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Disabled safety fears in quake-proofing

NEIL REID
Last updated 05:00 27/01/2013

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Advocates for disabled New Zealanders have reacted with outrage to a recommendation that building owners facing costly bills to earthquake-proof their property can bypass access regulations.

Following a series of recommendations from the Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) has published a consultation document - "Building Seismic Performance" - seeking comment on improvements to earthquake-prone buildings in New Zealand.

It is estimated that between 15,000 and 25,000 buildings in New Zealand need to be upgraded to meet new safety standards.

MBIE's 51-page paper said required changes "may cause significant hardship for many building owners".

To meet Building Act requirements, additional costs would also include fire escapes and access for people with disabilities. An estimated 660,000 people - 20 per cent of New Zealand's population - have physical or mental disabilities. Fifty per cent of Kiwis aged over 65 have a physical disability. But a recommendation from the royal commission - which MBIE is seeking consultation on - is that local bodies could issue consent for strengthening work without triggering the Building Act requirements.

Green Party disability issues spokeswoman Mojo Mathers - who provided the Sunday Star-Times with the consultation document - last night labelled the proposal as a "backward move" for disabled people.

"It is unacceptable to trade off safety in one area, in this case fire escape routes, with safety in another [earthquake strengthening]." Mathers said the recommendation provided building owners with a "huge loophole" to forgo access rights and justify them on financial grounds.

The proposal has also been condemned by Disabled Persons Assembly chief executive Rachel Noble, saying she was concerned that it would diminish accessibility rights for New Zealanders with disabilities. If it was ratified, the recommendation would be a clear breach of the United Nations' 2008 Rights of People with Disabilities convention.

Building and Construction Minister Maurice Williamson wrote in the paper's foreword: "We must ensure the earthquake-prone building system strikes an acceptable balance between protecting people from serious harm and managing the huge economic costs of strengthening or removing the more vulnerable buildings."

In a statement to the Star-Times, MBIE said it was reluctant to comment on the document while the consultation is under way as it wanted the consultation to be open and not influence submissions.

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- Sunday Star Times

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