Council set to lose consenting power

DR LLEW RICHARDS: The aim of accreditation "is not to find fault."
DR LLEW RICHARDS: The aim of accreditation "is not to find fault."

The Christchurch City Council has been stripped of its accreditation to issue building consents.

In a huge blow to the organisation International Accreditation New Zealand (Ianz) has followed through on its threat to revoke the council's accreditation.

Christchurch City Council will be stripped of its right to issue consents from Monday.

Prime Minister John Key said today the move was unprecedented.

Key said Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee and Local Government Minister Chris Tremain would travel to Christchurch on Wednesday with options to resolve the issue.

"We do need to resolve this situation," Key said.

"It's critically important the rebuild the process is speeded up.

Key said he visited Christchurch last week and it was clear consenting was a major issue.

"If we can't speed up consenting, we can't speed up the rebuild," he said.

"We cannot afford the rebuild to go off the rails."

Brownlee said in a statement that consenting was "vitally important" to maintaining the pace and confidence of the city's recovery. 

"We want to develop a longer term solution that ensures the Christchurch City Council delivers timely, quality consents, and that they are again IANZ accredited," he said.

"It's important the Christchurch City Council realises how essential accredited consenting capacity is to the rebuild - they need to be part of the solution.

"I welcome the statements from the Christchurch City Council today that they see the relationship with the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and the technical experts who have been supporting the consenting team as constructive, and that they hope to continue working with them."

Brownlee said ministers would meet at the council on Wednesday to propose a solution. 

"We will be putting options on the table and seeking council agreement with a proposed course of action. Until that discussion is held I don't want to speculate about other possible Government actions," Brownlee said.

Council's general manager regulation and democracy services Peter Mitchell said in the last 14 days the council issued 632 consents with a combined value of $160 million.

Of the original backlog of 500 consents, 25 remained and these were expected to be cleared today.

He said the council could still lawfully receive, process and grant building consents and would continue with other aspects of the building consent process, including inspections and processing code compliance certificates.

Mitchell said he was confident the city council would regain its accreditation.

He explained the Ianz letter indicated that while the agency was satisfied progress was being made, it did not yet have confidence the council was operating in full compliance with its standards.

It had raised a number of issues that it had not raised in the May 30 letter which it now wanted more information on.

Mitchell said the council would happily accept any help offered by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) in order to get its accreditation back.

Greens react

Green MP Christchurch spokeswoman Eugenie Sage said it was not clear if the council's accreditation had been removed because of insufficient staff and resources to do the job or because of substantive quality assurance issues with the way building consents were being processed.

"The uncertainty is worrying for the people of Christchurch who are working hard to rebuild their homes and businesses. They need the assurance that building consent processes are both efficient and robust,'' Sage said.

"Slow processing of consents is an issue that absolutely needs to be addressed, but it's better than no processing of consents or too rapid consideration which risks the authorisation of leaky or substandard buildings.  

"This loss of accreditation is not an excuse for heavy handed interference by Government and  further restrictions on the city council's powers," Sage said.

System to blame, not staff

Belgian Beer Cafe Torenhof owner Mark McGuinness, who in May spoke out about the lengthy council consent process, said he did not necessarily blame staff over the delays.

Rather it was the processes that staff had to abide by that were overly complicated within council. Staff within council were ''scared'' to introduce commonsense into the system.

''I think it's unfortunate because I don't think it's the actual people problem, I think it's a system problem. There is obviously personal conflicts within any organisation and we did experience one of those.

''But I think it is the system is what needs fixing.''

In May he warned businesses would fail in the rebuild of Christchurch because of the red tape surrounding council consent requirements.

McGuinness today said there was little flexibility within the council's consenting process, meaning that staff had to be pedantic about buildings exactly matching requirements.

For example he had been required to pay an extra $5,000 to install extra lighting safety requirements, because exits or egress from the building just missed distance targets.

He thought red tape needed to be removed and more flexibility introduced.

'Hugely unprecedented' move

Ianz chief executive Dr Llew Richards said stripping a council of its consenting powers was a "hugely unprecedented" move.

He said the organisation told the Christchurch City Council of its decision about 9am today.  "They have not been able to satisfy us," Richards said.

He was unable to comment specifically on the problems but outlined the process for when issues arose.

''A core responsibility of a BCAs (Building Consent Authorities) is to ensure a sound audit process is in place and to provide Ianz with records of such technical reviews. Without such evidence, Ianz could not continue accreditation,'' Richards said.

''A lot of publicity is given to the statutory deadline for issuing consents. Ianz uses this information as only one of the indicators of adequate resourcing.

"An improvement in the rate of consents issued still requires an assurance they comply with the Code and Act requirements.''

Richards said ultimately Ianz accreditation gave assurance to people that they could rely on their consent being valid and their building as code compliant.

Richards' letter to the council clearly stated:

"Ianz does not have the necessary confidence that the Christchurch City Council BCA has been operating in accordance with accreditation requirements since the September 2012 reassessment, nor that is is currently doing so."

"We are sorry that at this time we are not able to maintain your accreditation, but are hopeful that once you have fully implemented the necessary changes and are able to demonstrate in full their sustainable ongoing effectiveness we will be able to initiate a re-accreditation process."

Richard told The Press it would be up to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) what happened next.

Mayor at a loss

Mayor Bob Parker said he was at a loss to understand why Ianz had decided to revoke the accreditation as the council had met all the conditions the agency had set out in its May 30 letter.

He would be meeting with Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee on Wednesday to discuss the way forward but it appeared there was little the council could do at this stage to stop the revocation of its accreditation going ahead.

In the meantime the council was processing consents as usual.

''There's no need for people who are about to apply or have a consent in the system to worry,'' Parker said. ''We are still issuing consents and our systems are, in our view, fully compliant.''

A spokesman for Brownlee said the council's consenting crisis was scheduled to be discussed by Cabinet today. The Minister would make a comment after that.

City council planning committee chairwoman Cr Sue Wells said staff were gutted by the decision.

A consenting authority had never been stripped off its accreditation before so the council was now in uncharted waters, she said.

"We're going to take a deep breath and sort this out,'' she said.

Last November Ianz identified 17 areas of concern with the council's processes and in May gave it formal notice of its intention to remove its consenting ability.

It said the loss of rights to issue consents was 'unprecedented'.

On June 13, Parker dismissed the seriousness of the Ianz letter, describing it as part of the accreditation process. "Ianz are simply going through their process.

"Essentially [it is] a letter that says don't forget there's a serious day coming up and we won't forget."

'Failure of epic proportions'

Mayoral candidate Lianne Dalziel described the loss as a "failure of epic proportions".

"On one level I'm not surprised they have lost accreditation but I am shocked that it was allowed to get to this stage. I think it's a failure of management and governance," she said.

Dalziel said there was no excuse for the failure as the council had had ample time to fix the issues highlighted by IANZ.

It was a "massive blow" for the council to lose its accreditation to perform a "basic task", she said.

She hoped the council would do everything in its power to get re-accredited, but stressed some serious questions needed to be asked as to how it got to this point.

"Nobody can say that they didn't see this coming," she said.

The Press