According to the new CEO of Master Builders ACT, Michael Hopkins, the ACT Government needed to act now on building regulatory reform – especially trades licensing – if it wanted to ensure its urban renewal program produced quality outcomes.
In a wide-ranging interview with RiotACT, Mr Hopkins also said the Government needed to boost its land release program and encourage a greater diversity of housing styles to improve affordability in the ACT.
Mr Hopkins, who has a strong urban planning background as well as industry experience, said the ACT’s regulatory system had lagged behind other jurisdictions and the Government should make reform a priority.
“If we’re about to embark on a period of growth, development and urban renewal, then you want to make sure the building regulatory system is in place at the start of that so these new buildings are built in a quality way,” he said.
“We don’t want buildings that leak, have maintenance problems or defects. When you build a building it’s got to last for 50-plus years.”
The ACT’s apartment boom has been plagued in recent years by claims from disgruntled buyers of poor work and builders flouting the rules.
Mr Hopkins, who has been Master Builders ACT Deputy Executive Director since 2015, said as Canberra had grown, the industry had become bigger, more complex and sophisticated, and the regulatory system needed to grow and evolve with it.
He said there were ACT specific problems that other jurisdictions had managed to address, such as licensing.
“At the moment, you can operate as a carpenter, a water-proofer, or a whole range of different trades and not require a licence from the Government to do so, whereas in most other jurisdictions you would require a licence, so there is some accountability built in to the system if there is a problem,” he said.
“If you don’t look after your clients or you do some shoddy workmanship, there’s a regulatory system in place so those problems can be fixed.”
He also said the Government needed to ensure builders were compliant.
“If there are laws in place the Government needs to make sure it is enforcing them,” Mr Hopkins said. “If there are breaches, particularly consistent breaches, then those contractors or builders have to be dealt with under the law.”
The Government had established the Building Regulatory Advisory Council, and Planning Minister Mick Gentleman was considering 43 recommendations from a review of the regulatory system, but Mr Hopkins said it was time for the Government to deliver.
Mr Hopkins also put builders and his own organisation on notice, saying that under his watch, ensuring quality work would be a priority.
“If you want to be a member of Master Builders, you need to deliver on these values, and deliver on quality and excellence – not just in your workmanship, but in the way you run the whole business, manage staff and suppliers, how you conduct yourself, even the way you contribute back to the community,” he said.
“You need to sign up to our Code of Conduct that requires you to commit to quality and excellence. As an organisation, we need to walk that talk as well.”
Other important areas for reform included Continuing Professional Development training, home warranty insurance, the design and documentation of projects, and the security of payments system to make sure everyone got paid on time and appropriately.
Mr Hopkins believes that while it is an exciting time for the industry with the enormous opportunities provided by urban renewal, light rail, and a growing city, it was crucial for the community to be involved in the process.
“One of the challenges we have is to bring the community along the road with us as we deliver those new projects,” he said. “In some pockets, there has been resistance to new ideas, to higher density and taller buildings.
“If we are going to deliver this vision then one of the challenges we’ve got is making sure we work closely with community groups and community councils to make sure we’re all working on this together.”
While Mr Hopkins gave a tick to the Government for establishing its renewal authorities to oversee development, he said it should investigate how it planned and funded infrastructure so the planning system and land-release program integrated with the infrastructure program.
“The Government should put in place a long-term infrastructure plan for the city so there is a clear pipeline of work and projects but also so the community has a clear idea of where future development is going to occur,” he said.
He believes there should be a greater role for the private sector in the delivery of land, the supply and price of which was at the core of affordability.
“If we’re to talk about housing affordability, what needs to be weighed off is the obvious financial benefits the Government might get from developing and selling land with the subsidies and other expenses they then invest in housing affordability initiatives,” he said.
“If you connect those two issues together the Government could both still deal with its need to balance the budget and its financial issues while providing affordable housing.”
Mr Hopkins said the housing mix had been skewed in recent years towards smaller high-density apartments and larger single houses on the urban fringe, with approvals for single detached houses dropping to 20 percent of overall building approvals, down from above 50 percent.
A greater diversity of housing – townhouses, dual occupancies, small medium density projects, and even ‘Fonzi’ flats – would improve affordability.
These and other ideas will be on the table at the Government’s Housing Affordability Summit on 17 October.
Mr Hopkins brings an inclusive and consultative approach to the job that he believes is important in ensuring not only good outcomes for his members but Canberra as well.
“We’re a city of 400,000 people that all need to work with each other, and if we’re to make any sort of change in public policy related to construction and housing, all stakeholders, whether that be Government, unions, or industry groups, all need to work together, and that’s something that I’ve started doing in the two years I’ve been here,” he said.
“The relationships we’ve forged with the community and social groups, as well as Government, are vital if we’re going to actually achieve any real improvements for our members.”
Mr Hopkins said Master Builders had a long and enduring presence in the ACT and giving back to the community – such as the three charity houses built by members – was important for the industry. The recent Deakin charity house had raised more than $2 million for three local charities.
“When calling on members to give back to the community – free work or supplying at a reduced cost – we can do amazing things,” Mr Hopkins said.
Do you think the Government needs to do more to improve its urban renewal program? Let us know your thoughts by commenting below.