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Construction Minister Rebecca Vassarotti can send powerful message to Canberra property developers a

If you want to drive a car, breed a kitten, or sell a beer in Canberra you'll need a licence.

But if you want to fundamentally alter the city, employ hundreds of contractors, and collect millions of dollars from ordinary people you don't have to worry.

Property developers are currently allowed to operate in the ACT without any kind of licence. If they say they have the money to build what they propose, we believe them. If they say they'e fit and proper to take on such serious responsibility, we believe them. And when they push out glossy brochures full of promises, we believe them, too.

In fact, the ACT's entire approach to regulating property developers is built around a "trust-me" ethos.

Personally, I can think of better candidates for an honour system.

Because anyone with a passing interest in the local news over recent decades will be familiar with dozens of tales of shonky property developer behaviour. In fact, you don't even have read the news. I think you'd be hard-pressed finding a Canberran without some tale of woe to relate about a friend or relative getting ripped off by a property developer.

A 2019 report estimated the ACT rectification bill at least $268 million. That figure will have ballooned since then.

The ACT government, to its great credit, recognised things had spun out of control three years ago and promised to introduce a licensing regime for property developers.

Progressing this commitment into law has proved slow going, but last year ACT Sustainable Building and Construction Minister Rebecca Vassarotti said to expect an announcement in the second half of 2022.

I have no doubt Ms Vassarotti has been the target of intense pressure from the powerful developers lobby in Canberra.

They want her to back off on licensing. But after politely listening to their case I think she should tell them to take a running a jump.

Not just because her government made a promise. Not just because the overwhelming majority of Canberrans want action. But because a developer licensing scheme is great policy.

A proper licensing regime would send a powerful message to property developers that the free-for-all is over and they now have to respect the standards of the Canberra community. So how would it work in practice?

Well, to gain a licence property developers should have to provide proof that they have the funding necessary to ensure completion. Right now, it's far too often the case that developers make lofty promises and then attempt to complete a project as inexpensively as possible.

Quality, unsurprisingly, is what suffers. The incidence of defected developments has been steadily increasing in the ACT, with home owners often having to pay millions out of their own pockets in order to rectify faulty work.

And it's not just residents that take the hit. Developers often engage in a range of activities to avoid the payment of debts to contractors and workers. So part of the licensing requirement should be a project trust account where funds, including retention payments, are held in trust for contractors until payments are due.

And while we're checking developers have the money, we should also be checking where it's come from.

Currently, there's no legal obligation to disclose the sources of financial support for the funding of a development. But individuals buying apartments have a right to be informed as to who has financed a development, and how secure this funding is for the foreseeable future.

A licensing scheme should also require that a flesh and blood person, and not a hastily set up entity, is carrying ultimate responsibility. And we should ensure that natural person is fit and proper to take on such a serious responsibility.

Unsurprisingly, we know there's a strong correlation between developers who cut corners on building quality and those who cut corners when it comes to pay and conditions, as well as safety. Developers with a poor safety record or a history of fraudulent, deceitful or dishonest behaviour should not be considered fit and proper persons to be involved in the operation of a developing entity.

If we get this right, a licensing model will not just be a tool to improve building quality standards. It will be a means to improving the entire operation and reputation of the ACT construction industry.

Having said that, I know making developers get a license won't solve everything. Indeed, I have complete faith in the capacity of some developers to find creative ways to circumvent requirements or enforcement mechanisms. But that's certainly no reason to sit on our hands.

Requiring a drivers licence doesn't eliminate all dodgy behaviour on the roads. But just imagine how much worse things would be without them.

With a licensing regime in place property developers in Canberra will still be able to make obscene wealth from their activities.

They'll just have to meet some basic community standards in the process. Let's get on with it.


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