In June 2017, the UK was hit by a tragedy of unimaginable proportions when a severe fire struck Grenfell Tower, a residential block in London’s west. Seventy-two people were killed.

In the aftermath of one of the country’s deadliest fires, it was revealed that the blaze spread so quickly due to the building being covered in highly flammable cladding. The cladding had not been replaced with a safer alternative despite campaigning from residents and the local community.

Grenfell was an unspeakable tragedy, not only because of the incredibly high death toll but because it was preventable. It was a result of governmental negligence. New research has now shed light on Australia’s own combustible cladding crisis, which threatens to endanger thousands of premises across the country.

The problem as it stands

Australia has a significant number of buildings built with combustible cladding — residential units, hospitals and even the Adelaide Convention Centre. Recent research has shown that up to 3400 units across the country are potentially at risk. Victoria alone has more than 600 private buildings made with these materials. The price tag to fix all this? An estimated $6.2 billion.

This research wasn’t the first we’ve heard of the problem though. Major evidence of this danger also appeared in 2014 with the Lacrosse Building fire. Residents were evacuated from the high rise in Melbourne’s Docklands following a fire caused by a discarded cigarette. No one was killed or injured, but many residents were displaced with some only returning to their homes six months after the incident. In a post-incident report the Melbourne Fire Brigade noted the fire spread intensely through external wall cladding; it covered multiple floors in less than six minutes.

In February this year the Neo 200 Tower in Melbourne went up in flames too. Luckily, no one was injured or killed, but residents were horrified when it was revealed that the tower was covered in the same cladding as Grenfell.

What is being done?

In a report following the Lacrosse Building fire, the City of Melbourne challenged the quality of the imported cladding. Did it meet national standards? Their investigation found that there was no specific documentation provided by the private building surveyor to ensure the Chinese-made cladding had been checked or accredited.

The CFMEU has also called for proper regulation of imported materials, arguing that an Australian safety standard should be imposed upon all building materials entering the country. They have also called on members to refuse to install unsafe cladding on any buildings.

The Andrews government in Victoria has promised $600 million to fix the cladding on hundreds of buildings in the city as well as 15 high-risk buildings. On August 21, Bayside Council in New South Wales also served 14 cladding rectification notices to buildings in the area, ordering owners to rectify or remove dangerous cladding. However, state authorities are primarily expecting homeowners in private buildings to foot the bill. Is that really fair or sustainable?

The money certainly isn’t coming from the federal government either. There is no federal funding allocated for the repair of buildings with dangerous materials, and the Morrison government has rejected Victoria’s application for funding to cover the cost of repairs.

The lack of action from the federal government has been condemned by many, including the Strata Community Association, but the prime minister insisted that funding responsibility lies directly with the states when he addressed the issue in July:

It’s their responsibility, they need to deal with it.

It seems that the combustible cladding crisis is a direct result of an industry that values profit over safety. Cheap, unsafe materials are imported into this country in favour of accredited, non-combustible products and the consequences can be deadly.

One of the most basic requirements of a developed, modern country is a safe place to live and work. We must hold private contractors and the construction industry accountable. But don’t take it from me. Take it from the Grenfell Action Group; take it from a chilling blog post they wrote eight months before the fire:

“It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.

“The Grenfell Action Group predict that it won’t be long before the words of this blog come back to haunt the KCTMO management … They can’t say that they haven’t been warned!”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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