Wellington welcomes earthquake building changes

10 May 2015

Wellington City Council has welcomed proposed changes to the way earthquake-prone buildings are treated by the Government today.

Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown congratulated the Government on taking a proactive approach to the issue. “New Zealand is a seismically challenged country; Government’s first priority must be to protect life. We must also preserve our wonderful built heritage and ensure that New Zealand towns and cities are economically, culturally and socially resilient before an earthquake strikes.  

“We are pleased that the Government has agreed with the Council’s approach to strengthening which is 5 years to assess all buildings and another 15 years to strengthen in high-risk areas like Wellington. Wellington already has the toughest building standards in the country and many buildings in the city – both prominent and less well-known – have been strengthened in recent years.

“We continue to be well on track with the strengthening programme compared to other areas but much more remains to be done,” she said.

“We await with interest the scale of funding commitment that the Government is prepared to contribute to building strengthening - and the Capital is ready to access that for important buildings. 

“The approach of keeping the minimum building strength at 34% of Code makes sense,” said Buildings Portfolio Leader Iona Pannett. “But we continue to encourage owners to take it above this level where it is affordable and where it makes the building more economic.  

“The elephant in the room is the fact that many building owners do not have access to affordable finance that will allow them to carry out even relatively minor strengthening work,” says Cr Pannett.

“It has been clear to us for some time that the cost of strengthening or demolishing all earthquake-prone buildings in the country is unaffordable. New solutions are needed to fund this important work.  

“Wellington City Council has introduced a number of measures, including rates relief and an enhanced heritage fund for owners undertaking strengthening work but this will not be enough on its own.  

“The City Council remains eager to have further discussions with the Government about initiatives that would free up finance. 

“We also hope the Government will examine various initiatives open to it – including tax breaks – that would enable more building owners to get work started.”

Mayor Wade-Brown however warned that a great deal of work remains to be done and that this won’t be the final word on earthquake strengthening given the number of buildings and other structures excluded.  

She said the new policy to exclude farm buildings, retaining walls, fences, monuments, wharves, bridges, tunnels and storage tanks “is an interesting one and will need further analysis. It is not clear why a tunnel for example would be less or a risk than an older unreinforced masonry building.” 

“The intention to put together a public register to assist people to know which buildings are earthquake-prone and to have mandatory notices on earthquake prone buildings may have some public good benefits but also have undesirable policy consequences,” warned Cr Pannett.  

“This information must be reliable and we know from the Wellington experience that the notices can have an adverse impact on owners. Having thousands of buildings with earthquake-prone notices on them potentially may undermine confidence in the country’s building stock.   

“We are disappointed that the Government seems to be rejecting the idea of councils developing their own earthquake-prone building policies as this may be necessary in some cases to establish which buildings need to be strengthened in each locality and possibly to which level in high risk areas.  

“The impact of giving schools, hospitals and other critical buildings in high-and medium risk areas half the time of other buildings will need to be considered fully but is supported by the Council,” said Mayor Wade-Brown.  

“It is important that access to buildings for those with disabilities should not be compromised in the need to strengthen buildings,” said Cr Pannett. “We will await with interest the Government’s thinking on this point.”