Chch consent fiasco could predate earthquakes

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 08:42 08/07/2013

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Prime Minister John Key has defended Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee over the Christchurch consents debacle after suggestions he should have been asking questions sooner.

Labour MP Clayton Cosgrove said Brownlee, who was given sweeping powers after the Canterbury earthquakes, either failed to ask the right questions or ignored warnings of the looming crisis.

But Key this morning rejected that.

"I don't think so," he said. "On the advice I've had the assurances we always got from Christchurch was things were under control.

"I think it was the Government that actually started getting more worried and the Ianz [International Accreditation New Zealand] ultimately pulled the pin."

Key also attempted to hose down the scale of the problem after Building and Construction Minister Maurice Williamson yesterday acknowledged the Government had no idea how many building consents issued by Christchurch City Council might be illegal.

"Everyone probably needs to take a step back and get a better handle on exactly what the issues are before we unduly upset or concern Cantabrians," Key told NewstalkZB.

"The early advice I got was that this was a matter of the speed of consents, not the quality of consents. That seemed to be slightly contradicted by some claims Ianz made on Campbell Live and a couple of other places though Ianz are now backing away from that.

"So I can't honestly tell you. We're scurrying round to try and get that advice but in the end we'll get that and we'll work out way through it."

The prime minister said he did not get the sense from his briefings that the council consents process had been "slap-dash", however.

"If there was slap-dash behaviour going on then you'd imagine that's because they've been rushing things through and that's not what's been happening," he said.

"In the end . . . I don't want to overly speculate because I don't know.

"I'd just be a bit cautious before people jump to massive amount of conclusions."

Cabinet is expected to sign off the appointment of a Crown manager for Christchurch City Council today after a roller-coaster week which saw its chief executive Tony Marryatt placed on indefinite leave and an emotional Mayor Bob Parker announce his withdrawal from the mayoral race admitting he was exhausted dealing with the post-earthquake fallout.

Ianz revoked the council's accreditation and the council was unable to issue building consents. Ianz said some consents issued by the council might be illegal.

Williamson yesterday said the council could not tell the Government how many might be in breach.

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"That's one of the first questions about why was their system so bad," told TVNZ's Q+A.

"They can't even tell us that. So we've had to bring in some of my ministry officials and some external technical experts and now they are trying to evaluate what's the size of the problem, how many consents are there."

There was not even a "ball park" figure available, Williamson said.

"We don't have a ballpark because we don't know how far back it goes, you see? So they've got to go back quite a distance. It might be that we go right back to the earthquakes. We might even have to go back [further]."

He said it would be foolish for him to put a number on it "but we're talking a big number".

Williamson blamed a "culture of denial" at Christchurch City Council for the crisis and said the problems with its consenting pre-dated the Canterbury earthquakes.

"Ianz went in on many occasions right back to when this accreditation stuff first started back in 2007," he said.

"They found it really difficult to get the Christchurch City Council across the line. Other councils were reasonably well and done and dusted and through.

"And along the way - so pre-dating the earthquakes - Christchurch City Council had issues about getting its accreditation to be a consenting authority." 

- © Fairfax NZ News

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