Owners of heritage buildings that need costly earthquake strengthening can apply for a share of a new Government fund.

Strengthening requirements introduced after the Canterbury earthquakes have left many private owners and organisations facing multimillion-dollar bills.

Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Maggie Barry today announced the Heritage Earthquake Upgrade Incentive Programme fund of $12 million over four years.

The contestable fund will be available for privately owned category 1 Heritage New Zealand-listed buildings across the country and for category 2 buildings in areas of high to medium seismic risk.

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High seismic areas include Gisborne, Manawatu, Napier, Palmerston North, Queenstown, Southland, Wellington and Christchurch.

Medium risk areas include Hamilton, Whanganui, Thames, New Plymouth and Invercargill.

"We will be setting up an expert advisory panel to assess applications, which will open in the new year," Barry said.

"Heritage buildings are an important part of the character of towns like Feilding, but the cost of strengthening can be prohibitive and unsustainable for their owners.

"We don't want to see valued buildings empty and deteriorating, or even demolished."

The Building (Earthquake-prone Buildings) Amendment Bill passed in May and outlined strengthening requirements for the country's 15,000 to 25,000 earthquake-prone buildings.

It divided New Zealand into zones according to the risk of a big earthquake, and the time frames for assessment and strengthening varied accordingly.

Affected buildings in low-risk areas such as Auckland, Northland and Dunedin will now need to be identified and assessed within 15 years and strengthened within a further 35 years. Heritage buildings can still get a 10-year extension - meaning some buildings may not need strengthening for 60 years.

The time frame will be 10 years and 25 years for buildings in medium-risk areas.

High-risk zones such as Wellington and Christchurch will keep the existing time frame of strengthening within 20 years.