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QLD Minister calls for total ACP import ban as insurers bail out – Andy McCourt

Queensland’s Minister for Housing and Public Works Mick de Brenni this week called on the Commonwealth Government to ‘protect Australians’ and introduce an importation ban on all aluminium composite panels with a PE core.

Header Alucobond PLUS Lighthouse Apartments 1
 "The right stuff - this building is clad in Alucobond Plus mineral-cored ACP, no problem."
    Image courtesy HVG Group
andy mccourt
               Andy McCourt

“I’ve made numerous calls on the Commonwealth to ban this combustible cladding at the border, they can’t keep dodging this responsibility to the people of Australia,” Mr de Brenni said.

This echoes a policy statement by Labor’s Kim Carr prior to the Federal election, that, had Labor won office, all ACPs with a PE core be banned from being imported into Australia.

Both de Brenni’s and Carr’s statements ignore the fact that the sign industry is a big user of ACP PE material, lawfully and without danger to the public. The problem of fire-risk relates to mis-use by the building and construction industry, whereby the more expensive non-combustible varieties of ACP and also solid or honeycomb-cored pure aluminium panels, are not used. Also mentioned in legal cases concerning ACP on buildings are the surveyors and certifiers who sign off on buildings following inspections.

Insurers cut and run from risk

Also this week, the last insurer to provide Surveyor/Certifier Professional Indemnity insurance without exclusions, withdrew from the market, creating a crisis that could ricochet throughout the construction industry. This is eloquently summed up by Suzy Cairney, a partner in law firm Holding Redlich who on July 3rd wrote:

“In summary, to be licenced as a building surveyor or certifier in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, you must have professional indemnity insurance that is not subject to any qualifications or exemptions. Yesterday however, the last insurer in the market that was prepared to offer such PI insurance stopped providing it. It is no longer possible to get unqualified cover.”

So, building certifiers do not just lose part of their professional insurance cover but stand to lose their licence to practice as well. If construction projects can not be certified as compliant/fire-safe, there could be long delays or even non-completion. The Society of Fire Safety Engineers Australia say: “it’s a disaster.”

That insurers and underwriters have effectively ‘cut and run’ by withdrawing PI cover where ACP cladding is concerned has come in for heavy criticism, again from Minister de Brenni: “We’ve already seen insurers attempting to cut and run from the market by withdrawing their insurance products and that means they escape their obligations, and that’s not on. This has put at risk hundreds of thousands of jobs in the sector and it’s got the potential to impact homeowners who would be left holding the can if they have to pursue litigation with dodgy buildings.”

State governments are already scrambling to find interim and longer-term solutions to the denial of PI insurance to certifiers, such as enabling certification to continue with the ACP exclusion from insurance in place or, in Victoria’s case a government body to take the risk. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has said: "The feds should be involved, that would be good, but we won't let anybody be uninsured. There are some steps we can take."

Queensland’s de Brunni has also called for a Federal countrywide action plan, including but not limited to the importation ban.

Should Sign industry businesses be concerned?

The answer is, if a knee-jerk blanket import ban on PE-core ACP is implemented, yes because sign shops will lose access to a product that has been safely used for signage for 25 years or more. Importers and resellers will lose business too – one industry source puts the sign industry’s use of ACP as higher than that of the construction industry’s.

If you have PE-cored ACP sign clients and the use if for signage and not building facades, there is no reason to panic, with the exception of signs that may end up affixed to the outside walls of tall buildings, eg a shopping centre, as these too are increasingly falling under the revised building codes. If in doubt, always use a non-combustible composite grade or all-aluminium panel.

Sign producers and their clients need to be better informed and educated on the complex topic of types of ACP/ACM and the building codes – one reason why the ASGA and Visual Connections are presenting a 90 minute session on Weds August 13th at PrintEx, Sydney. The ASGA has also held awareness sessions for industry practitioners around the country.

There can be no argument that lives should not be put at risk by using flammable cladding on building exteriors, or leaving it there if discovered on legacy buildings. Melbourne’s Lacrosse and Neo apartment buildings were started by cigarettes left to burn and accelerated upwards because of PE-cored cladding. If anything, the importation of cigarettes should thus be banned! For ACP panels, it is the application that needs to be policed, not the importation of a useful, successful and entirely legal product used by sign-makers in every city and country town of Australia.

Everything ultimately burns, it just depends on how easily and at what temperature. The treated pine framework inside most house walls is an example where dwellings contain flammable material. The terrible Grenfell Tower tragedy in London focused attention on ACP cladding with a PE core but it was an older building clad for appearances – in the wrong material.

For the construction industry and those owning strata apartments – also buildings such as some hospitals and government sites – the problem is vexed, multi-faceted, litigious and convoluted and, yes, it does need a Federalised solution and may take years to resolve.

For our sign industry the solution is easier – just don’t use PE-cored ACP if the panels are for architectural use; the fire retardant and non-combustible varieties should be used if in doubt. But there is no need to avoid ACP altogether, none at all.

Think about attending the ASGA/PrintEx forum, talk to your supplier and read up on building code changes if you think they affect you. If you supply ACP for signage and if the draconian blanket ban proposal succeeds, apply for exemption for signage use only, it’s only right.

Let’s all hope and pray that Australia-New Zealand never sees a Grenfell-like disaster but let’s also work pro-actively to learn and discern between zero-risk sign industry uses of the wonderful material that is ACP, and the misapplication of it, as seen in the construction industry.