Editorial: What price safety?

Last updated 05:00 31/08/2012

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OPINION: The angst was understandable. Southland Times staff out and about in the Southland district yesterday were left in no doubt there are some seriously angry property owners in our rural communities after this newspaper published the full list of 105 buildings that the Southland District Council has identified as being at risk in an earthquake.

Some building owners expressed outrage that the council had identified them publicly, worried that the publicity could impact on businesses operating from their premises and, in at least one case, ruin any chance of a sale with a building that is on the market.

In one instance that angst was justified - the owners of 202 Great North Road, Winton, which houses the Impress clothing store, received a land information memorandum (LIM) notice along with the owners of all the other at-risk buildings identified by the council's engineers and had moved quickly to strengthen the building. The work was completed, the building had been removed from the at-risk list but inadvertently still included in the information provided by the council to this newspaper.

The other identified buildings, though, remain a potential danger and regardless of whether the owners like it or not, the public has a right to know so it can make informed decisions about whether to visit those buildings that are the sites of not only shops but cafes, pubs, shops and churches. About a dozen of the buildings are used by civil defence or the emergency services.

We need to know what and where these buildings are because there is real danger if the south is hit by a serious earthquake. People are going to be killed, most likely by bricks and masonry falling from the unreinforced walls of old buildings that often look attractive but are potential death traps.

The tragic reality of the earthquake that largely destroyed central Christchurch in February last year killing 187 people is that most of those deaths occurred in the streets. The two buildings that did collapse took a heavy toll but more people died out in the open as great chunks of concrete and bricks fell out into the footpaths and roadways. Even now, more than 18 months after the quake, central Christchurch is largely a wasteland of rubble and abandoned high-rise offices and hotels that still have to be demolished.

There is a widespread belief in the south that we are in a safe part of the country, a long way from the main faultlines. That view was widespread in Christchurch, too, before the quakes.

It is not practical to expect that our at-risk buildings be brought up to the building code standard required for new construction, but the 70 per cent target that has been set should be the aim of every safety-conscious property owner.

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That remedial work will be expensive and some buildings will not be worth fixing - the owners cannot be expected to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a structure that would then return a fraction of that in rents - but in those instances the buildings need to be demolished, even if they have heritage status. The risk in leaving them standing is just too great.

Even Invercargill's iconic water tower needs to be looked at with a steely eye. The tower has been closed to the public since February after it was found to be only 20 per cent compliant with current building codes and last week the six staff working in the old control room next to the tower were moved out - none too soon - after that structure was found to be only 15 per cent compliant.

If the tower is fixable at a reasonable cost, great, but if not . . .

- The Southland Times

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