Fran O'Sullivan: Gang of Twenty needs a shake

It happened in Christchurch and it could happen in Auckland. Photo / Geoff Sloan
It happened in Christchurch and it could happen in Auckland. Photo / Geoff Sloan

It is election day and I'm forbidden - by the law and my editor - to have one final rark-up of the politicians who have taken up a good deal of our attention during the past four weeks.

But thankfully the cordon of silence does not extend to skewering the local pollies at the Auckland Council.

This Gang of 20 has bizarrely decided that we shouldn't be allowed to know the exact whereabouts of the 4300 earthquake-prone buildings around the greater city that could possibly topple and kill people during a moderate shake.

Mayor Len Brown and his councillors are selling the line that even publishing the list could generate unreasonable panic or blacklisting of properties. They want to make sure that their engineers' reports are sound and property owners have a chance to challenge them before final assessments are placed on property files. That is fair enough.

But once the assessments are made, the public can only peruse them if they stump up $155 to $315.

Neither Len nor the council will commit to publishing the full list once the consultation process is finalised.

It's a pity the lot of them weren't down in Christchurch on February 22 when what was a relatively moderate quake (6.3 on the Richter scale but ramped up by strong G-forces) laid waste to many of the non-reinforced masonry buildings that comprised the city's heritage past and relatively modern ones such as the CTV building where 115 people died.

And that the councillors had seen with their eyes - as I did - the look of horror on the faces of Cantabrians as they fled the CBD after a devastating earthquake that very few people predicted. I was lucky enough to be in a sound modern building when the earthquake struck.

But it was not till this Wednesday - when I put a hard hat on and toured the red zone with a plucky Wellingtonian who had gone down to work with Cera - that I understood just how widespread the devastation is. But also how buildings that were built well with appropriate reinforcement did stand up well amid the devastation in the CBD.

The fact is that the skinny islands that comprise New Zealand are on very active earth. One-in-a-thousand-year earthquakes can and do happen. And so, too, do tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.

There is no need to get alarmist. But it is fair to say that New Zealand authorities - including the local authorities which police the building codes - have been pretty lax when it comes to ensuring this country does have building standards which match the prevailing seismic risks.

This is a learning process.

In Wellington, where the Wellington City Council presides over a city which is bisected by an active faultline - a list of earthquake-prone buildings has been published.

After the February 22 earthquake devastated Christchurch's CBD, the Dominion Post also published a detailed series, complete with photographs, of some of the more well-known bars and restaurants, shops and commercial buildings which fall into the earthquake prone category.

There has been no mass panic. Even though Wellington is demonstrably more of an earthquake risk than Auckland, Wellingtonians still shop in Cuba Mall. They still drink and eat in bars and restaurants in the quaint old non-reinforced masonry buildings in Courtney Place.

They still go to work in the glass tower blocks that line the Terrace and Lambton Quay which - according to civil defence reports - could result in glass up to a metre deep at street level after a big shake.

Building owners have been given substantial time to reinforce sub-standard buildings.

But Wellingtonians at least know which buildings are at risk. They can decide whether to live, work, or play in any of the obvious death traps. And pressure owners to lift standards faster.

Why - when the earthquake risk is much less in Auckland - would its citizens go into a tailspin if a similar list is released? People are just as likely to shrug off the risk meantime while the long process of reinforcing buildings gets underway.

But Brown - and his 20 strong council - also need to think of the national interest.

By blithely discounting the rights of all citizens - not just building owners - to know which buildings would be seriously weakened by a moderate shake, the council is sending the wrong message to the international insurance community.

As the council's civil defence and emergency management hazards manager Marion Irwin told the royal commission which is investigating the Canterbury quakes, the offshore reinsurers are "seeing Auckland as the big risk because of the effects if it did happen there".

Premiums are already climbing in Auckland. There will be more investigations into the city's underlying seismicity.

Wake up, Len - the responsible position is to ensure all citizens are aware of the relative risks.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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