By ANDREW LAXON
The Prime Minister has dismissed the leaky buildings crisis as a Herald "beat-up" because only about 1000 calls - rather than tens of thousands - have so far been logged with the Government's helpline.
Helen Clark also said yesterday that she saw no reason her heavily criticised Internal Affairs Minister, George Hawkins, should have responded earlier to the Herald's extensive coverage of the problem.
She told Newstalk ZB host Paul Holmes that she had not taken much notice of the newspaper's numerous stories, because the Herald was well known for "banging on" about issues of no substance.
Her comments surprised Prendos director Phil O'Sullivan, who has campaigned for four years to stop the problem. He said he was surprised the Prime Minister was so badly informed.
"They need to take it seriously and not dismiss it. We've had the BIA [Building Industry Authority] dismiss it and the minister dismiss it and they've all been caught out. We've got no doubt [about the size of the problem]. We just go to site after site after site."
So far, the confirmed number of rotting homes is at least 2500 - the combined total of work under way at the two largest leak investigation firms, Prendos and Alexander & Co.
Most estimates put the total in tens of thousands, rather than thousands. A survey two years ago by Unitec and Prendos found that half the houses built since 1990 had detectable leaks.
Helen Clark's views are also at odds with those of former State Services Commissioner Don Hunn, former Victoria University architecture dean David Kernohan and engineer Ian Bond in their report for the BIA in August.
The inquiry team wrote: "Although the full extent of the problem is not yet known, the overview group is convinced of the significance of the problem and that urgent action is required. There is clear evidence of a growing number of new housing constructions showing signs of water damage.
"The numbers uncovered [literally] are likely to increase, probably significantly."
Last month top arbitrator Tomas Kennedy-Grant - head of a team set up by the Government to establish a mediation service for homeowners - told a legal conference: "The ramifications of this problem are immense."
Helen Clark defended Mr Hawkins' failure to respond to two warning letters from the industry last year.
"I think it's ridiculous for people to even suggest that getting a couple of letters is sufficient advice to a minister," she said.
Mr Hawkins had sent the letters to the BIA, which supplied him with a "fob-off" answer to sign.
"It wasn't until April that the minister was given any idea by the BIA of the seriousness of the situation. Having said that, the seriousness of the situation appears to be a fraction of what the beat-up in the New Zealand Herald implies.
"Last time I looked, which was about a week ago, about 1000 calls had come into the hotline established by the Government - a fraction of what the Herald suggested might have been the case."
She later added: "What we know about the Herald is it does bang on about things, often of no substance, and I can't say myself, as a regular reader of the Herald, that I gave the banging on about that particular issue a great deal of notice - as I don't pay a lot of things that are reported in the Herald a great deal of notice."
She agreed with Holmes' comment that she was fortunate to live in a 100-year-old villa. "I think there's something to be said for the trade standards of those days."
Asked how Mr Hawkins could have not known about the leaky buildings inquiry - especially when the BIA had announced a month earlier that it was being run by Mr Hunn - she said the authority had not told Mr Hawkins what he was doing.
She said the BIA had appeared in recent days to be conceding that it did not fulfil the proper function of keeping the minister informed.
The Government would study a letter of explanation sent by BIA chairman Barry Brown to Mr Hawkins last week before deciding whether "they stay to fix the mess or whether they go".
* If you have information about leaking buildings,
email the Herald or fax (09) 373-6421.
Herald feature: Leaky buildings
By ANDREW LAXON