Strata In The City Forum

(6pm 16 March 2012, Barnet Long Room, Customs House)

Thank you, Dr Philip Briggs, MC. Good evening, everyone. I would like firstly to acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the traditional custodians of our land, and to pay my respects to their Elders. I also acknowledge the 200 nationalities that make up our city.

I would also like to acknowledge and thank our presenters for this evening:

  • Hazel Easthope, of the University of NSW, who will be presenting her research commissioned by the City
  • John Tansey, Assistant Commissioner for the Home Building Service in the NSW Department of Fair Trading
  • Rod Broune, structural engineer with Broune Group Consultants
  • George Zakos, building consultant with GL Zakos & Associates, and
  • David Baker, partner with Makinson & d'Apice Lawyers.

I would also like to acknowledge Councillor Di Tornai, who has taken particular interest at Council with issues associated with strata properties and who proposed this as what we hope might be one in a series of forums on strata living.

Initially, it was prompted by last year's amendments to the Home Building Act which reduced the statutory warranty period for structural defects in buildings from seven to six years.

We know, from our Apartment Living research project, that there is widespread concern about the quality of apartment buildings and the difficulty of having building defects rectified.

This, at a time when we are seeing a massive social shift towards apartment living. Already, 75 per cent of our residents in the City of Sydney are apartment dwellers and the trend is increasing, not only in our LGA but across metropolitan Sydney.

Population projections predict at least an extra one million people will be living in Sydney by 2026 - just 14 years away. If we were to try to house this number in detached dwellings, we would just about obliterate all the biodiverse and agricultural land in the Sydney food basin.

Urban consolidation is a solution to population growth that is environmentally, economically and socially sustainable.

It can work, and work well, so long as it is supported by good design, efficient transport, a wide range of community facilities, and more and improved open space.

Since I was elected as Lord Mayor in 2004, the City has devoted millions of dollars to improving the public realm through wider footpaths, thousands of trees planted, the creation of new urban parks like the award-winning Paddington Reservoir Gardens and Pirrama Park at Pyrmont, Glebe foreshore, Harmony Park, Redfern Park and Victoria Park.

Our new Local Environment Plan for the City which Council approved last Monday, accepts the need for density in carefully-chosen areas. We can protect the charm and amenity of our urban villages while allowing greater density in areas such as Green Square and the Fraser's Property development at Broadway, at Harold Park and the Ashmore Estate.

Our City Plan has been designed to ensure that higher density areas remain liveable. That means a strong focus on sustainability, on good design, on cross ventilation, on solar access and quality buildings and materials - all the things owners of individual houses assume as their right.

Because multi-apartment dwelling has for so long been considered the "poor relation" in Sydney, little attention has been given to these questions until now.

The City is running a Green Apartments program - at present in its pilot stage - to help owners and building managers to audit and better manage energy, water and waste systems. We're also working to promote sustainable transport, community gardens and local biodiversity.

At the same time, apartment owners are missing out on opportunities such as the solar rebates and face issues about governance and the condition and management of their buildings.

I have introduced in Parliament a range of amendments to the Strata Legislation Act which will come up for debate in the first half of this year.

My bill was developed following extensive consultation and expert input, based on a discussion paper developed in 2009 by Makinson and d'Apice.

This was presented at a community forum attended by almost 200 people and we received over 40 submissions. These were assessed by a group including representatives of the Owners Corporation Network, the Institute of Strata Title Management (now Strata Community Australia), academics, managers, residents and others.

It seemed to me that a number of the issues raised could be dealt with through a series of small private member's bills.

The Government has proposed to reform strata through a single bill which entirely re-writes the Act.

I believe this will be too large and too complex for anyone to thoroughly understand and assess. Indeed, strata law experts have told me that it would be difficult for even them to identify all the possible ramifications of a wholesale re-write.

In fact, I don't believe that the Act requires a complete re-write. But it does need reform in a number of key areas including those in the Bill I introduced that is now in Parliament.

Some of the amendments are straightforward and obvious, such as introduction of a Code of Conduct for members of the executive committee which would oblige them to comply with the Act, to disclose any conflict of interest and to act in the best interests of the owners' corporation.

It would also prevent the developer or builder from being the strata managing agent during the period when action can be taken against either for building defects.

In a similar vein, the amendments require a strata managing agent to disclose any connections with the developer and also prevents the developer from also being the building caretaker.

It makes it an offence for executive committee candidates to fail to disclose any connections they might have with the developer and requires lawyers engaged by the owners' corporation to disclose any connections with the developer.

The chair and executive committee would be guided by regulations as to how they conduct meetings and adds flexibility to the current requirements concerning when annual general meetings must be held, and how notices of meetings are sent.

It increases minimum public liability insurance from $10 to $20 million and makes the owner and occupier of a lot jointly liable for damage to common property caused by the occupier.

Overcrowding is a big problem in apartment buildings in a number of strategic areas - typically where a large group of students or young people share. Since 2006, the City of Sydney has made it a condition of consent on development applications that no more than two adults can occupy any one bedroom in an apartment.

But this excludes all those apartment buildings erected before 2006 and apartments not in the City LGA and my amendments would bring in the same requirement there.

There are other proposals too - basically simple changes that we can make now - without waiting for a lengthy review and rewrite of the entire Act - and they are changes that can make an enormous difference to people's lives.

They can ensure apartment living is a good option, rather than a last resort. They would bring transparency to a system that is meant to be democratic but is at the moment fraught with dangers for the unwary.

The first step is to inform our growing community of apartment residents of some of the rights, obligations and pitfalls.

Once again, I welcome our speakers and thank them for so generously giving of their time and expertise. I'm sure you will find them informative and helpful.

Thank you.