy companies and causing the next unsuspecting customer untold grief.”
But before we wring our hands in despair, perhaps there is some light at the end of the tunnel that could help address this issue. Evidence of this may be found by citing another academic from that same article who was quoted as saying “Queensland has higher regulation of who is allowed on site, meaning only highly qualified tradesmen and women could get on-site to do the work. You can never police quality completely, but it means less crap gets built."
So let’s get back onto the Parramatta Road Corridor Urban Transformation Strategy. Will it simply be more of the same flawed work, or will the new Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, instruct her Office of Fair Trade to take a serious look at how Queensland has adopted higher benchmarks and standards of educational training and formal building qualifications for the purpose of licensing their contractors?
Queensland’s system seeks to align building licences into incremental work categories that reflect higher order skill sets for more complex and challenging construction. If this simple adjustment helps deliver a better standard of residential building works in Queensland, then why shouldn’t it work down here in NSW and indeed around Australia for that matter?
The concept is not difficult to comprehend. Today’s far more complex building designs actually require much higher order skill sets for a licenced builder to be able to ensure a satisfactory building construction project. The old ‘one size fits all’ NSW building licence should be consigned to the pages of history. It was based on a time when the construction of ‘houses’ generally meant knocking up a single storey framed and clad weatherboard cottage on a quarter acre block.
The Premier should take a quick look around Sydney and she will see that ‘home building’ is a very different beast than what it once was. It would certainly be a step on the path to help ensure that ‘The Strategy’ won’t simply result in adding an additional 27,000 potential defective buildings to the current stockpile being constructed throughout Sydney.