Fire risks clad in secrecy


SECRECY surrounds the location and identities of nine Mornington Peninsula buildings with combustible aluminium cladding.

In keeping with its long held policy, Mornington Peninsula Shire last week avoided identifying the buildings uncovered in a state-wide audit by the Victorian Building Authority.

Instead of agreeing to call on its own staff to report on the progress of making the buildings safe, councillors at the year’s first Planning Services Committee meeting (27 January) agreed to the mayor telling the state government that its building surveyour, not the shire’s, should be responsible for ordering buildings to be repaired or even evacuated.

The decision to overthrow Cr David Gill’s notice of motion calling for a progress report on making the nine buildings safe, followed warnings about legal liability from the shire’s municipal building surveyor manager, David Kotsiakos.

Mr Kotsiakos said acting on directions from the state building surveyour posed “a major risk to our municipal building surveyor”.

“If the [VBA-appointed] panel of experts incorrectly direct our municipal building surveyor to issue emergency orders to evacuate a building, the legal responsibility and risk to council is potentially the shire’s and not the state government,” he said in a report to council.

Setting up the shire’s own  review of cladding on buildings “would potentially cost millions of dollars in staff resourcing and possible legal damages,” Mr Kotsiakos stated.

He suggested that instead of a councillors waiting for a report in February, as suggested by Cr Gill, “the mayor write to the Planning Minister [Richard Wynne] raising concerns with the current VBA cladding audit process and that the state building surveyor should be responsible for issuing all notices or orders and not our municipal building surveyor”.

Cr Gill told The News that approaching the state government “means we won’t find out anything”.

“I just wanted to know if buildings identified with aluminium cladding on the peninsula have been fixed. But this information is, under the relevant act, seen as being confidential.”

Cr Gill said there were many more buildings with aluminium cladding that did not fit into the three classes specified in the VBA’s audit.

Since early 2019, the shire has been wary of making any statements regarding combustible cladding.

Despite several emails from The News seeking confirmation that such buildings existed on the peninsula, the closest response, in March 2019 was the following from former chief operating officer Niall McDonagh: “The shire continues to work with the Victorian Building Authority (VBA) as they investigate the cladding matter across the state. The Shire has not entered into any agreements in relation to cladding matters. If further information is required, it is suggested that contact be made with the VBA.” The shire had not responded by Sunday to a further email sent last Thursday (28 January).

When The News first contacted the shire about aluminium cladding in February 2019, it was responding to reports that one of the nine aluminium clad buildings on the peninsula is a hospital.

Before last week’s meeting, Cr Gill said combustible cladding was “very controversial” on the peninsula but “our community has been kept ignorant about the facts”.

“The state government has stopped open discussion about government locations and even some important non-government buildings. There has been an intent to prevent public awareness by using building regulations to make disclosure illegal.”

Mr Kotsiakos’s report to the planning services committee said the cladding taskforce had inspected 2200 buildings across the state.

Buildings to be audited were grouped into classes, including apartments of three or more storeys; hotels, motels and student accommodation of three or more storeys; and hospitals, schools and aged care facilities of two or more storeys.

“In response to the vast number of buildings that have been audited and identified at a high to extreme fire risk … Cladding Safety Victoria [would] provide support and guidance to building owners and occupants of buildings … particularly where rectification work is required to reduce risks to an acceptable level.”

Mr Kotsiakos expected the work to take “at least five years”.

“Cladding Safety Victoria will provide advice on how to reduce fire risk, help owners to find qualified project managers and other professionals and, in higher risk situations, provide funding for approved works.

“Although the establishment of Cladding Safety Victoria is a positive step, it appears to be extremely confusing for building owners and residents within these buildings and very little financial support is provided by the state government.”

First published in the Mornington News – 2 February 2021


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