Paying big price for small risks

By John Tripe

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Civically speaking, we're in an awkward spot. The council had bylaws even before Christchurch, and nationally speaking - after leaky buildings and the like - we were already engaged in general revision of regulations and standards; not only for new buildings, but also a review of every public or commercial building.

There's an emotional assumption that anyone who goes into an old building is in danger of death or injury in "the" earthquake. But the earthquake is unlikely, and it's unlikely to happen here; and the true risk factor is unlikely squared. Even in Christchurch so many lives were lost in modern buildings.

Nevertheless, buildings all over the town are assessed as critically dangerous, to the extent that the council and other owners are shutting and may even consider knocking them down - if they can! It's strange that the assessment seems to take no account of actual construction, but only the age and use of the building and condition of the site. It's a statistical thing.

It's an emotional bind to the extent that any organisation which sees itself as concerned about public welfare is constrained to warn and even evict its tenants. There's an inevitable fear among building owners and controllers, that in the event, they'll be seen as responsible and - as regulations are shaping - it may be so.

It's really a choice between national disaster and sensible government. The disaster is not the earthquake, but the irrational response to a miniscule risk. Instead we need a change of attitude - by legislation if you like - to effect that we work together to recognise and mitigate risks.

We don't need and we don't want - nor can we afford - to tear down the Sarjeant Gallery, and every other old building in town, just because it's old. And no engineer would be so bold - even if we asked them, which we can't possibly do - to certify that it's safe. It's all in the confusion about public and private risk. It's a product of OSH and ACC, and a way of thinking that if something goes wrong, someone must pay for it - and disaster is measured by some specious assessment of the cost to repair it.

Meanwhile we engage in extreme sport , even as we expect OSH to keep it safe, and ACC to pay for our injuries. Are we serious about risk? Our lives are full of chance and uncertainty and risk. Some risks we don't think about. Others we measure and mitigate as we go - and may choose to avoid entirely. There may be a distinction between public and private risk, but we all pay for all of it. And when the risk is small, we may choose to ignore it.

John Tripe is principal with the Wanganui legal firm of Jack Riddet Tripe.

- WANGANUI CHRONICLE

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