Brownlee: Too early to write off Christchurch suburbs

By Adam Bennett, NZPA

The historic brick MLC building in Christchurch was one of those seriously damaged in the earthquake. Photo / Herald on Sunday
The historic brick MLC building in Christchurch was one of those seriously damaged in the earthquake. Photo / Herald on Sunday

It is too early to write off entire Christchurch suburbs which stand on ground destabilised by last Saturday's earthquake, says Gerry Brownlee, the minister in charge of reconstruction.

Mr Brownlee said there are now 100 geotechnology engineers on the ground in Christchurch assessing damage to land and they are expected to file their reports next week.

"Then there can be some decisions about the future of that ground. I think it's far too premature to be talking about the write off of whole suburbs," said Mr Brownlee.

"We do need to understand there are engineering solutions that we want to consider. It's in the best interest of property owners that we do that and that may take a little extra time."

Mr Brownlee said it was prudent to take some time "to make sure we protect property values for those people who are owners of damaged homes".

EQC claims rise

Mr Brownlee said the Earthquake Commission (EQC) had now received more than 53,000 claims - up from 49,000 yesterday. The EQC expects that number will rise to 100,000 eventually.

He also repeated his warning that home owners making claims to the EQC ensured they were dealing with genuine assessors.

There were anecdotal reports of "opportunists out there who might see it as an chance to make a sly dollar".

New law to remove regulatory obstacles

The Government will today pass legislation to remove regulatory obstacles to the swift reconstruction of homes, commercial premises and infrastructure and while it has cross-party support, the Greens have raised concerns about its scope.

Mr Brownlee said it was legitimate to raise those concerns and they would be discussed in the House.

"But in the end, the Government is interested only in doing everything possible to make it as easy as possible for Canterbury to get back on its feet."

IRD waiving interest for quake victims

Meanwhile, Revenue Minister Peter Dunne announced Inland Revenue had been given the power to waive interest on late tax payments for Canterbury earthquake victims.

"Tax affairs may be the last thing on quake victims' minds at a time like this, but at least we can make it one less thing for them to worry about," Mr Dunne said.

Cabinet had agreed yesterday to an "Order in Council" allowing interest charged on late tax payments to be waived during emergencies, Mr Dunne said.

Architectural think tank launched

Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker has announced an architectural think tank to assist rebuilding the city in the aftermath of the recent earthquake.

Mr Parker told a media conference this afternoon that the council had received an offer from the Institute of Architects to provide free expertise and input.

He was accompanied by Ian Athfield, who will convene a panel of eminent architects and building and construction advisers from the Canterbury region.

Mr Parker said the rebuilding process would also require rewriting the city plan. The council wanted to encourage retention of heritage buildings, he said.

Financial impact of tightening standards

But when queried about the financial effect of the council's new requirement to rebuild to higher levels of the Building Code, he said the decision had been made against fears of loss of life.

He acknowledged it might have financial implications on building owners trying to repair damaged buildings.

Another councillor, Sue Wells, indicated that the decision by council to require a higher standard of repair work might be reconsidered. When asked if financial assistance would be granted to building owners, she said there was a possibility of government and council grants if there was a shortfall from insurers.

Mr Parker reiterated that the new $113 million civic building designed to consolidate all council operations had performed as it should.

The council had been forced to requisition the Art Gallery and retain staff in service centres in the days after the earthquake because of ongoing repairs required to fittings on several floors and stairwells.

All power had been lost immediately after the earthquake because the "smart" control systems had automatically shut down the tri-generation electricity and gas system.

"The smart building system was not quite smart enough in my view,"

A large number of staff remain in other offices as repair work continues.

Anderton holding public meeting

Christchurch mayoral candidate Jim Anderton said he would hold a public meeting tonight to discuss rebuilding the "people's city".

The meeting in Woolston, chaired by Dame Anne Hercus, will include three guest speakers.

Heritage conservation expert Dr Ian Lochhead said he would speak about the importance of protecting Christchurch's historic buildings.

"This is not just Christchurch and Canterbury's architectural heritage - it's New Zealand's heritage," he said.

Christchurch had a "very high proportion" of buildings classified as category one with the Historic Places Trust, and the city stood to lose many of those buildings if residents were not "proactive".

"Unless we get on to it they are going to start deteriorating and temporary measures are not going to do the job.

"People have suddenly become aware of how precious architectural heritage is to them because they've suddenly realised how vulnerable it is."

Another speaker, Christchurch architect David Sheppard, said his primary message would be "let's get the rebuilding of the city done properly".

Christchurch was home to more than 300,000 people so it was in the interests of the city to make sure the recovery was carefully managed, he said.

Former Canterbury University professor David Elms, a risk expert, said he would speak about options available for buildings damaged by the quake.

It was important the community didn't rush things and pull down buildings straightaway, he said.

The first priority should be to secure quake-damaged buildings before deciding whether to strengthen or rebuild, he said.

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