Deep roots, empty pockets

Gum tree roots burrowed inside Sam Dasgupta's stormwater drainpipe.

By Cam Lucadou-Wells

Two residents in Keysborough are embroiled in a battle for compo from City of Greater Dandenong over large nature-strip trees blocking their homes’ drainpipes.

Sam Dasgupta and Charmaine Young live streets away in the same Hidden Grove estate.

Both say that roots from eucalyptus trees on council nature strips have blocked storm water pipes and flooded their properties.

In both cases, their claims were referred to the council’s “risk and liability consultant” National Claims Solutions – and denied.

In its rejection letters, NCS does not appear to dispute that the nature-strip trees blocked the drains.

However, it argued that the residents should have pre-warned Greater Dandenong of the issue before their homes were flooded.

“Council is not able or obliged to undertake proactive inspections of private property to ensure that the roots of street trees are not causing potential damage to private property,” a NCS consultant wrote to Mr Dasgupta.

A gob-smacked Mr Dasgupta was left holding a $2550 plumbing repair bill. He said he had no warning that the gum tree was an issue until his garage and back yard were flooded.

In Ms Young’s case, a council worker inspected the scene after her garage inexplicably flooded and assured her the drainage was fine.

Four plumbers later, it was discovered that the gigantic gum on the nature strip was the culprit.

Further, the NCS argues the roots may have entered pre-existing “small cracks/openings” in the pipes.

“In the absence of evidence that tree roots have caused structural damage (such as may occur when a large root has grown over/under a pipe and lifted/crushed it), we consider it is self-evident that the drain must already have failed (to some extent) for the tree roots to have gained access,” an NCS consultant stated to Ms Young.

The NCS added that the tree – at least in Mr Dasgupta’s case – was planted by developers, not the council.

Both residents are calling on their neighbours to raise their voices if they’ve been similarly denied by NCS.

Ms Young said the council should “look after their ratepayers if the council is responsible for damage” instead of hiding behind an “outsourced” organization.

“The council has their own separate insurers. NCS is another mob who protects them from dipping into their insurance.”

Mr Dasgupta said NCS appeared to be “in the business of rejecting all claims made on councils”.

“In my opinion a class action of all affected claimants needs to be taken to expose NCS for what it is doing by arbitrarily rejecting all claims, regardless of the merits.”

The yellow box eucalyptus was planted when Mr Dasgupta bought his home 14 years ago. He is unable to remove the tree without the council’s permission.

The council eventually removed the tree due to its roots being damaged while being extricated from the home’s drain pipes.

Under the state’s Water Act, residents are forbidden from planting trees that are a risk of damaging stormwater pipes.

“It seems that there is one set of laws for ratepayers and another for the council,” Mr Dasgupta said.

He said all of his Hidden Grove neighbours should alert the council about the looming gum trees on nature strips before damage occurs.

Though he adds that the council “should have known the consequences of their action”.

After the NCS rejection, Greater Dandenong subsequently offered 50 per cent compensation to Ms Young.

No compensation has been offered to Mr Dasgupta.

Ratepayers Victoria president Dean Hurlston said ratepayers across the state were sick of council outsourcing to “third party contractors”.

“Often at considerable expense and often resulting in the erosion of natural justice when a ratepayer is disadvantaged or unreasonably affected.

“It’s time councils actually learned to deliver basic services in a cost effective and at a highly consumer focused standard.”

Greater Dandenong councillor Rhonda Garad said she was pushing for the council to adopt a “proactive method of monitoring root movement”.

“We need to intervene before the root invade the drainage systems. Also, we need to make sure we only plant appropriate trees.”

A Greater Dandenong spokesperson said the council couldn’t comment on specific claims due to privacy protections.

The spokesperson said NCS was “independent” of the council and its insurers.

“NCS is engaged by Council to assess claims made against Council and advise it on potential liability.

“NSC is paid a fee for service and does not receive any incentives for a particular outcome.”