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Flammable cladding ban ‘not the answer’

The Senate inquiry into non-compliant building products has proposed a “total ban” on flammable cladding, but insurers and experts fear deeper problems may be overlooked.

The Economics References Committee has released its interim report on aluminium composite panels (ACP), and calls for all products with a flammable polyethylene core to be banned.

ACP has been implicated in a number of serious incidents worldwide, including the deadly blaze at London’s Grenfell Tower in June and the fire at Melbourne’s Lacrosse Apartments in November 2014. The committee says because fire-retardant alternatives are available, there can be no legitimate use of the flammable product.

However, the Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) fears a ban could mask deeper regulatory issues that must be tackled.

“Banning the product is treating a symptom, when there are significant underlying problems that need to be resolved,” spokesman Campbell Fuller told insuranceNEWS.com.au.

“Dangerous building materials should not be used where they can cause harm. But we need to be careful that by banning products, we don’t prevent safe use.”

He says the priorities should be a national audit to assess the scale of the problem, and improvements to regulation.

The Chairman of Engineers Australia’s Society of Fire Safety, Jonathan Barnett, also believes the proposed ban is a step too far.

“We manage hazardous materials all the time,” he told insuranceNEWS.com.au.

“Should we ban petrol, or gas? You are much more likely to die in a motor vehicle than in a fire, but we haven’t banned them.

“We should be managing cladding, not banning it, but it’s being put in the too-hard basket to develop appropriate legislation. I thought that’s what we paid politicians for.

“It shouldn’t have been used as it has been, but if it is only a little bit here and there on a one-storey building, then so what?

“This is an over-reaction and it’s better that we control and manage the risk.”

Fire Protection Association Australia says a ban would not address the underlying cause of the risk.

“The problem is wider than a single building product,” CEO Scott Williams said.

“It comes down to people not complying with Australia’s building codes and standards, and a [flammable cladding] ban does not fix the problem of compliance.

“The use of combustible cladding on high-rise buildings is already banned under the National Construction Code; we just need people to adhere to that code.

“Banning the product twice is unnecessary.”

Insurers could play an increasingly significant role in the issue as they begin to respond to the level of risk.

Strata insurer CHU says it has not refused insurance on the basis of cladding, but for some buildings it has priced the risk so high it is not practical for owners to purchase it.

Mr Fuller says this development is “entirely consistent” with ICA warnings to the Senate inquiry.

Meanwhile, cladding on the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane will be removed and replaced following tests.

“Removing the cladding is the sensible thing to do,” Queensland Minister for Housing and Public Works Mick de Brenni said. “It’s an investment in the long-term future of the hospital and it means we’re achieving the highest possible level of safety.”

Removal and replacement could take 18 months, and heightened emergency response procedures in place at the hospital will continue.

The Senate inquiry will publish another interim report on October 31, focusing on asbestos, with a final report due on April 30.

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