Tough new WA building laws could hinder affordability

New measures would include costs of up to $20K to cover ember screens and the use of non-combustible or reduced risk building materials

Tough new building and planning rules proposed for homes in high bushfire risk areas in Western Australia could significantly affect housing affordability, according to the state's Department of Housing.

In a submission providing feedback on the proposed changes, the DoH raised concerns about the changes adding tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of construction, creating the need to abandon some developments.

The department was responding to changes recommended in a report on the 2011 Kelmscott Roleystone fire, which destroyed 71 homes. It raised concerns about the increased construction costs associated with new regulation compliance, claiming it would be a significant burden as many of its developments are in areas "that are still urbanising and are therefore in close proximity to uncleared land".

If approved, the changes would include the development of state-wide maps identifying bushfire prone areas and set out new planning and building rules for new homes built in those places deemed high risk.

When announcing the changes in May 2014, Planning Minister John Day said the standards would apply to new homes built in areas identified as bushfire-prone or if the house was located within 100 metres of one hectare or more of bushland.

The measures would include ember screens on evaporative air-conditioning units, window screens, and the use of non-combustible or reduced risk building materials worth up to $20,000.

The submission stated that is unsustainable to pass these costs on as the developments are targeted primarily at first homebuyers, and those at the lower end of the property market.

"There is a risk of not proceeding with development as the cost of mitigating bushfire risk is too high,” it reads.

"Whilst housing broadly supports proposals to improve community safety, there is some concern that any incremental community fire safety improvements will come at the cost of housing affordability, and that the additional cost may be disproportionate to the risk."

The submission called on the Department of Planning to postpone implementation until assurances could be given, including carrying out an effective cost-benefit analysis on the proposals.

The Housing Industry Association (HIA) also made a submission during the consultation period, both supporting the changes and expressing concerns around housing affordability, plus the timing and accuracy of the mapping tools.

HIA executive director John Gelavis said its biggest concern was that the changes were not implemented before promised state-wide maps identifying bushfire prone areas were completed and released by the government.

"Initially the mapping was due out, the first phases, in November/December [2014]…We haven't seen this yet and the mapping is very important so the industry can understand what the impact's going to be, not just for the homeowner, but also for their developments they've got planned.”

Mr Gelvis urged the government not to rush the changes, saying it was important to get it right. Minister Day said all stakeholder feedback would be taken into consideration prior to finalising the changes.