Friday, January 25, 2008

Richardson has no answers for The Melbourne Times

This week's edition of The Melbourne Times includes a short report on the Roberts Street public housing redevelopment in Northcote ('Critics want more details on doomed housing estate', p.7). In it Northcote MP Fiona Richardson has no response to objections raised over the lack of public information on asbestos, except to insinuate that valid, documented concerns somehow threaten to undermine the project.

Unfortunately for the spurious argument put forward by the Northcote MP, there is widespread and strong support for the project among those holding the concerns she continues to ignore. With more than 40,000 people on Victoria's public housing transfer and waiting lists, there is an urgent need for more public housing. New housing for the elderly is most welcome. That doesn't mean that well founded concerns about asbestos should be ignored in cases such as the redevelopment at Roberts Street.

On the day Richardson spoke to The Melbourne Times, I sent her and housing minister Richard Wynne ten questions that need to be answered publicly as a matter of urgency. We shouldn't have to wait for a spin-doctor's newsletter promised for an unspecified time before the demolition starts. And it's not enough to say the issues will be resolved at closeted meetings held when few people can attend, and for which no minutes are available.

For more background on the delayed response of the State Government, and its reluctance to release timely information about asbestos to the public, please read the previous post.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

A quick tour of Roberts Street

If you've come here looking for more information about asbestos and the demolition of the Roberts Street public housing estate, welcome! You might even like to help with the public campaign.

I've been pursuing this issue for a while now, and have recently sent ten questions to housing minister, Richard Wynne, and Northcote MP, Fiona Richardson. Answers are urgently required, and, if I get a timely and meaningful response, they should provide important information the public needs to know about how asbestos will be safely handled during the February demolition of the estate. The answers may also lead to further questions and perhaps challenges to the process to ensure better protection of public health.

The Roberts Street estate has frontages to both High Street and Roberts Street, and is adjacent to the Baden Morgan Reserve and children's playground. If you start from the Westgarth strip and walk up Ruckers Hill on the right-hand-side away from the city, it's the cyclone-fenced site you come to just before the new apartments fronting High Street. There's a ramp off High Street leading down to Roberts Street. Here's what it looks like.

There are currently 47 units in two blocks of walk-up flats that until recently housed elderly public tenants, and the condition of the estate after years of State Government neglect fully warrants its redevelopment – that is to say, I support new public housing for the elderly on the site. There are more than 40,000 people on public housing transfer and waiting lists statewide as of September 2007 [PDF, small download].

Unfortunately, an asbestos audit [PDF, big download] carried out in mid-October last year shows there are three different types of asbestos in the now-derelict buildings. This poses a significant health risk both to workers and the surrounding community unless the demolition is carried out very carefully. My campaign is to make sure that happens, mainly by forcing the Government to be open and accountable about what is to happen on the site.

Sadly, I had to pressure Northcote MP, Fiona Richardson, to release the audit, and despite being completed in early November, it wasn't released on the Web until Christmas Eve, more than two months after samples were taken. We need the information because it lets us assess what the demolition contractor plans to do about asbestos during the demolition. The audit also tells us that further testing should really be done to cover areas that weren't accessible at the time of sampling. As well as missing some areas, the audit report also states that not all 'suspect materials' were sampled.

Far from being open about this information, the Government has made it hard to get, and it has been a similar story with the tender documents. When I finally received them in early January (after the tender was advertised on 12 December), I was alarmed to see they included a letter suggesting that the asbestos on the site might not be completely removed before the buildings are knocked over. We have a right to ask why, when the letter also states that the asbestos content of the resulting rubble will need to be disclosed to whoever receives it.

The tender documents also stated that more money would be allowed for a ministerial photo shoot ($12,000) than for the safe removal of any new asbestos found that had not been identified earlier by the audit ($10,000). That deserved some media coverage, and thankfully got it. So the signs were concerning. They remain so, and that's the reason for my questions to Wynne and Richardson.

We're now at the stage where the tender for the demolition has closed (17 January). A demolition contractor will now be selected and will be called on to submit an asbestos control plan, showing how asbestos will be contained during the works. Among the questions I've asked is whether this control plan will be made public, so we can see just how well it responds to the issues raised in the audit. Of course, there should be more testing (and public disclosure) before anything is done, and there's a range of other questions that need to be answered – including who the demolition contractor is, and what are their credentials for demolition work involving asbestos.

So, what can you do to help? It would be very helpful if you emailed housing minister, Richard Wynne, or rang him on 9096 7722. It would also be helpful if you emailed Northcote MP, Fiona Richardson, or rang her on 9481 5777. Express your concerns, demand that answers to the ten questions be made public as a matter of urgency.

You could also subscribe to email updates from this blog by entering your email address in the form on the right-hand-side of this page (it will only be used to keep you informed). If you use an RSS newsreader, you could also keep up-to-date by subscribing to this newsfeed.

That's it. All I want is enough information for the public to judge that the right thing is being done about asbestos at Roberts Street. We don't have that at present, but we have a right to know.

Once you've read this post, it would be a good idea to have a look at the Office of Housing website for the Northcote redevelopment, just to see whether you think it answers the kinds of issues and questions I've raised. I think you'll agree that it doesn't. In fact, despite the announcement of the project in February last year, the pages didn't go up until the following September, and most of them haven't been updated since.

Feel free to leave a comment here, or, if you prefer to communicate less publicly, send me an email. I'm happy to discuss the issue in further detail and to answer any questions you might have.

Cheers, Darren Lewin-Hill

Friday, January 18, 2008

Top ten questions about asbestos at Roberts Street, Northcote

Following yesterday's media reports of the tender fiasco and the generally tardy release of inadequate information about the Roberts Street public housing redevelopment, there are many questions still to be answered.

Here's my top ten, and an open invitation for housing minister, Dick Wynne, Northcote MP, Fiona Richardson, and the Office of Housing to respond. Any takers? Or don't we have a right to know?
  1. What further testing will be done before demolition, given that the asbestos auditor recommended this due to some areas being inaccessible at the time of sampling?

  2. Was the asbestos audit unduly limited by cost? How much was allowed?

  3. The tender documents indicate that not all asbestos will be removed before demolition, contrary to the audit's recommendation that this be done 'where practicable'. Is this the case and, if so, is it a question of minimising cost at the risk of health and safety?

  4. What will happen if, as seems likely, the $10,000 provision in the tender documents is insufficient for the safe removal of new asbestos on the site that has not been previously identified by the audit?

  5. Will the Government/Office of Housing immediately publish the successful tenderer's asbestos control plan and credentials for asbestos removal?

  6. What additional steps will be taken to prevent asbestos contamination of the adjacent park and children's playground?

  7. Who is the successful tenderer and the occupational hygienist who will monitor air quality during the removal (the tender closed yesterday)?

  8. Who in the Government/Office of Housing will be directly responsible for ensuring that the successful tenderer complies with the recommendations of the audit and the broader requirements for asbestos removal?

  9. Why was the release of the asbestos audit so badly delayed, and what steps will be taken to ensure the timely release of information from now on?

  10. What specific steps will now be taken to communicate with residents about the asbestos issue?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Tender fiasco a telling 'error'

The Government was forced to back-pedal yesterday when journalists challenged the $12,000 allocation for a potential visit and photo opportunity for housing minister, Dick Wynne, at the Roberts Street redevelopment site in Northcote. As detailed in my previous post, the $12,000 for the PR event is an embarrassment when compared to the mere $10,000 allowed in the tender for the 'removal of hazardous materials not identified in the Hazardous Building materials Audit Report'.

Clay Lucas, writing in today's edition of The Age (p.5), yesterday drew a response from a Government spokesman denying that the minister was aware either of the tender or the visit allowance. In a report by Ellen Whinnett in today's Herald Sun (p.9), the same spokesman blamed the Office of Housing, claiming there had been no consultation with the minister.

Unfortunately for the community, this was no simple error. Instead it presents a telling example of a Government that values spin and photo opportunities over doing its job in the public interest. While the Government claims the visit will now not proceed, had it not been exposed in the media there is no doubt it would have been 'lights, camera, action' for Dick Wynne. As for the $12,000, it should be spent on shoring up the processes for handling asbestos on the site, and on the timely communication to residents of information they have a right to know.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Thousands for minister's PR visit to asbestos site

Tender documents reveal that a sum of $12,000 has been allowed for a ministerial visit to an asbestos-contaminated public housing estate slated for demolition. The estate, at Roberts Street in Northcote, is likely to be demolished in February to be redeveloped for elderly persons' housing. The $12,000 allowed for the visit by Minister for Housing, Dick Wynne, is to pay for the suspension of demolition works after most hazardous materials have been removed from the site, but before demolition of the main buildings. The tender documents also require visible demolition equipment on the site, presumably for a ministerial photo opportunity.

Given the questions over asbestos on the site, the money allowed for the visit would be far better spent on safety precautions and on the timely release of information in the public interest. An asbestos audit conducted in October, for example, was only released on the web on Christmas Eve, and there are many questions the public needs answered about how asbestos will be handled during the demolition. Foremost among these are what further testing will be done to cover areas that were not accessed during the audit, why not all 'suspect materials' were sampled, and whether, as indicated by the tender documents themselves, some asbestos will remain in the buildings as wrecking balls turn them to rubble in a highly built-up residential area.

In contrast to the $12,000 available to make the minister look good, the tender documents allow only $10,000 as a provisional sum to cover 'removal of hazardous materials not identified in the hazardous building materials audit report'. With 47 units on the site, that small sum will not go far, and prompts the question as to whether safety precautions are being cut for the sake of ministerial PR.

The project has been touted by Wynne and Northcote MP, Fiona Richardson, as the first of a series of redevelopments under last May's State budget announcement of $510 million for public and social housing. While any addition to public housing is most welcome, the Government needs to raise the bar on safety and communication.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Department's asbestos response shows contempt for public right to know

A response I received by mail today to a 28 November request for information about the Roberts Street Northcote redevelopment shows the Office of Housing's contempt for the public's right to know. The letter, signed by the Director of Housing, tells me that tenders for the demolition of the flats will close on 17 January, that the successful tenderer must be a licensed demolition contractor, that an asbestos audit has been undertaken, and that the audit is available on the redevelopment website and has been included in the tender documents. It also assures me that the planned measures with respect to asbestos during the demolition 'will ensure that there is no risk to workers on site or the neighbouring residents'.

The first point to note is that this long overdue response provides next to no information I have not already obtained by my own efforts and despite the Office of Housing and Northcote MP Fiona Richardson attempting to keep a lid on the asbestos issue. The next point is that the audit is far from cut-and-dried when one considers the following: not all 'suspect materials' were sampled during the audit; not all areas of the flats were accessible to the auditors; a further assessment has been recommended to cover these areas; and the tender documents include a letter from the auditor to Housing's consulting engineer suggesting that not all asbestos need be removed prior to the demolition, despite also recommending that this be done 'where practicable'.

As for the tender documents, my copy was a mess of scrambled and upside-down pages that did include the audit, and also what I'd suggest is Housing's boiler-plate backside-covering conditions for those cases where asbestos just might be present in buildings slated for demolition. It will be interesting to see whether the asbestos 'control plan' recommended by the auditor and required by the tender conditions is published in a timely manner, and whether it adequately addresses the range of questions raised by the audit report itself. Who in Housing will make sure this gets done?

Getting back to the tender documents, we should note the careful inclusion of prepartions for a potential ministerial visit and photo opportunity at the site:
Demolition plant will need to be present on site and a core group of site staff to provide a safe environment to the visitors. It is anticipated that demolition activities would be suspended for a period of 1 day for the visit to take place. A provisional sum has been included in the Contract to cover Contractor's expenses for this exercise. [Part 3 p.2]

We are entitled to ask how much is this 'provisional sum', which no doubt could have been put to better use in the timely communication of public interest information to local residents. To underline this, let's take a look at just how untimely the communication has been, remembering that we're dealing with the Office of Housing and Northcote MP, Fiona Richardson, who chairs the community advisory committee for the redevelopment.

First of all, and despite Richardson's assurance in the 5 December edition of The Melbourne Times (p.8) that it would be released, an asbestos audit was not posted to Housing's redevelopment website until 24 December – that's right, Christmas Eve.

Nor, judging by the report itself, was the delayed release in any sense justified. Sampling at the flats was completed on 18 October and the laboratory analysis signed off on 1 November. Presumably the report as a whole, dated only 'November 2007', was completed shortly thereafter. Plenty of time for it to be tabled at the 26 November community advisory meeting, one would think, but the issue of asbestos was raised there by a resident, not Richardson or anyone from Housing (not that we have the minutes for the meeting).

In any case, testing in mid-October and release of the results on Christmas Eve is a farce by any reasonable measure. The clear inference to be drawn is that the delayed release and its ultimate timing were geared primarily to keeping the lid on public awareness of asbestos at Roberts Street in the lead-up to demolition of the flats. Getting hold of the tender documents, needless to say, also proved no easy matter.

Firstly, though the Office of Housing states on the redevelopment website that the tender closes on 17 January, an advertisement date and link to further details are not offered.

Even at, where up-to-date tender information is supposed to be published, summary and contact information did not appear until 3 January, after I sent some 'feedback' to the site administrator.

By the time the tenders site had been updated, I had already retrieved the details from the tenders pages in the Herald Sun at the State Library, where I discovered that the tender for demolition of the flats at Roberts Street was advertised on 12 December (No. CW:147934). Advertised on 12 December, published online 3 January – is a theme emerging?

That wasn't the end of the story, of course. At first, when I rang up to pursue details on 2 January, the department questioned whether the documents could be released to me if I couldn't assure them I was a demolition contractor planning to tender for the job. When I suggested that the selective release of the documents might in fact legally compromise the tender process, they relented, and the documents soon arrived by post.

Why is it this hard to get information that should be readily accessible as a matter of public interest? Surely we have a right to timely information about the type of asbestos present at the flats, its extent, and what is planned to be done about it? As mentioned above, despite the slow extraction of information, there are still plenty of questions that remain unanswered, as I also recently suggested in The Age. Stay tuned for further updates.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Roberts Street asbestos issue in The Age

Today's opinion pages in The Age carry my piece on the lack of transparency and timely release of information regarding the treatment of asbestos in the demolition and redevelopment of the Roberts Street flats in Northcote. I hope it highlights the issue and leads to more open communication of information that is clearly in the public interest.

In this case, the delay in the release of the asbestos audit report can only be put down to an attempt to contain information and manage the issue, rather than inform the public. This problem was further exacerbated by the lack of tender information on the Office of Housing website.

With several redevelopments on the drawing board, why doesn't the government create a benchmark model of communication for asbestos and other redevelopment issues. Such an approach would create greater public confidence and trust, but only if the emphasis is on communication, not spin.