Firm stance needed to resist panic merchants

By Ross Pringle


Take the heritage buildings out of Wanganui and what are you left with?

Sure there is still plenty here: Businesses, shops, manufacturing, schools and community groups but it would be a place with no soul.

Time and again visitors and residents note the aesthetic that our older buildings bring to this place, especially in the central precinct where it is enhanced through hanging baskets, cobbled footpaths and the like.

Quite simply it is hard to imagine Wanganui being the place it is without these so obvious links to the past. Perhaps they are reminders of the halcyon days, when times weren't so tough, a throwback to a time before the seemingly endless centralisation of jobs out of the provinces.

Whatever your views, they are as integral to the view of Wanganui as the mighty Whanganui River. And now, more than ever they are at risk. Surprisingly the risk isn't entirely down to earthquake risk. No, the real problem lies with our response to it and an announcement from Building and Construction Minister Maurice Williamson has me worried for our grand edifices.

He has called for consultation on a response to dealing with earthquake prone buildings. As it stands we don't even know how many Wanganui structures fall into the category of being earthquake prone but there is a need to be wary of the implications of this latest development.

A summary outlines proposals including that all non-residential and multi-unit, multi-storey residential buildings be seismically assessed within five years and information on a building's seismic status to be made publicly available.

It is also proposed that all earthquake-prone buildings be strengthened, or demolished, within 15 years of the changes taking effect, and this is the part that worries me, and should concern others.

As tragic as the Christchurch earthquakes were, we must not allow this extreme event to lead us down a course of action we later regret.

This is evidenced by the situation faced by the Sarjeant Gallery, which is seriously underdone in its ability to withstand an earthquake. Casting aside any debate over the need for an extension, the reality is that visitor numbers have fallen by close to 50 per cent from July to October over the same period last year.

One suspects that one of the main drivers for that is paranoia over its ability to withstand an earthquake, as has already been stated.

The real risk is in the line that says buildings need to be either strengthened or demolished. It may be at the extreme end but considering the relative wealth of this area it is unlikely the first will be a viable option for most. The second must surely be unpalatable for all.

But all is not yet lost and on this issue I wholeheartedly agree with councillor Michael Laws, who argues that we need to be active in this consultation period.

As the former mayor points out in his call for a policy of restraint, there is a great danger that Wanganui ceases to exist as an historic city.

"The truth is that we are an historic city and it is vital that we retain this point of difference."

I second his call to resist the "panic merchants" in policy who would have us overreact to an extreme event.

Anyone who wonders why need only cast their mind back to a tad over a decade ago and the so-called Millennium Bug. Millions were poured into that potential doomsday event which turned out to be a major fizzer.

In the case of the earthquake scenario, any buildings knocked down are gone forever and that would be tragic.

We can never predict when or where an even on the scale of Christchurch might happen again. What we can do is retain a sense of perspective about the relative risk and balance that against what we stand to lose.

Please, make sure you have your say.

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- WANGANUI CHRONICLE

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