Nick Smith: Pool fencing law boosts safety as well as practicality

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Photo / Kevin Mcintyre
Photo / Kevin Mcintyre

The Government is revising the 1987 Swimming Pools Act to make it more effective in saving children from drowning and more practical for pool owners and councils. These changes have triggered some quite erroneous claims and it is important to put the facts straight.

The lives of many young children have been saved as a result of the 1987 Act, with deaths falling by 70 per decade. However, the law has deficiencies in not covering some areas important to child safety and in including others that are impractical.

The new law will require all councils to inspect pools every three years - a key improvement from the current regime where inspections are not mandatory. This addresses the greatest deficiency in the current regime; pools which were once fenced correctly but now have a gate or fence that's no longer childproof.

This step alone is expected to prevent a further six children drowning each decade. These will be supported by a new graduated enforcement regime, giving councils a more effective range of tools to encourage compliance.

Retailers will also have to provide people buying spas and portable pools with information about pool laws so they know how to use them safely and legally. This will address the problem whereby some consumers buy large portable pools without knowing they should only be used if they are fenced - another key new safety measure in the bill.

The bill removes the current legal requirement for spa pools to be fenced if they have child-resistant safety covers. There are around 100,000 unfenced spa pools in New Zealand and enforcement of the current law would cost an estimated $300 million. We should not retain laws that are not enforced and are not practical. No policy completely removes risk but spa pools pose less risk of drowning than baths, with just one toddler drowning in a spa in the 10 years to 2014.

In a similar vein, we're exempting garden ponds and other water features from pool safety laws. Few councils actually enforce the current requirement and the risk of drowning in them is estimated to be lower than for swimming pools. We don't fence lakes, rivers and the sea and we have to draw a sensible line here. A hotel in my electorate sits next to the sea, yet has a large pond on its grounds. It is not sensible that the law requires it to be fenced.

We also need to make the law practical around natural barriers such as cliffs. It is a nonsense that the current law requires a fence to be built along the top of a 20m cliff no child could reasonably ascend.

The complaint that the new law is to be part of the Building Act rather than its own separate act is a bit pedantic. It makes no difference to the legal status and is consistent with how we deal with other risks such as earthquake-prone structures. Including the fencing requirements for swimming pools in the Building Act makes sense for ensuring requirements are met when getting a building consent for a pool and also supports better enforcement.

People have always been attracted to water for recreation. Families having swimming pools is good for learning water skills in a country surrounded by sea and richly blessed with hundreds of rivers and lakes. These revised pool fencing laws strike the right balance between making them as safe as possible but also ensuring they are practical and workable.

- NZ Herald

Hon Dr Nick Smith is Minister of Building and Housing.

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