A recent Victorian Building Authority media release highlights the sham that is the ‘building regulation regime’ in Victoria.

In the release, titled Costly Lesson in Building Fire Safety, the VBA says that “[a] group of property owners is facing a bill of about $500,000 to fix problems after the VBA issued a building order in response to fire safety concerns.”

It sounds impressive, as if the VBA is playing the role of ‘regulator’, but it disguises a significant fact. The builder, surveyor and others involved in building the 55-apartment complex ignored many fire safety regulations and the risk to people’s lives. Yes, this is a “costly lesson for the owners,” but why are the owners responsible for rectification costs when they are not at fault?

For those who build or buy new properties in Victoria, this is a common story and raises all the usual concerns, underscoring the myths and exposing what is effectively an industry without any governance, and one for which consumers bear the financial burden.

Murray Smith from the VBA cites the myth that buildings “must meet fire safety requirements under the Building Regulations 2006.”

As this case demonstrates, without enforcement by the VBA, all building practitioners know they can do as they please. With no audits, no enforcement and a minuscule number of cowboys ever given any penalty, those in the building industry realize that no matter how outrageous their conduct, they can ignore all regulations and with complete impunity!

The VBA has now issued an order, but after the fact. Furthermore, the order was not issued to the offenders, but rather to the owners, who are supposed to be protected by the builders’ warranties. This case brings to mind the Childers Palace Backpackers Hostel fire of 2000 in which the hostel did not have working smoke detectors, fire alarms, sprinklers or fire extinguishers, and 15 people lost their lives.

In 2011, the Victorian Auditor General’s Office concluded that “The Commission has not adequately discharged its responsibilities under the Act and its obligations as a regulator” and “there is little assurance that surveyors are carrying out their work competently, that the Act is being complied with and the risk of injury or damage to any person is being minimized.”

It is now 2014, three years later and we learn that nothing has changed!

“When the plans for the building were developed, there was little consideration for fire safety,” Smith said. “As a result, the owners are now fixing the problem, at a cost of almost $500,000.”

The Building Practitioners Board registered all of the building practitioners, with the VBA’s role to enforce compliance. But be it the Building Commission or the VBA, over two decades, both have failed. They have performed so badly that after two extremely damning reports from the Victorian Auditor General (2011) and the Victorian Ombudsman (2012), they decided in 2013 to put a disclaimer on their website.

“Registration with the Building Practitioner’s Board is a minimum legal requirement in order to be able to conduct many building related business activities,” the disclaimer reads. “However, registration does not guarantee that a practitioner has maintained up-to-date technical knowledge or meets the current standards required for registration as a new registered practitioner.”

In other words, registration is essentially worthless!

What other registration boards would be unable to deliver to the public any confidence in those they registered, such that they would be compelled to make a statement in the form of a public warning?

Of course, with building practitioners the public should be warned; whether they are newly registered, or old and ‘grandfathered in,’ consumers are unprotected and in many cases their lives are at risk. However, until 2013 the public was denied this knowledge, with owners unaware of the dangers of building and oblivious to the fact that ‘registration’ was no guarantee of anything. The disclaimer has now been removed from the website and thus owners are once again uninformed, with the truth hidden and consumers exposed to serious harm.

Recently, it was revealed that the Department of Human Services has no confidence in the registration system and it has established its own accreditation board for registering building practitioners involved in Victorian public housing projects. DHS recognizes that the VBA regulation system has been a total failure and abandoned it as ‘not good enough.’

Victorian consumers agree with the DHS. We demand that this sub-standard system be abolished and a new rigorous registration system be established to provide competent builders who can guarantee to construct structurally sound and safe buildings.

“It would have saved a lot of money and time for everyone involved if the developers had made sure the required safety measures were installed when the building was constructed,” Smith said.

But the fault is not with the developers. It is squarely with the VBA, which failed in its duty of care and allowed the builder and surveyor to construct dangerous, non-compliant buildings.

Smith went on to attribute blame to owners, who he said need to do their ‘homework’ in these matter.

“If you are thinking of buying a house or a building, you should consider arranging a professional inspection to make sure it is safe and meets the building regulations before you buy,” he said.

This statement is absurd. How can the owners be blamed for not doing their homework when they purchased new apartments that were constructed by practitioners the VBA registered, with the VBA responsible for ensuring that new buildings comply with building regulations?

Second, how would an inspection have helped the owners when, if registered, the inspectors would have obtained their registration from the BPB or VBA? As for self-titled ‘inspectors’ who offer inspections, many are ex-builders, some suspended or de-registered and still others use the title of ‘building consultants’ for which no registration is required.

In either case, such an ‘inspector’ would not provide any reassurance to prospective owners. If the VBA cannot register competent practitioners and cannot enforce building regulations, then no amount of ‘homework’ will protect owners from all the cowboys, whether they are registered or not.

The CEO of the VBA, Prue Digby, has said that as the industry regulator, “protecting the safety of the public is a priority” for the VBA.

Who could have guessed? Digby is commenting after the building has been constructed, after it was ‘approved’ and after the apartments were sold, after those registered have failed, and after the VBA failed to meet any and all of its obligations!

Worst of all, this case highlights that there is nothing ‘new’ about the VBA. It is a re-named, re-badged Building Commission, with the same old phony registration process, the same old non-enforcement and the same old non-existent consumer protection.

The VBA is a sham, camouflaging the scam that is the old policy reinvented as ‘new’, re-branded as the ‘Consumer Protection Strategy.’

By: Anne Paten