Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Demo safe for Northcote families?

Demolition of a contaminated public housing estate in Northcote is set to proceed this month, amid persistent unanswered questions over the safe handling of asbestos during the works. The lack of answers from the state government creates uncertainty for local Northcote families, including visitors to the children's playground at the adjacent Baden Morgan Reserve.

Mother of two children, and chair of the community advisory committee for the Roberts Street redevelopment, Fiona Richardson MP, yesterday responded through her electoral office that she would not be answering a series of questions sent to her on 18 January. According to her office, this was because answers would come from housing minister Richard Wynne, who was sent the same questions.

Unfortunately, following the minister's poor response on 10 January to a 28 November 2007 request on related issues, I have today received in the mail a further sketchy response from the Director of Housing on the minister's behalf.

The reponse states that the provisional sum of $10,000 allowed in the tender for the removal of asbestos identified during the demolition but potentially missed by an earlier, incomplete audit can be 'varied up or down'. It also claims that 'there are no limitations placed on the auditing of properties or the removal of asbestos'. It is a pity then, that the response has fundamentally failed to answer many of the key questions.

These relate to the disclosure of what further asbestos testing will be done on the site (as recommended by the earlier site audit), the demolition contractor's control plan for managing asbestos during the demolition, the asbestos that tender documents indicate is to remain in the buildings when they are demolished, and the specific timing of the demolition. It is disappointing but unsurprising that the minister's response has avoided specific disclosure on these points.

The now apparently variable $10,000 allowed in the tender documents for the removal of additional asbestos missed by the incomplete audit continues to contrast disturbingly with recent media coverage of the $12,000 that was to be allowed for a ministerial photo-shoot.

Wynne's latest evasions and Richardson's point-blank refusal to answer the questions are just the latest in a series of delays in the release of public interest information about the project.

The asbestos audit carried out in mid-October was published on the web only on Christmas Eve following community pressure. Tender details required to be published online did not appear until 3 January, despite tenders being called on 12 December 2007. Now, despite the close of tenders on 17 January, residents still do not know who has won the contract.

Along with the failure of government to answer specific questions, the information it has grudgingly and tardily released has only fuelled concerns about the safe treatment of asbestos on this site.

The poor communication and restriction of information about this project is telling given that the government is set to tighten freedom of information laws and has announced millions for a new media monitoring project to help it manage spin on issues of public interest.

With more than 40,000 people on Victoria's public housing waiting and transfer lists as of September 2007, the Northcote redevelopment enjoys widespread community support in its planned provision of new public housing for the elderly. It should not be compromised by a lack of transparency and neglect of public safety.

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Comments are most welcome on any of the posts at Northcote Independent. I encourage feedback - positive or negative. Feel free to disagree, but remember that posts are moderated to ensure they are on the topic and in the spirit of open debate, as outlined in my editorial policy.