Mayor wants deadline on strengthening work reduced
Wellington Mayor Justin Lester will push to take advantage of new rules allowing councils to slash the timeframe for strengthening quake-prone buildings, saying he wants changes "sooner rather than later".
From July 2017, legislation passed earlier this year will give councils the discretion to halve the timeframe for either strengthening or demolishing quake-prone buildings.
Lester said he would make changes where applicable, but it was too early to say which buildings would be targeted.
However, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) said Cuba St, where 42 buildings are listed as quake-prone, was likely to be a priority.
"We want to see strengthening under way sooner rather than later," Lester said.
"I am open to having a discussions with the Government. I want a safe city."
This year's Building Amendment Act requires quake-prone buildings to be strengthened or demolished over a period of 15 to 35 years, depending on the type of building and the seismic risk of their location.
In Wellington, most buildings must be remediated within 15 years.
Under the changes, unreinforced buildings with facades and verandas that go into public space used by pedestrians and vehicles – such as many of those in Cuba St – will be required to be assessed and fixed in half the normal time.
Building and Housing Minister Nick Smith said councils would control the process of identifying the access ways that should be given priority.
Categories of priority buildings include hospital, emergency and education buildings, as well as those that are determined with community input – such as those with unreinforced masonry.
Lester said many building owners were being proactive but he would still be writing to landlords to remind them of risks and encourage them to strengthen their buildings sooner.
An MBIE spokesman said that, once the act came into force next July, streets such as Cuba St might be put into the priority category.
Cuba Mall has survived earthquakes and aftershocks well so far, but this could all change if a quake hit closer to home, according to New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering president Peter Smith.
Strengthening work depended on a workforce of about 200 to 300 engineers, and resources were extremely stretched. "At the moment we are struggling to get new projects progressed," he said.
Property Council chief executive Connal Townsend said Cuba St revealed a rift between the Government's stance of focusing purely on security of life inside buildings and the public's desire to save heritage.
Bringing a building up to code was generally affordable, but to safeguard historic features equated to "open heart surgery", which few owners could afford.
The Property Council had repeatedly petitioned the Government to offer tax breaks to enable owners to more easily afford strengthening work, he said.
Ian Cassels, director of the Wellington Company, which has strengthened several Cuba St buildings, said it could cost between $300,000 and $1 million.
"Some people can't afford to do it, and some people just won't do it. Some owners just will not behave as responsible citizens."
Councillor Iona Pannett, who chairs the city strategy committee, said she supported grants in historic or busy areas, and pointed out the council's recent decision to increase the grants pool from $400,000 a year to $3m over three years.
She said rates relief was available, whereby owners paid rates based only on pre-strengthened capital value for a number of years to encourage work.
"It's three years for every building, five years for heritage, eight years for category two, and 10 years if it's a category one building which is a building of outstanding significance."
Revenue Minister Michael Woodhouse's office said on Tuesday: "The Government is not currently considering changing any tax rules or introducing incentives to encourage owners of earthquake-prone buildings to do work on them.
"However, the risk of not doing the work should be enough of an incentive, particularly after the devastation we have seen following last week's earthquakes."