At Grenfell Tower, the local resident action group last year warned of a serious catastrophe in a blog post titled “KCTMO – Playing with fire!”.

The piece took aim at the for-profit company charged with building maintenance and operation, Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation.

“The Grenfell Action Group have reached the conclusion that only an incident that results in serious loss of life of KCTMO residents will allow the external scrutiny to occur that will shine a light on the practices that characterise the malign governance of this non-functioning organisation,” it said.

Unfortunately this seems to have come to fruition.

“All our warnings fell on deaf ears and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time,” an updated statement said today.

It reminded us of the statements engineer Robert Hart made two years ago in regards to NSW’s residential multi-storey apartments.

Almost two years ago to this day he said it was “inevitable” a major apartment fire in Sydney would occur within two years. While, thankfully, his prediction hasn’t played out like the Grenfell Action Group’s, Hart still says it’s on the cards without government action, action that as of yet has not occurred to any satisfactory extent.

“I can assure you [a fire like Grenfell Tower] has every likelihood of happening here,” he told us on Thursday.

Almost two years ago, on 23 June 2015, also marks the date the Senate referred an inquiry into non-conforming building products to the Senate Economics References Committee, which was supposed to have delivered a report on 12 October 2015. What has happened since has been delay after delay, followed by the dissolution of parliament, the re-adoption of the inquiry, more delays, and now (hopefully) a final reporting date of 31 October 2017.

Senator Nick Xenophon, who instigated the inquiry after the Lacrosse fire, today said the fire was “a serious wake-up call” for Australia, calling for an audit of buildings with this style of cladding.

“The fact that these products could still be on Australian buildings indicates the need for an urgent audit of all buildings and to look at how this cladding comes into the country in the first place,” he said.

“The London building tragedy demonstrates how critical it is to ensure that Australian building products comply with all Australian standards and regulations.”

But haven’t we been down this road before? And wasn’t Lacrosse the serious wake-up call we needed? Here at The Fifth Estate we’ve been writing about the problems with the construction industry’s regulatory regime for years, including issues with importation, certification and oversight.

Here’s some non-exhaustive light reading on these topics, going back to 2014:

In NSW, a freedom of information request by the state opposition revealed a report that said 2500 buildings had the same exterior cladding as the Lacrosse and Grenfell buildings. A similar study was conducted in Victoria.

We know there’s multiple buildings with this cladding (most in the commercial space, by the way), we know of the myriad problems in our building regulatory regime, and have for years. It’s just that the pace of change in regulation is glacial, and many are losing their patience.

Mr Hart said he’d finally scored a meeting with regulation minister Matt Kean at the end of July to talk about these issues, and what the NSW government was planning to do about a situation that seemed to place developer profits ahead of adequate safety. We’ll get back to you on the outcomes soon.

The NSW government assures us it is set to act, however.

In September last year it responded to recommendations made in a Building Professionals Act Review undertaken by former Treasury Secretary Michael Lambert, promising sweeping reforms.

In December it released draft standards focused on fire safety reform, which proposed changes to building regulation and certification covering seven areas:

  • the involvement of competent fire safety practitioners in certain specialist fire safety functions
  • requiring submission of plans and specifications for relevant fire safety system work relating to class 2 – 9 buildings (mostly office buildings)
  • limited exemptions from compliance with some Building Code of Australia standards relating to relevant fire safety system work
  • new critical stage inspections for class 2 – 9 buildings
  • new inspections of fire safety system work relating to Class 2 and 3 buildings by Fire and Rescue NSW before occupation certificates are issued
  • requiring an Alternative (Performance) Solution report for all fire safety Alternative Solutions for class 1b – 9 buildings
  • requiring fire safety certificates and statements to be in a form approved by the Secretary of the Department of Planning and Environment (DPE)

“The new Fire Safety Regulation is expected to be finalised in the coming weeks and will strengthen the building design, approval and certification processes, with a particular focus on fire safety,” a spokesman for the NSW Department of Planning and Environment told The Fifth Estate on Thursday evening.

On the federal level the Building Ministers Forum’s Senior Officers’ Group was expected to release in May an implementation plan to address risks related to non-conforming building products.

The Fifth Estate is yet to see this.

What’s clear is that meaningful action has been slow to occur. We pretty much wrote this same editorial a year-and-a-half ago, ironically saying that it was time to get a move on. It still is.

Let’s hope it doesn’t take the loss of life for our governments to take their foot off the brake.

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