‘The depth and breadth of these concatenated errors is scary – not least because, as developers are belatedly realising, the market is a shaky edifice built entirely on public trust.’

*Last October (2018) the Property Council screamed that ‘apartment red tape threatens affordability’

… which happened to coincide with the Morrison Govt exempting the Real Estate Sector from Anti-Money Laundering Rules!

‘At the heart of it all, though, is a single clear cause, government refusal to govern.’


The ‘Related Articles’ can also be found on CAAN Website by Search!

The ‘Related Articles’ can also be found on CAAN Website by Search!

Sydney’s stupidest building boom was born in a bonfire of regulation

Elizabeth Farrelly
Elizabeth Farrelly

Columnist, author, architecture critic and essayist

July 26, 2019

View all comments

“Better get three coffins ready,” Clint Eastwood tells the undertaker after a main-street run-in with three villainous clowns. Returning minutes later he holds up four fingers. “My mistake.” He grinds the words past the cigar butt. “Four coffins.”

That’s from the 1964 spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars.

Perhaps it was the sudden addition of Boris Johnson to the mad-monk triumvirate of Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin that brought it to mind. My mistake. Make that four nutters.

Equally the trigger – if you’ll excuse the pun – could be Sydney, where a fistful of dollars can seem the single recognised value and every week seems to throw up another coffin of an apartment building, purchased in hope, evacuated in despair.

Play video1:02The unfolding building crisis happening in Sydney

Police investigating suspected home invasion in Kemp’s Creek

So far, five buildings have been discovered to have defects that are a risk to residents

You could be a young teacher or middle-aged firey, a rolypoly little bat-faced girl or a one-armed croupier with electric eyes. You could be an ancient mariner, or writer. You don’t have much dosh.

Until recently you thought you’d never afford a Sydney home. Then, when the building-boom slid into glut phase, as booms do, you and your partner, each working two jobs, scraped up the deposit for a million-dollar two-bedder. Suddenly you were the proud owners of a microscopic kitchen and four undistinguished rooms 10 storeys off the ground in deepest suburban Dogville. It was small, but it was heaven.

Six months later you were summarily evacuated with barely enough time to collect the cat and the baby photos. Now you’re paying rent as well as a mortgage for a flat you’ll never be able to sell – and facing your share in a $5 million repair bill before you can even think of living there again. And the truly galling thing is that it was entirely foreseeable and preventable.

Finger pointing will not deal with this issue,” said Minister for Better Regulation, Kevin Anderson.

But – HomebushMascot, Zetland, ErkoAlexandria. Inside seven months five buildings have been rendered uninhabitable by preventable problems and more than 600 in NSW identified with non-compliant combustible cladding. And it won’t stop there. So, as the scandal branches and spreads like a structural crack across Sydney’s stupidest building boom ever (and I’m aware that’s a big call), a spot of precision finger-pointing could be just the thing.

*For 20 years they’ve all been at it. The supply-and-demand-clubthe Property Council, Urban Taskforce, developers and government – all frantically demanding more and more deregulation. And for whom? Oh, for us.


The Joshua apartment building at 33-49 Euston Road, Alexandria.

Residents at risk: Council sought demolition orders on Alexandria block

*In October 2016 then-treasurer Scott Morrison told the Urban Development Institute that loosening building laws to build higher, bigger and faster would help solve the housing crisis.

**Last October the Property Council screamed that “apartment red tape threatens affordability”.

*As recently as March this year the Urban Taskforce insisted that NSW should review its planning system to “remove red tape.

*And in June, the Institute for Public Affairs welcomed “the Morrison government’s economic reform agenda to cut red tape”.

*In effect they insisted that legitimising rubbish housing was the key to affordability. Developers, went the unstated theory, couldn’t be expected to do anything but gouge the market. To build anything affordable, therefore, they had essentially to be subsidised – with dodgy materials, permissive planning, outsize buildings, suspect certification and professionals more flexible than your average yoga-mat. They had to be allowed to produce crap.

Except that suddenly – 10 years on – these crap homes, for which almost all public protection has been ritually burned, don’t look terribly affordable at all.

*In fact, they look like cynical, developer-fattening honey-traps set to impoverish families, communities, and the construction industry for years to come.

*And suddenly they’re all pretending they never pushed for it.

*Suddenly Meriton wants immediate reform to stop substandard buildings.

*The Urban Taskforce supports Shergold and Weir’s calls for reregulation, clear materials standards and independent certification.

*The Premier concedes self-regulation has failed and promises a Building Commissioner.

*Parliament sets up an upper house inquiry.

*Yet, for all the government’s disdain of finger-pointing, its response so far to the dodgy buildings scandal has been to thrash around like a deranged spider-monkey on ice, pointing fingers in every direction but the true one.

First, when structural cracks emptied Homebush’s Opal Tower at Christmas time, then-minister Matt Kean blamed dodgy certifiers.I’ll throw the book at you,” he said – but, of course, there was no book to throw.

Over 20 years, in a blood-curdling bonfire circled by hooded neo-liberals the book had been burned leaf by curling leaf. “Burn the red tape, burn the green tape,” they cry, as though that tape weren’t holding the entire industry together.

Naturally the certifiers took offence. Then, after the certifier for the Lacrosse building that ignited in Melbourne Docklands was found primarily responsible, their insurers began to back away.

What did the government do? Far from throwing the leaflet at anyone, much less protecting the public, they intervened (said the minister) to exclude indemnity for non-compliant cladding, so certifiers are covered for everything else. This achieves what? Only to perpetuate the status quo.

Of course, certification should never have been privatised. Say what you like about efficiency and competition, you don’t fix a system of council certification (where you suspect some may be on the take) by substituting a system where the take is the one official source of income.


The Sugarcube apartments on Metters Street, Erskineville.

Toxic secret kept from owners of Erskineville units

But there are myriad other causes too.

There’s sloppy-to-non-existent planning (building deep concrete basements into the shifting and waterlogged quaternary sands of the south-Sydney watershed, for example). There’s lax materials import control, for which the federal government should be entirely responsible.

There are inadequate and outdated Australian Standards and building code regimes, diminished liability and unlicensed building professionals (most astonishingly engineers). Ditto.

The depth and breadth of these concatenated errors is scary – not least because, as developers are belatedly realising, the market is a shaky edifice built entirely on public trust.

At the heart of it all, though, is a single clear cause, government refusal to govern.

That’s where all fingers should point, yet they’ve pointed everywhere but. Get many more coffins ready.

Elizabeth Farrelly

Elizabeth Farrelly is a Sydney-based columnist and author who holds a PhD in architecture and several international writing awards. She is a former editor and Sydney City Councilor. Her books include ‘Glenn Murcutt: Three Houses’, ‘Blubberland; the dangers of happiness’ and ‘Caro Was Here’, crime fiction for children (2014).

Illustration: Simon Letch