Brian Rudman
Brian Rudman is a Herald columnist looking at Auckland and national issues

Brian Rudman: Quake-law tremors hit Auckland

Never mind the Lotto outlets, this nanny state plan could cost city $3b and take 4000 years to save a single life.

Prime Minister John Key was quick this week to mock Labour's promise to remove Lotto sales from supermarket checkouts as "a bit nanny state".

What, then, does he label his Government's proposal to wrap Auckland's old buildings in cotton wool on the off chance an earthquake might cause one to collapse and maim or kill someone?

This week, the Auckland Council joined the critics of the Government's knee-jerk post-Christchurch earthquakes amendment to the Building Act.

This amendment demands that all "earthquake-prone buildings" - individual homes excepted - be brought up to at least 34 per cent of the new building standard, regardless of where in the country they are.

In a submission to the select committee hearing the proposed bill, Auckland Council has included an updated report from the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences (GNS Science) highlighting that Auckland is "about 300km from the nearest zone of high activity and historically has experienced very low seismicity".

It notes that seismicity in New Zealand ranges from moderate to very high on a world scale with Wellington lying in one of the most seismic zones and Auckland in one of the least active.

GNS Science modelled 200,000 years of "synthetic" earthquakes affecting Auckland's 526,000 buildings and 1.4 million people.

The modelling produced about 11,000 earthquakes that could be damaging.

It also revealed that upgrading old buildings to 34 per cent of the new building standard had little beneficial effect.

When it came to high levels of damage and more serious casualty levels, it wasn't until a one in a thousand year event that any difference showed up.

Even in a one in 10,000 year quake, the death rate would rise by only three - from 104 to 107 if no upgrading took place.

This echoes the year-old Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment discussion paper that said even nationwide "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]".

In two recent reports, economist Ian Harrison of Tailrisk Economics questions the definition of "earthquake-prone" in the act.

Harrison calculates that bringing New Zealand's 15,000 to 25,000 alleged earthquake-prone buildings up to the new minimum standard would cost more than $10 billion.

It would also "negatively affect tens of thousands of people and have a potentially devastating impact on heritage buildings".

And for what?

"The benefits will be less than $100 million" and "the policy can be expected to save just seven lives over the next 75 years".

He says "no other country applies across the board national earthquake strengthening standards to existing buildings because generally it does not make sense".

He cites "bizarre results" such as the life safety standard applied to Auckland being about 3000 times stronger than that for Wellington.

Complying with the new law could cost more than $3 billion in Auckland, "but it is expected to take 4000 years to save a single life".

Harrison also points to a cost-benefit analysis of the policy commissioned by the MBIE from Martin Jenkins and Associates.

It calculates the cost of upgrading buildings at $4 billion, but says the direct benefits from such upgrades will be a minuscule $37 million. This includes the saving of just 0.25 of a life each year.

Harrison says that overall, the cost of the forced upgrades will be 50 times greater than their benefits nationwide, while in Auckland, an area of low seismicity, the cost-benefit ratio could be more than 1700 to one.

The closing date for submissions on the bill is next Friday.

The Auckland Council modestly requests a "regional appropriate approach that is economically and socially justifiable" and takes into account "all available scientific knowledge".

To me that sounds very restrained. When nanny state plans to force Auckland building owners to gamble billions of dollars on earthquake-proofing that is unlikely to make any difference, even in the highly unlikely event the big one does strike, I'm surprised the property moguls aren't revolting through Remuera.

- NZ Herald

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