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Insurance taskforce to deal with skyrocketing premiums

Got a problem and no clear way forward? Set up a taskforce. That's the course of action Wellington's leaders are taking following an insurance forum in the city yesterday.

Justin Lester

Wellington Mayor Justin Lester says the details of a taskforce looking into the insurance market are still being worked out. Photo: RNZ / Aaron Smale

Wellington Mayor Justin Lester said the group would look at how the insurance market was functioning amid massive premium increases, which have also led to claims the market is broken.

Insurance is getting more expensive especially for those on the coasts, cliffs, and seismically active areas.

Minister of Commerce and Consumer Affairs Kris Faafoi also expressed his concern at yesterday's forum to the insurance sector about the current pricing of cover.

Mr Faafoi said he had been assured by those in the sector that insurance is available across New Zealand.

"Obviously private businesses have the right to price according to the risk they are carrying for each consumer, which is what I'm told has occurred in Wellington," he said.

However, he said people were seeing higher premiums for certain regions and difficulty obtaining insurance cover for some properties - of which Wellington CBD buildings appeared to be at the forefront of the change.

Mr Faafoi said he had not seen evidence the move to risk-based pricing would bring down some consumers' pricing, or that insurance would remain available across New Zealand.

"I have asked for more information from the sector and officials as to how this affects consumers and to ensure that consumers will all be treated fairly," he said.

"Information from the Mayor's taskforce will add to that picture."

As for the insurance taskforce, Mr Lester said details were still being worked out.

"We don't have anybody on the taskforce yet, that is being generated as a result of this forum," he said.

Risk analyst Melissa Heath said New Zealand was now the second riskiest country in the world and risk-based pricing put some premiums at a more realistic level.

"The problem we're facing is that the ability to repair New Zealand building is almost impossible, economically," she said.

"We have built ourselves buildings in the most terrible places, and to terrible standards and they cannot be repaired easily or economically."

That was why the introduction of risk-based insurance premiums was hitting apartment owners particularly hard.

Apartment owner Chrissy Hill said her building was strengthened to more than 80 percent of the new building standard in 2016-2017.

She said she was aghast to find out natural disaster cover was 57 percent more expensive this year than last year, accounting for 90 percent of the body corp's entire insurance premium.

"We're between a rock and a hard place," she said. "We have to be insured because the Unit Titles Act 2010 says we have to be fully insured, banks won't lend on mortgages unless it's fully insured."

Even big businesses were struggling with the changes, said the city's chamber of commerce chief executive, John Milford.

"[There's] one building that we highlighted today where the insurance premiums have gone up 220 percent, or some $250,000 over the last four years," Mr Milford said.

However, Insurance Council chief executive Tim Grafton said premiums had to go up, because people had not been paying enough for such a high level of risk.

"Vulnerable property here in Wellington is now catching up with what Japan and California face in terms of insurance premiums, and that's a reality because the price does reflect the risk," he said.

If people did not want to pay such high premiums, Mr Grafton said they had to reduce their risks somehow.

"We can duck and dive and prevent everything else we want, but the sustainable insurance cover at an affordable rate depends on a resilient city," he said.

However, common feedback throughout the capital was that when homeowners took steps to make their properties less risky, like Chrissy Hill strengthening her apartment, their premiums still did not change.

The former chief executive of the Earthquake Commission, David Middleton, said the EQC cap should be raised to $400,000 and that would help bring down premiums.

"We're all in this together, that if the nation's capital city were seriously disrupted by an earthquake that would affect everybody in the country," he said.

But a spokesperson from EQC Minister Megan Wood's office said they were unlikely the lift the cap to $400,000.

"The government has recently increased the EQC Cap to $150,000, which is high enough to cover 95 percent of all claims, private insurers cover the claims above that figure," the spokesperson said.

"Following the completion of the inquiry into the Canterbury event, there will be a review of the EQC Act to ensure it is modern, fit for purpose and fit for the future."

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