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.

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