Backyard mechanics are growing in number across Canberra while registered workshops are dwindling, squeezed out by huge increases in rates levied by the ACT government on commercial premises.
The ACT president of the Motor Trades Association, Michael Burke, says that the government compliance officers are "going soft" on the backyard operators while workshops operating out of Hume, Mitchell and Fyshwick are required to meet extensive statutory requirements, plus ever-rising rate bills.
The association represents independent automotive small businesses in the ACT, including smash repair workshops, service and repair, and parts sales and distribution.
Mr Burke said that he had made numerous representations to the government on this matter and had broached the issue with senior Cabinet Minister Mick Gentleman, who ironically was a previous MTA president for eight years before entering politics, but to no avail.
"There are about 50 licensed home-based automotive businesses across Canberra but at least triple that number are operating unlicensed and the ACT compliance officers either don't know or don't care to look around," Mr Burke said.
"We have brought several non-compliant backyard businesses to the attention of the government compliance officers and instead of shutting them down, they've just registered them and allowed them to continue operating.
"The backyarders are advertising on social media and usually operate out of a garage adjoining their house where they service and repair up to 20 cars a week.
"It's a slap in the face for those businesses who are running registered workshops, have to amortise all the costs of that business, and are also under additional pressure from commercial rates."
ACT government planning laws allow the operation of a home-based business provided no more than two people work on the premises at any one time and genuinely live there, the area used for business is no more than 40 square metres, and the conduct of the business does not generate any more than five vehicle arrivals per day.
However, one backyard business operating out of a double garage in Isabella Plains was visibly non-compliant on safety grounds with its two four-post car hoists almost touching each other, four cars being worked on, and customer vehicles parked up and down the residential street.
One of the big issues of residential workshops which generate significant throughput is not just the potential non-compliance on occupational health and safety grounds, but the environmental and noise impact.
"If one residential business is servicing a minimum of just two cars a day, or 10 cars a week, that's at least 70 litres of waste oil a week which is being accumulated and stored on the premises, as well as all the other sundry items such as old filters," Mr Burke said.
At Cooma Diesel, a diesel fuel injection specialist which has operated in its Kembla St, Fyshwick location for 18 years, any waste oil or liquid has be stored in a special area which prevents any spillage from entering a drain, yearly inspections are performed on much of its equipment, there is a chemical register, and specialised water treatment separators which prevent any hydrocarbons from entering the waste water system.
David Webster, who runs Cooma Diesel, said his business pays $26,612 a year in commercial rate but then has to pay a contractor to collect his modest-sized garbage bin.
When the ACT government was approached for comment on backyard automotive businesses, it said that it "uses a range of tools to ensure compliance".
"Access Canberra undertook a proactive compliance program in May 2019 to examine the operation of home-based motor vehicle repairers," an ACT government spokesman said.
"This included inspecting 29 home-based motor vehicle repairers. High levels of compliance were found".
One neighbour of a residential automotive business, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisal from the busy backyard mechanic business nearby, said he has been "fobbed off" on this issue by the ACT government more times than he can count.
He regularly complains about the number of tow trucks which come and go, the clogged street parking, the volume of traffic posing a risk to children playing, the noise generated, and the "test runs" done on the local street but receives no action.
Another O'Connor resident was astonished to find that his neighbour was running a backyard workshop from an expensive public housing property, with 15 to 20 customers cars a day parked on his front lawn, the nature strip, and up and down the street.
When the neighbour complained, he said the government officer notified the backyard mechanic a week in advance of the visit "giving him a chance to clean up, remove the cars, dismiss my complaint and offer me a pamphlet on resolving disputes".