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Australian state pledges US$420m to fix fire-prone building cladding

[SYDNEY] Australia's second most populous state Victoria pledged on Tuesday to spend US$422 million replacing flammable building cladding in the wake of London's fatal 2017 Grenfell Tower blaze.

Authorities worldwide have grappled with what to do about buildings wrapped in widely-used cladding products that turned the west London apartment block in to a burning "death trap," according to survivors, as flames raced up the facade.

Victoria state, which includes the city of Melbourne, said it would establish a new agency to disburse funds to owners of buildings for replacing high-risk cladding -- the first in Australia to do so, with other states expected to follow.

"This isn't just about safety, it's about fairness for people who bought apartments in good faith and were let down by dodgy builders or dangerous building products," Victorian Minister for Planning Richard Wynne said in a statement.

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The Grenfell blaze, which killed 71 people, started on the fourth floor of a 24-floor building, ignited the exterior cladding and raced up to the top within half an hour, fire experts said at a public inquiry.

The cladding was made from a product called Reynobond PE, panels of aluminium with a polyethylene plastic core.

The fire triggered a regulatory response across the globe as authorities scrambled to discover how many buildings used such cladding and then figure out who should pay for its removal.

Britain's government has already promised 400 million pounds (S$678 million) for replacing flammable cladding on high-rise public housing blocks and 200 million pounds for replacing it on buildings whose owners refused to remove it.

Lawsuits have also been filed in the United States against makers of such cladding, Arconic Inc and Celotex Corp, a US subsidiary of French multinational Saint-Gobain.

In Victoria, a statewide audit of more than 2,000 buildings found nearly half of them had combustible cladding. Fifteen have been identified as in need of the most urgent attention.

"It's a good start," Trivess Moore, a lecturer in property and construction management at Melbourne's RMIT University said of a total cost that could be as high as A$1.6 billion (S$1.53 billion).

He expects other Australian states to follow suit, but also encouraged them to pursue developers, suppliers and others in the construction industry for finds.

REUTERS