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.

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