Moree Plains Shire Council calls for urgent action to demolish burnt-out houses

BLIGHT: There are currently 56 burnt-out dwellings across the Moree Plains Shire. Photo: file
BLIGHT: There are currently 56 burnt-out dwellings across the Moree Plains Shire. Photo: file

Moree Plains Shire Council will be requesting an urgent $2 million grant from the state government to clean-up and demolish all the burnt-out houses across the shire and will be commencing a public and political campaign to raise awareness of the issue that's been tainting the town for too long.

These are just some of the resolutions passed at Thursday's council meeting, after councillors agreed they were "fed up" with waiting on other organisations help them tackle the issue of burnt-out houses across the shire.

"These organisations have been sitting on their thumbs for a very long time," Cr Kerry Cassells said.

"They don't live here, we do. Our community's had a gutful. We just need to get it done."

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Cr John Tramby has been campaigning for something to be done about the unacceptably high number of burnt-out houses in the shire since he became a councillor more than 20 years ago.

"We've been waiting 10, 15, 20 years for someone to come and drop from the sky to save us," he said during Thursday's meeting.

"They're not going to do it. We are on our own. We've simply got to be the masters of our own destiny. Nobody's going to help us, we've got to help ourselves."

State program needed to simplify process

Earlier this year, council agreed to take part in a pilot program with the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) and Local Government NSW (LGNSW) to develop a standard procedure for dealing with burnt-out houses.

At the time, council was under the impression that the program - which involves developing a state policy to simplify the complex process of removing burnt-out houses containing asbestos - would have been up and running by now and that the bulldozers would have started knocking down the dilapidated dwellings.

"From very early discussions to now, the pilot program has taken a scope that is quite restricted to the front end of the process - all the things up to but not including knocking them down," council's director of planning and community development Angus Witherby said.

"That is not getting our community what we need which is getting rid of them.

"But we still want the pilot program. We want it to happen now, not next year.

"It's more a matter of need than want. We need the pilot program otherwise we won't get a future situation where we can manage this."

Mr Witherby said the EPA and LGNSW have admitted that the issue of asbestos-affected burnt-out houses is a statewide issue, not just confined to Moree.

"There should be a state-based system and program which should be funded by the government to allow this systemic problem to be addressed," he said.

"The House Raising Program is an example of a systemic program across NSW, where the state government provides a majority of funds to address a problem."

Among the resolutions passed at Thursday's council meeting, councillors made it clear that they do not accept the time frame set out by the pilot project's working group - which includes the EPA, LGNSW, NSW Health, Aboriginal Affairs NSW, SafeWork NSW and leading industry professionals in the fields of environmental health, hazardous materials assessment and regulatory services.

Council has recommended that the pilot program be instigated at the earliest opportunity and has requested that members of the working party come to Moree to personally inspect the burnt-out houses within four weeks.

Council will also be writing to the Environment Minister for urgent intervention and to Northern Tablelands MP Adam Marshall requesting an urgent grant for $2 million for the clearing and demolition of all 56 burnt-out houses currently in Moree.

Lengthy and costly process

The $2 million figure is based on a quote council received from a contractor three years ago, to demolish 48 dwellings for $1.34 million.

"We're now up to 56, and given the escalation of costs, $2 million is on the money," Mr Witherby said.

"That's for a licensed contractor to come in and do the lot and that would be with waived tipping fees from council. Tipping fees alone is $800,000."

Mr Witherby said council "tried very hard" to undertake the demolition work itself, but the cost of insurance for its workers is what brought them unstuck.

He said two people were required per team from council, and rotating them around the roster would mean a total of eight workers would be needed. Each of those would need to be trained, have a licence and council would need a qualified supervisor.

Training costs alone would have been $100,000 according to Mr Witherby, while it was $60,000 per worker in insurance costs.

"$60,000 per worker and eight workers for two years equals $960,000 in insurance costs alone," he said.

By law, it is the landowners's responsibility to clear their land if the property burns down.

However, Mr Witherby said the issue is when the cost of clearing the land is greater than the value of the land itself, which provides little incentive for landowners to clean up.

As a result, many private owners choose to take their insurance money and rebuild somewhere else, rather than knocking down the building and starting again.

Under section 121B of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 council has enforcement powers whereby it can order an owner to demolish a dilapidated building.

However the process is lengthy and if the owner fails to comply council takes on the responsibility of cleaning up the land.

"The process is like trying to wade through glue," Mr Witherby said.

The process is like trying to wade through glue.

Angus Witherby, MPSC director of planning and community development

"If we want to enter land, we need permission from the owner which is very hard.

"Unless we have clear evidence of an immediate public health issue, we have to go through a very complex process to enter land

"It's a two month process just to enter the land to undertake testing. If we find asbestos, we have to serve a notice of intent to issue an order and give 28 days. Then we serve the intent to issue, which has a 28-day appeal period. Then we can commence the process.

"From start to finish, you're looking at about a six month process under the current legislative frame, for one house. We need to go through that process for the majority of the houses."

As a result, council is currently only up to getting the second level assessment done of the burnt-out houses.

Mr Witherby was hoping the demolition process would have been "solidly underway for the past three months."

"We are all just 150 per cent fed up," he said.

"Every single thing we try and do we get barrier after barrier, road block after road block. Nothing actually happens.

Every single thing we try and do we get barrier after barrier, road block after road block. Nothing actually happens.

Angus Witherby

"The diligent efforts of the elected delegates to get this raised in government has gotten nowhere."

Which is why council is now stepping up its efforts to do something itself - "We're going to move and shake everything we can move and shake to create productive change," Mr Witherby said.

Ramping up efforts to tackle the issue

Commencing next week, council will be launching a public education and political campaign to raise awareness about the issue of burnt-out houses and the health implications of asbestos.

"Asbestosis is a medical condition that can take up to 40 years to manifest," Mr Witherby said.

"The psychological impact of that can't be underestimated. The worry this has caused people, is causing people will affect them for decades. This affect's people's lives.

"This is why this is a much bigger issue than the appearance of burnt-out houses in a streetscape.

"It's not a south-west Moree problem, it's a north More problem, it's an east Moree problem, it's a Boggabilla problem, it's a Mungindi problem. Council is fed up. Ratepayers are fed up.

"This is a high priority."

Council will be requesting urgent notification from Fire and Rescue NSW within 14 days of a dwelling being burnt so that it can act immediately to begin the process of getting the land cleared and will also be reviewing changes of ownership of dwellings and any correlation with fires.

In the meantime, Mr Witherby is hopeful that the EPA pilot program can get underway by the end of this year.

An EPA spokesperson said progress on the pilot program had been delayed due to COVID-19 which meant travel to rural and regional areas was not possible. Prior to COVID-19, the 2019/2020 summer bushfires impacted local resources.

"The EPA recognises that the management of abandoned, burnt and derelict properties is a major health issue in some local government areas, including Moree Plains Shire," the EPA spokesperson said.

At a meeting between the EPA and Moree Plains Shire Council on Thursday, October 9 it was agreed that the EPA would provide immediate assistance to council:

  • To investigate and advise on the use of air monitoring to check whether asbestos fibres are being released from the derelict properties.
  • To educate community members about the dangers of disturbing asbestos, the EPA will assist Council in preparation for November's Asbestos Awareness Week.