Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Knights of old – well, 10 years ago – only added fuel to the ire
Do you cry yourself to sleep at night because your expensive new apartment grows mushrooms under the bed? Or because the house going up behind you suddenly looks a full storey higher than on the plans? Is your glorious mature garden falling into the building site next door? No one to turn to? Take heart, read on.
Rewind 10 years. For parliamentarians of NSW, the morning of October 15, 1997 was, by any standards, heroic. Fearless as ever, our leaders plucked from the gurgling economic quicksands first our most treasured harbourside icon then, only moments later, the entire state development industry. And still made the lunch queue on time.
The icon was the ailing Luna Park, to whose side the noble Sir Kim Yeadon galloped full tilt, brandishing what he called a “rescue” bill fine-honed to wrap said beloved fun fair in the sad mishmash of commercialism we see today. That was 10.34. Next up, at 10.55, was Sir Soon-to-be-Feather-Duster Knowles, proudly bearing aloft, like Neville Chamberlain’s peace in our time, “the most fundamental change to the laws associated with land-use planning and assessment in NSW since … 1979”.
Knowles spoke truly. The Environmental Planning and Assessment Amendment Bill, designed to provide certainty, smoothness and multiple creature comforts for developers, would, promised Craig the Gallant, generally “make it easier to do business … in this state”. (It was also the season, you recall, of Knowles’s other good idea, the disastrous “super-ministry”, which the subsequent minister is detangling yet.)
The bill brought us integrated development approvals, which to this day allow adoption of a plan – such as the Emirates Resorts’ one to tuck a resort-with-helipad into the Wollemi National Park – without anyone having a clue, until too late, about the detail. Tedious, time-wasting detail such as how many, how big, how much, how ugly.
And it was this “integrated development” idea that, in Parliament that morning, took most of the heat. (Admittedly, since the sole dissenters were Clover Moore and Peter MacDonald, it was mostly heat of the loving, stroking kind.) So no one really noticed that tucked like a Romanian orphan among these voluminous amendments was also a small measure of stupendous idiocy: the introduction of private certification of buildings.
It sounds harmless enough, a mere babe in the vast woods of privatisation that engulfed the postmodern world. In fact, it was so catastrophic that five years on in 2002, the Government was forced into a parliamentary inquiry and now, after another five years, into special legislation. The upshot is a new statutory body charged with certifying the certifiers. But who will certify them?
It’s not an idle question. The difference between private certification and private banking, or trains, or even postal services is that certification is a crucial regulatory function designed to keep our built world safe for us. The certifier’s job is to ensure that what is built matches both what was approved and what is mandated in the various standards and codes.
The 1997 system, now 10 years old and malfunctioning horribly, allows developers to choose between council inspectors, in the traditional way, and paying thousands for a private certifier. Indeed, 25 per cent now choose the latter. But ask yourself. Why would you do that? What would impel a developer, who after all is cutting every possible cost, to buy a certificate of compliance? Answer: to get a better deal. Pay the piper, call the tune.
You only have to watch a typical Land and Environment Court case, expert witnesses ranged at 50 paces, to understand that consultants see and know what they’re paid to see and know. It’s not about lying, it’s about framing, and it’s how they eat. As Woollahra Council’s building and compliance manager noted in a submission to the 2002 select committee: “We have always held fears that accredited certifiers would not bite the hand that feeds them.”
Which is why, as of last month, there is a swathe of new red tape to replace what was lost: including a unified certifiers’ accreditation system, a special act, a regulation, 32 categories of certifier with their own continuing professional education requirements and a new, “independent” (Sartor-appointed) Building Professionals Board to administer it all. The board is empowered not only to accredit certifiers but also to hear complaints, adjudicate, fine and defrock any hucksters. The president, John Murray, a long-time Master Builders Association chief executive, reckons it can handle it. He says that certifiers carry liability for negligence; that there are formal code of conduct and conflict-of-interest guidelines coming up. After all, he says, the certifier is a public official, whose “paramount duty is to the public”.
But that’s the point, really. Guidelines or no, the conflict of interest is inherent. It’s that old conflict between public duty and private money and it goes, like the Cross City Tunnel, to what we have government for. Not for shining armour, or plumage. But for one thing: trust. And because, however much crap gathers there, you don’t need mushrooms under the bed.