Setting good post-disaster rules

Dr Eric Crampton
30 October, 2018

It is hard to make good rules in a hurry. And the period after an earthquake – or any natural disaster – is the worst time for setting new building codes, new city plans, or new rules for urgent building demolition.

Policy before, during and after the Christchurch earthquakes could have been rather better. Better policy would have saved buildings and saved lives. So Parliament’s current debate of rules for future post-disaster building strengthening and demolition orders is welcome; the Building Amendment Bill doing that is before Parliament’s Transport and Infrastructure Committee.  

Christchurch problems
Earthquake strengthening too easily becomes too hard for heritage-listed buildings. The Historic Places Trust, well prior to the earthquakes, had blocked strengthening Trinity Church’s tower fearing the works would have damaged wooden shutters. For want of that strengthening, the tower was severely damaged in the 2011 earthquakes. Better policy would have let the building’s owners strengthen the building to preserve its heritage.

After the September 2010 earthquake, the owner of an older brick building on Colombo Street wanted to tear it down because the façade risked falling onto the street and sidewalk. Council blocked the demolition of the Council-listed building, insisting on a consultation process that would take at least six months. The 22 February earthquake intervened, the building fell on a bus, and 12 people were killed. No one at Council faced either criminal or civil liability for the deaths for which they were morally responsible.

After the February earthquakes, demolition policy was somewhat haphazard, with little consideration of the wishes of the affected owners. For years after the earthquakes, I regularly drove by a pile of rubble on Brougham Avenue from which sprouted a sign advertising the owners’ displeasure with their building having been taken from them by a government wrecking crew. But along High Street, owners who had done the right thing in strengthening their buildings were stymied by cordons protecting people from the risks posed by buildings that had not been strengthened. Business continuity insurance does nothing to help you if access to your building is prevented by an act of government rather than by act of God.

If strengthening your building so your business can continue after an earthquake yields no return because the cordons are indiscriminate, fewer owners will strengthen voluntarily.

The Initiative’s report on post-Christchurch earthquake policy, released earlier this year, noted that many demolished buildings were repairable, and some were either intact or minimally damaged, but were deemed inconsistent with the planners’ revised vision of the CBD.

Fixing the problems
Rules around compulsory post-disaster demolition and strengthening, particularly rules that interacted with rules protecting heritage buildings, clearly need attention. The Building Amendment Bill will help clarify the rules but could go further. My submission on the Bill offered a few suggestions.

The principles for the exercise of powers in the Bill place paramount importance on saving lives. It is a laudable goal, but risks being undermined by other provisions in the legislation for some buildings, and risks going too far for others.

After the Christchurch earthquakes, and even after the Kaikoura earthquakes in Wellington, owners were often barred access to their buildings because the structures were determined unsafe. But shouldn’t a building owner at least have right of access at his or her own risk? One result of cordons blocking access is that owners desperate to rescue critical business materials from the site will do so in riskier ways than if they were allowed to enter their own buildings. And what about business tenants desperate to retrieve critical records and equipment for business continuity reasons? Stories of sneaky missions into cordoned buildings to rescue computer servers were not uncommon. But sneaky missions are riskier missions.

The usual excuse for barring access is that, come the worst, public resources might need to be devoted to a rescue mission. But what if the occupier was prepared to pay that cost? At least one Christchurch business owner was barred access to his building even though he had his own search and rescue team on standby.

The legislation’s paramount focus on saving lives could see the repetition of this inability to balance benefits and costs, with too little weight being placed on the owner’s own wishes, on the costs of loss of business continuity, and on the ways that enforcing rules could increase risks. It is also worth remembering that policy and regulation work to protect lives in all kinds of policy areas, from road safety to medicine funding, and that we all fare better when government looks for ‘best-buys’ in safety rather than prioritising any particular area.

While the Bill makes no provision for notifying building owners of impending demolition or emergency strengthening works in urgent cases, it would require the government to consult with Heritage New Zealand in some cases. All costs of demolition or repair are then charged to the hapless building owner. Nothing in the legislation specifies how much power Heritage New Zealand has in this process. It is not hard to imagine cases where the owner is not notified, Heritage New Zealand requests expensive processes for urgent strengthening, and the owner is left to foot the bill. What is Heritage New Zealand’s incentive to avoid excessive costs?

And nothing in the legislation says whether or for how long the Government needs to wait for a reply from Heritage New Zealand, even in urgent cases. If an earthquake struck late on a Friday afternoon after relevant officials went home, for how long would truly urgent demolitions need to wait? A repeat of the tragedy on Colombo Street could occur.

Improving the framework for post-disaster recovery can provide benefits even as the Alpine Fault continues its nap. New Zealand has many historic churches with dwindling congregations. Insurance on those churches has become unbearably expensive because repairing to a heritage standard, come the disaster, would be exceptionally expensive. Allowing more flexibility in post-disaster strengthening and rebuilding could help reduce some of those costs.

It is great the Government is trying to improve disaster preparedness. The Select Committee has the time to get things right. We may yet have the need to thank them for it.

Dr Eric Crampton is Chief Economist with The New Zealand Initiative. From 2003 through 2014, he served as Lecturer and Senior Lecturer with the Department of Economics at the University of Canterbury; he was based in Christchurch during the earthquakes and their aftermath. He is co-author of two Initiative reports on earthquake policy: “Deadly Heritage,” released jointly with Deloitte, and “Recipe for Disaster: Building Policy on Shaky Ground,” co-authored with the Initiative’s Dr Bryce Wilkinson.

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