Sunday, June 23, 2024

Bush buildings boom: Where does the balance go?

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Araluen’s Independent Member has pressed the NT government to disclose the construction costs of dwellings in the bush after media statements last year indicated there may be a flood of $1.5m mansions across remote regions.

Robyn Lambley was told this week the average cost to build a three-bedroom home in a remote community is $554,499, over the home’s life and under the Remote Housing Investment Package.

The questions arose from a tender of $30m to Alice Springs based Pedersen NT for 20 new houses and “upgrade and refurbishment” for 18 more, as reported by the Alice Springs News on October 30 last year.

At the time Ministers Selena Uibo and Chansey Paech left the public in the dark about actual figures. They claimed in a waffly media handout a “massive achievement” (Uibo) and finding it “exciting to see how happy families are to receive the keys to their new homes” (Paech).

It took till this week for the Government to provide the facts enquired about: And it wasn’t because they had a change of heart about their policies of secrecy: It is required by Parliamentary procedure.

Ms Lambley, following a request by the [Alice Springs] News, submitted what’s called “written questions” to the Minister for Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics, which happens to be Chief Minister Eva Lawler.

“Written Questions” must be answered with 30 days, but Ms Lambley had to rattle the CM’s cage to get the replies, about two weeks late.

Here are further questions asked by Mrs Lambley and the answers given to her about “remote housing construction”:

Q: Remote housing land doesn’t need to be bought. It is owned by the Aboriginal people who live there, land they gained under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 or on town leases in Alice Springs. Is this correct?

A: The Northern Territory Government cannot own or buy the land on which remote community houses are situated. The land is either: Aboriginal land held by a Land Trust under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 and is not transferable under the statute; or held in freehold or under a perpetual lease by a corporation or association comprised of Aboriginal people who live there.

Q: Is there a minimum requirement in the remote housing contracts for a number of apprentices and trainees? How many? For what periods? What trades? Is the progression of those apprenticeships monitored, and if so, how?

A: Under the Conditions of Tendering that is mandated for all NT Government agencies, the minimum number of apprentices and trainees required in standard construction vary depending on the value of the contract.

For example, a contract of $500,000 requires one apprentice and no trainees. A contract for $3m requires five apprentices and one trainee within the period of the contract. For contracts less than $1m a trainee may replace one apprentice.

Any stipulation of trades will be specific to the tender and will be monitored as part of the audits undertaken by the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics through the Contractor Compliance Unit.

The level of compliance is reported at the end of the contract in the Contractor Performance Report and is taken into consideration on future quotations and tenders.

Q: Contractors need to submit an Indigenous Development Plan which is monitored throughout the life of the contract, including employment. Are copies of this plan available to the public? If so, where can they be found?

A: All remote housing contracts require an Indigenous Development Plan to be submitted within 14 days of contract award. The plan is Commercial in Confidence and is included in the audit undertaken by the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics through the Contractor Compliance Unit.

Q: What are the consequences if apprenticeships are terminated ahead of their terms (by the employer and/or the apprentice)?

A: The level of compliance regarding apprentices, trainees and the Indigenous Development Plan is reported at the end of the contract in the Contractor Performance Report and is taken into consideration on future quotations and tenders.

Mr Paech, describing a similar project as “job-creating [and] building sustainable communities and better lives for our Aboriginal Territorians” did not provide details supporting that claim.

Q: Please provide details of a typical new remote house – square metres, materials, numbers of bedrooms, toilets, bathrooms and provide a plan drawing of a typical dwelling.

A: The average enclosed area for a three or more bedroom home is 144 square metres. The number of bedrooms are determined in consultation with the community, as is the built form and materials.

One toilet and bathroom is provided for two bedrooms and under, while two are included in homes with four bedrooms or more. Three bedroom homes have two toilets and one bathroom.

What remains unclear is where the balance of the money will go: The Pedersen budget is $30m for 20 houses. At $554,499 each that amounts to $11m. Where will the remaining $19m go?

The Albanese / Lawler $4 billion project is for 2700 houses at $817,000 each (according to a Federal Government spokesman). That works out at $2.2 billion. Where will the remaining $1.8 billion go?

Some communications from the [Alice Springs] News research:

  • Mid to late October 2023: Uibo, Paech and the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics (DIPL) dodge questions about aspects of the Pedersen tender.
  • The reply about apprenticeships given to Mrs Lambley isn’t doing much better: What does it mean that the Contractor Performance Report “is taken into consideration on future quotations and tenders”?
  • November 3, 2023: Mr Paech is asked for an interview as the only front bencher in Central Australia. He declines.
  • Murray River North, which is building homes in Alice Springs mostly for Aboriginal areas in The Centre, says it is bound by commercial confidentiality to not disclose the value of contracts signed with the government “to the level of detail you are chasing”.
  • March 14, 2024: A Federal Government spokesperson says: “The average cost of delivering a 3 bed house in remote NT communities is $817,000. This includes not just the build, but infrastructure such as connections to services.” The spokesperson does not give on-the-record answers to several other questions from the News.
  • March 12, 2024: Lawler and Uibo refer to “a landmark joint $4 billion dollar investment for housing in remote communities across the Northern Territory to help close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. [This will] see up to 270 homes built each year.” $4 billion for 2700 homes works out at $1.5m per house.

This article appeared on Alice Springs News on 18 May 2024.

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