Growing unease as extended building hours continue

By David Schout

Weekday construction work on many CBD job sites will continue for 14 hours a day during Melbourne’s second coronavirus lockdown, despite growing frustration from mostly housebound residents.

As Victorians are being asked to stay indoors following a surge in COVID-19 cases, the impact of extended construction hours has taken its toll within the city.

Local councillors confirmed with CBD News they had received a “significant” number of complaints.

Since April 2, the City of Melbourne has allowed construction activity to take place from 6am to 8pm on weekdays as a way to “fast-track projects, save jobs and help limit the economic impact of COVID-19”.

The special exemption allows job sites, usually bound by 7am-7pm rules, extra time to offset the time lost to social distancing and other safety measures.  

Normal 8am-3pm rules on Saturdays have also been extended by three hours (from 7am to 5pm), giving the industry an additional 13 hours on site per week.

But McKillop St resident Michael Munson, who in May said that constant noise during the city’s first lockdown was “unbearable” when most of the community were confined inside, said the situation “continued to worsen”.

Procedurally, the move to extend construction hours has caused some disagreement at Town Hall.

The City of Melbourne made the decision “under delegation” earlier this year without going before councillors, a decision both the planning chair and deputy planning chair said was wrong.

“When COVID-19 hit there were a lot of decisions that were made very quickly. And with the benefit of hindsight, I think that decision is one which should have gone before a council meeting for proper consideration and endorsement,” planning chair Cr Nicholas Reece said.

His deputy planning chair Cr Rohan Leppert went a step further.

“It’s a terrible, terrible policy,” he said. 

“It should have gone to council. If this is going to be a policy that lasts throughout the pandemic — and the pandemic is not going away for the rest of the year and the rest of 2021 at least — then yes, it should still come back to council. This isn’t a sustainable situation.”

A council spokesperson maintained that the special permits were considered on a case-by-case basis, and said it was sympathetic to residents’ current predicament.

“We understand construction work has an impact on residents so we have significantly increased proactive inspections to monitor compliance and enforce observed breaches,” the spokesperson said. 

“Our inspectors are out every morning and night to ensure works do not start before permitted times and are consistent with the conditions of the out-of-hours permits.”

Those additional inspections saw the City of Melbourne issue 103 infringement notices to builders between May and July, an average of more than one per day.

Both councillors Leppert and Reece argued that the maximum penalty of $2000 for breaching the local law was simply not enough of a deterrent.

And at the July 21 Future Melbourne Committee (FMC) meeting, the pair put forward a motion calling on the state government to increase the fine.

“For the largest construction projects, it (the $2000 fine) is simply being built into the cost of doing business,” Cr Leppert said.

“This isn’t about curtailing construction activity in the city, it’s about curtailing illegal construction activity.”

Cr Leppert said he was contacted about early morning construction noise “more than any other issue”, and argued there was a public health element to the issue while many residents were spending a significant amount of time inside.

“There are 50,000 residential apartments in the CBD, Southbank and Docklands. Every central city resident knows that they live in a high-density area with plenty of construction activity. But we limit construction activity to daylight hours for a reason. The consequences of repetitive early morning breaches of construction hours on community health and wellbeing are significant.”

Cr Reece said repeat offenders should be held to account.

“We cannot have a situation where construction companies are openly flouting the rules and include the risk of copping a fine as part of business costs on a project,” he said. 

“There are still too many issues of permit breaches of permit conditions occurring and we need to increase the fines to such a level that they create enough pain for builders to force them to comply.”

The motion passed unanimously •

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