Civil Defence gave nod to demolition

BEN HEATHER
Last updated 05:00 15/04/2011
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PRESS GRAPHIC
Before and After: Sydenham Heritage Church

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Christchurch Earthquake 2011

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Civil Defence approved the demolition of a Christchurch heritage church despite publicly claiming no authorisation had been given.

Southern Demolition was vilified after it pulled down the quake-damaged stone church on the corner of Colombo St and Brougham St in Sydenham on February 24.

At the time, Civil Defence and the Christchurch City Council insisted they never gave permission for the demolition. Mayor Bob Parker declared an inquiry would be launched, possibly resulting in prosecution.

However, documents obtained by The Press show Civil Defence urgently requested that Southern Demolition take down the church.

On February 24, council senior contracts manager and Civil Defence official Owen Southen wrote two memos, stating that police and engineers had inspected the church and sought its "immediate demolition".

He then requested the "necessary paperwork" be sent to Southern Demolition.

Later that day, another Civil Defence official, Stuart Graham, sent a message through the Southern Demolition website, confirming the church should be demolished.

The Press also understands Southern Demolition has since been paid by Civil Defence for the church demolition and has demolished about 20 other buildings on its behalf.

Yesterday, Southern Demolition director Alan Edge did not want to criticise Civil Defence.

However, Edge said he and his staff had been repeatedly verbally abused by members of the public since the incident.

"We getting abusive calls ... people saying, `We know where your office is, we're going to smash your windows'."

Edge said there had been no discussion over the controversy with Civil Defence or admission of fault.

"It's just been hanging in the background and we just carry on as usual."

Civil Defence planning and transition director Baden Ewart conceded Southern Demolition had authority from the emergency operations centre (EOC), but the demolition was not signed off by the national controller.

EOC officials believed the "appropriate process" had been followed, after talking to police and an engineer, he said.

He did not comment on why Civil Defence had previously claimed no authorisation had been provided.

The Sydenham Heritage Trust owned the demolished church. Deputy chairman Neil Roberts said he had been unable to find out who authorised the demolition.

"We always knew Southern Demolition didn't do it of their own volition because they wouldn't have got paid," he said.

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The trust learnt of the demolition only when a security company rang to say the church's alarm had gone off.

"It [the demolition] was a knee-jerk reaction."

The trust was still considering taking legal action against Civil Defence.

However, that may not be possible under proposed earthquake emergency laws, which retrospectively validate all Civil Defence decisions, unless they are "taken in bad faith or with gross negligence".

Yesterday, Parker referred questions to Civil Defence, but said he understood "someone" had authorised the demolition but not through the correct process.

Figures to April 4 show Civil Defence has paid demolition companies $1.5 million since February's quake. However, costs would be recovered from building owners or insurers, if possible.

- The Press

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