In 2017, a massive inferno destroyed London's Grenfell Tower. The blaze spread through combustible cladding, killing 72 people. Credit: Natalie Oxford, released under CC BY 4.0.

Nearly five years after the Grenfell Towers catastrophe in the UK, hundreds of apartment buildings across Sydney still have potentially deadly combustible cladding exteriors, an alarming new NSW Audit Office report has revealed.

According to the report, just 40 per cent of the 1200 buildings under local council jurisdiction identified as being at risk because of dodgy cladding have so far been either fixed, or reassessed as low risk.

The figures were slightly better for public buildings, with half of the 66 state government-owned buildings and almost 90 per cent of 137 buildings under the Department of Planning’s jurisdiction having been cleared.

The large number of dangerous buildings that still have combustible cladding is just one of the many serious issues highlighted in the report. 

The urgency of removing dangerous cladding was clearly and painfully illustrated by the inferno that destroyed the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in London. The June 2014 blaze spread through combustible cladding to rapidly engulf the building, killing 72 people.

A serious risk of under-reported buildings

The audit raises serious questions about exactly how many buildings still have dangerous cladding.

According to the report, while most high-risk buildings have now been identified, robust information processes are still not in place to reliably track buildings “through the process from identification, through to risk assessment and, where necessary, remediation”.

Alarmingly, unless a building was initially assessed as being “high risk” by Fire and Rescue NSW, there is no process for tracking whether dodgy cladding has been removed. Worse, local councils are not even notified that the building has been assessed.

Some buildings that have previously been cleared might need to be reassessed.

This is a problem, because FRNSW has identified around 500 buildings as having dodgy cladding, but not being at high risk because of its type, amount, arrangement, or location.

The report states that “any level of combustible external cladding poses a residual risk to buildings, and some further action may be warranted”. However, despite the risk, there is currently “no forward plan for any action” by the state government to fix these buildings.

Even when buildings are cleared, serious questions can remain about their safety. Currently, no additional accreditation or registration is required by building certifiers in order to assess existing at-risk buildings or develop action plans.

Banned cladding products still sold in NSW

While in late 2017 the NSW government banned aluminium composite panels with more than 30 per cent polystyrene, other types of dangerous cladding products can still be legally used in the state.

For example, unlike Queensland and Victoria, the NSW Fair Trading Commissioner does not have a ban on the use of dangerous expanded polystyrene wall system products. 

Unlike Queensland and Victoria, the NSW Fair Trading Commissioner does not have a ban on the use of dangerous expanded polystyrene wall system products.

This means low-cost developers can legally sell apartments that are clad in materials that have been deemed too dangerous to sell in other states.

Even with the cladding products that are banned, the Auditor General slammed the NSW Department of Customer Service for not having compliance or enforcement strategies in place.

Local councils kept in the dark on the details

The problems with the policy rollout extended to how long it took the state government to provide local councils with detailed processes and advice about banned cladding products. 

Councils did not receive detailed information about the ban until September 2019, more than a year after the ban came into force. 

Low-cost developers can legally sell apartments that are clad in materials that have been deemed too dangerous to sell in other states.

The delay might mean that some buildings that have previously been cleared might need to be reassessed.

“Clarifying the application of the product use ban may require consent authorities and building owners to revisit how some buildings have been cleared,” the report said.

Slow pace of interest-free loans impacts cladding removal

Owners Corporation Network spokesperson Stephen Goddard told The Fifth Estate that the slow pace the NSW government is rolling out interest-free loans to remove dangerous cladding “demonstrates how combustible cladding is a trivial issue to the government”. 

“Grenfell points to the real and substantial threat to life safety. Owners’ corporations did nothing wrong, but they’re left with a life threatening product on their building which must be removed, inevitably at the cost of owners usually by way of special levy that many people may not be able to fulfil.”

In fairness, despite the issues with cladding removal, Mr Goddard said that builders and the state government shouldn’t be blamed for cladding that had been installed before the Grenfell fire. 

“There’s no real black hat villain here, where there was a rapacious builder using cheap building products in order to expedite shoddy construction. That would be an unfair story to ply. Those cladding products were installed prior to it becoming self-evident that they were combustible. They were not illegal products to use at the time,” he said.

“But even if there is no villain in this story, there are certainly victims, and the victims are the owners’ corporations left with a life threatening cladding all over their building. 

“The role of the government is to step forward and assist in the remediation of this threat to life and safety. But, unfortunately, we don’t seem to be getting very far in the story.”

“Australia’s most comprehensive response” 

In July 2017, six weeks after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the NSW government announced a 10-point fire safety reform plan. It claimed at the time that reforms would be Australia’s most comprehensive response to the disaster.  

Under the “10 point plan”, the sale or use of building products deemed unsafe was prohibited, building owners were forced to replace existing dodgy cladding, and those found supplying, installing or selling dodgy cladding were to be prosecuted.

To roll out the reforms, the NSW government created a new cross-department body called the NSW Cladding Taskforce. Its role was to include identifying and making safe any buildings in NSW that may be affected by combustible external cladding.

“The fact is that the rollout of interest free loans from the state government to help owners’ corporations remediate common property has been trivialised. It’s not happening at a pace reflective of the need for life safety. And that’s the story,” Mr Goddard said.

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