People have until the end of the week to tell Building Minister Maurice Williamson what they think of a plan drawn up in response to the Christchurch earthquake that would bring all commercial buildings up to a specified strength. As readers of our series on the subject this week know, the proposal has alarmed many property owners and local bodies who fear the plan would destroy much of the country's built heritage.
Unlike many proposals put out for public "consultation", the Government seems not committed to this one. It feels obliged to do something in the aftermath of a natural disaster but might not go as far as both a royal commission of inquiry and an officials' review of the building regulations have urged. The officials' plan would require all councils to identify "earthquake prone" buildings within five years and give the owners a further 10 years to strengthen or demolish them.
If the plan was also to apply to private houses, owners of older homes would be protesting loudly about it. Since they would face the cost of practically rebuilding their houses they would be pointing out that the risk of an earthquake in their lifetime is so low that they are being put to unreasonable expense.
But cost does not come into most people's consideration when they are consulted on regulations for non-residential property. Since the cost will fall on commercial leases or general rates and taxation, it is easier to say something must be done. The Property Council clearly has surrendered to this sentiment and decided the best it can do for commercial building owners is to suggest the plan should include tax concessions for earthquake strengthening, which would transfer the cost to the public purse.
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Needless expense may be painless to individual taxpayers but it is bad for the economy and adds to the fiscal deficit. If needless economic damage is to be averted, the earthquake threat has to be kept in proportion.
Christchurch was hit by seismic waves that no building is designed to withstand. That is why so many that remained standing have had to be demolished since. The February 2011 quake was right under the city, close to the surface and generated the most violent ground forces ever felt in New Zealand.
It was the equivalent of a seismic event likely to occur once in 2500 years. Modern buildings have been designed to withstand a one-in-500 year event and nobody is suggesting that standard, set in 1976, needs to be increased now. Buildings erected before 1976 are supposed to be strengthened to one-third of the standard and nobody is suggesting a higher one for them either. But many councils have not enforced the standard until the owner has applied for consent to renovate the building.
Councils' discretion would be lost under the Government's proposal. Once they had identified all substandard buildings in their district, owners would have 10 years to act. The identification exercise is a good idea; too many councils, notably Auckland's, have not published a list of earthquake-prone buildings. They should be required to.
They should also be required to post a notice at their entrance telling tenants, staff and customers the building would not be safe in an earthquake. If the business suffered, owners would act, if nobody was much concerned the work could wait until the building needed renovations. Common sense would decide.