06 Feb 2013

Bureaucrats more destructive than quakes

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Written by: Brian Rudman
Published: The New Zealand Herald – 06 February 2013

Bureaucrats more destructive than quakes

In the aftermath of the Christchurch calamity, it’s understandable that the commissioners and the Government want to be seen to be doing something.

It’s time for a dose of fatalism and some common sense when it comes to dealing with earthquake-prone buildings across New Zealand in the wake of the Christchurch quakes.

If we follow the recommendations of the royal commission, as translated by a Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) consultation paper, we risk losing more of our built heritage than from anything Mother Nature could throw at us.

The report fingers 15,000 to 25,000 suspect buildings, representing 8-13 per cent of all non-residential and multi-unit, multi-storey residential buildings, and proposes they be strengthened or demolished compulsorily, if a 15-year deadline is not met.

The royal commission went further, itchy to target individual homes as well. As someone whose house is in the prime target group – brick and unreinforced and elderly – it’s a relief to see my little pile seems to be off the bureaucrats’ horizon, for now at least.

In the aftermath of the Christchurch calamity, it’s understandable that the commissioners and the Government want to be seen to be doing something.

But here, in unshaky Auckland, the unintended consequences are already coming to light. Just around the corner from me, the storybook, 130-year-old St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Ponsonby seems doomed. This wooden Historic Places Trust-listed landmark needs in excess of $500,000 of earthquake-strengthening, according to the experts brought in to survey the church’s buildings nationwide. It has a score of less than 29 per cent of the current earthquake standards for new buildings and the Building Act 2004 requires this be brought up to 34 per cent.

The congregation of 30 to 40 members just can’t find that sort of money. Session clerk Ross Prestidge told his local paper, “There’s a lot of anger about the situation.”

Up to 30 Presbyterian churches in Auckland face similar problems. No doubt the same goes for Anglicans, Methodists and Catholics. Most of Auckland’s Victorian and Edwardian heritage – all the shops lining the main traffic arteries of early Auckland – are in the gun as well.

Auckland Council’s submission to MBIE’s consultation paper highlights this, suggesting the 15-year deadline being proposed would be a charter of destruction for any landlord wishing to bowl character buildings. It talks of “the loss of societal cultural heritage that, while incredibly difficult to quantify in financial terms, is a vital aspect of our society …”.

The council warns that if the necessity for a resource consent for demolition of a scheduled/heritage building is removed, all that is left is the “notoriously unreliable” economic argument.

In a masterly exercise in understatement, it warns, “figures can be understated”.

In the past, the finger has been pointed at pre-1976 buildings, but Christchurch highlighted the fact that more recent structures can also be a problem. Of the 185 killed in the earthquake, over half died in the Canterbury Television Building, which opened in 1986.

The MBIE report does point out that “major life-threatening earthquakes are very rare”, and that our risk of dying from one “is around one in a million … much lower than, for example, the risk of dying in road accidents [around one in 10,000]”. Since 1843, 483 people have died in earthquakes – all but 43 in Napier in 1931 or Christchurch in 2011. By contrast 37,000 have died in road accidents.

Those are the nationwide odds. The risk of being hit by a falling building must be even slimmer in Auckland, which is considered to be in the least earthquake-prone part of the country.

If Aucklanders do want to freak themselves out about imminent natural disasters, the obvious threat is death by fire and volcanic brimstone. We might raise an eyebrow at the foolhardiness of Wellingtonians living astride a known fault line, while nonchalantly making our home amidst a field of 50 known volcanoes, which have been erupting for at least 250,000 years – the last time, 600 years ago, when Rangitoto spat and fumed and bubbled its way out of the sea.

Can you imagine the paper on upgrading the nation’s building code the Wellington bureaucrats might prepare after the arrival of Volcano 51. What sort of bunkers would they insist everyone start living in, on the off-chance that a volcano erupts in their vicinity, sending a base surge that blasts hot rock, gas and steam at hundreds of kilometres an hour, devastating everything in a 3km radius.

Auckland Council’s response to the royal commissioners’ recommendations is for everyone to relax and consider the consequences.

It says that “given that the overall risk of life loss from the failure of these buildings is minimal, a sole focus approach based on safety is likely to lead to other safety concerns, undesirable financial costs and loss of cultural fabric that in practical terms can far outweigh the benefits of strengthening/demolition”.

It continues, “Auckland would find itself faced with significant costs associated with seismic upgrading of buildings with little large-scale benefit.”

It needed to be said.


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