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Earthquake-prone building proposals: Have your say

Article for distribution to newspapers
By Hon Maurice Williamson, Minister for Building and Construction

Earthquake-prone building proposals: Have your say

The Government is proposing major changes to how we deal with earthquake-prone buildings, though no decisions have been taken and it’s important that people have their say, writes Building and Construction Minister Maurice Williamson.

In early December, I released a consultation document proposing far-reaching improvements to New Zealand’s system for managing earthquake-prone buildings.

Currently, local authorities are responsible for decisions on how earthquake-prone buildings in their districts should be dealt with. Some councils have been less active than others, depending on local priorities and views about building risk. This means many earthquake-prone buildings around the country have not even been properly identified, let alone strengthened.

Given the lessons of the Canterbury earthquakes, it seems clear the current system is not delivering good enough results. The public wants greater certainty that the most vulnerable buildings around the country will be identified and remediated.

Under the proposals in the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) consultation document, there would be a mandatory national requirement and timeframe for dealing with earthquake-prone buildings.

The proposals require councils to seismically assess all non-residential and multi-unit, multi-storey residential buildings within five years of the changes taking effect. Owners would then have a further ten years to either strengthen or demolish buildings identified as earthquake-prone.

This means all earthquake-prone buildings would be addressed within 15 years of the changes taking effect, compared with an estimated average of 28 years under the current system.

I want to stress that the Government has made no decisions on this. We want to hear the views of both experts and the wider community on how these proposals would affect them. We encourage you to have your say.

Making the right decisions in this area involves striking a careful balance between protecting life and safety on the one hand, and the huge costs of strengthening or demolishing buildings on the other.

There are good arguments for and against pretty much any decision that can be taken.

Major, life-threatening earthquakes are devastating, as Christchurch showed, but fortunately remain very rare. Altogether 483 people have died in earthquakes in New Zealand since 1843 – all but 42 of those perished in the Christchurch and Napier earthquakes. By contrast, around 37,000 people have died in road accidents.

But while the fatality risk from earthquakes is low relative to other risks, major shakes have massive consequences when they strike. Christchurch will take many years to recover fully, and the city will be permanently changed in many ways.

The consultation proposals resulted from a year-long review by MBIE, with input from experts in implementing the current system, including councils, engineers, property owners and heritage building interests.

If implemented, the proposals would involve an estimated spend of around $1.7 billion over a 15 year period. This is based on a broad estimate of 15,000-25,000 earthquake-prone buildings nationwide - though we acknowledge this estimate could understate the true extent of the problem, due to lack of data from many parts of the country.

That level of expense, while large, seems manageable when compared to overall building spending of around $10 billion nationwide each year. But clearly the impact would be uneven – older provincial towns with many unreinforced masonry buildings are likely to be especially affected.

We need to strike a pragmatic and sensible balance that doesn’t load unreasonable costs or strengthening timeframes on these communities, while allowing them to identify and preserve their important heritage buildings.

The Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission recommendations for earthquake-prone buildings were released at the same time as the MBIE proposals. The Royal Commission reached fundamentally similar positions. For example, it recommended retaining the existing threshold for defining an earthquake-prone building, as does the MBIE proposals (one-third of the requirement for a new building, often referred to as 33 per cent of New Building Standard or NBS.)

However, the Royal Commission goes further than MBIE in some respects. In particular, it recommends faster timeframes for assessing and dealing with unreinforced masonry buildings.

It also recommends allowing councils to choose higher strengthening standards than the central government requirement, and it recommends bringing hazardous features of domestic buildings, such as unreinforced masonry chimneys, into the system.

Again, I ask people to take time to read the consultation document (available at www.dbh.govt.nz) and have your say through the online response form. MBIE will run public information meetings in major centres during February, giving you an opportunity to ask questions about the current system and proposed changes.

The decisions we take following this consultation could save lives if and when the next big earthquake strikes.


ENDS

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