Editorial: Come clean on the P houses

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Forensic consultant Todd Sheppard at a home he stopped from being auctioned because it is contaminated from being a P Lab, near Whatawhata, Waikato region. Photo / Stephen Barker
Forensic consultant Todd Sheppard at a home he stopped from being auctioned because it is contaminated from being a P Lab, near Whatawhata, Waikato region. Photo / Stephen Barker

Councils everywhere should be taking note of the P-risk in house sales that we highlighted last Sunday. The auction of a three-bedroom home in the Waikato would have gone ahead had a forensic consultant not spoken up.

The house had previously been seized by police when its owner was convicted on drugs changes. Chemicals and equipment were removed from its garage but a police report said it was unlikely a prohibited substance had been manufactured in the garage or the house.

On that basis, the council had not placed non-habitation or cleaning orders on it before it was put on sale. The seller was a solicitor acting for the Crown.

Fortunately, a prospective buyer who inspected it on an open day engaged forensic consultant Todd Sheppard to do some tests. Sheppard found traces of P in the garage and the bathroom sink. But other possible buyers might never have known if Sheppard had not gone to the November 28 auction and announced to the room what he had found.

Nobody can be in any doubt of the danger he was talking about. The protective clothing police wear when they remove a P lab speaks for itself.

The Waikato incident is a warning for all home-seekers and for vendors, their agents, councils and the police. More than 100 houses nationwide have been seized during the years that P-use has been rampant in New Zealand. All of them should have their contamination recorded for all time.

The police have taken the appropriate lesson from the Waikato case. Seized properties will be checked more rigorously, they say. The council, too, says it has improved its procedures for dealing with confiscated properties. Waikato District Council's environmental health manager explains that the Whatawhata Rd property had been given a lower police grading than those the council had been using to issue cleansing orders. He now knows the police never intended their gradings to be used for that purpose. This does not inspire confidence in the council's attention to public safety.

A police spokesman is also surprised the property's illicit use was not mentioned in its LIM report. He is not alone. It ought to be standard procedure, no matter how much the record would diminish the property's appeal. Prospective owners have a right to know that it was once contaminated. And though it may have been thoroughly cleaned, future owners may need to be wary when they come to do renovations.

The case is also a caution for owners of rental property - tenants who use it for criminal activity can devalue the property beyond the best clean-up. A permanent record might be hard on landlords who were unaware of what their tenants were "cooking" but safety comes first.

Landlords will simply have to pay closer attention to what their tenants are doing and should not hesitate to call in the police even at the risk the property might be seized. Not that seizure is automatic; one owner of a rural Waikato rental tells us today she had difficulty evicting her tenant even after his friend was charged with making P there.

She had to remortgage her own house to afford the $40,000 cost of a specialist's decontamination and expects to pay yet more before the place is habitable. Police, too, must ensure every seized property is thoroughly stripped and cleaned before it is put back on the market. And it all should be fully documented for public inspection.

Good police work may have broken the back of the P epidemic a few years ago but the residue is clearly harder to eradicate. At the very least councils should keep a register of once contaminated houses so that all buyers are beware.

- Herald on Sunday

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