Council 'failed to grasp the magnitude of task'

20:21, Jan 02 2012

An internal report has blasted the Christchurch City Council's handling of dangerous buildings after the September 2010 earthquake, saying it failed to grasp the magnitude of the task.

The report said that when the state of emergency was lifted after the September 4 quake, the council relied on a new overworked and under-resourced team, called the building evaluation transition (BET) team, to evaluate dangerous buildings.

This resulted in many owners not being told their buildings were dangerous, and lost files and poor communication within the council led to "embarrassing" mistakes.

The report reserved its harshest criticism for the council's response to the Boxing Day quake in 2010, which seemed to prioritise reopening the Christchurch central business district for New Year over safety.

"In the final days of 2010, priorities were placed on opening restaurants and bars as quickly as possible ... Had there been loss of life, it is unclear whether the council could have shown it followed due process," it said.

The council decided not to declare a state of emergency after the Boxing Day shake, despite advice from emergency services and its building evaluations manager.

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In the first few days after the Boxing Day quake, no steps were taken to secure dangerous buildings or even clear fresh rubble from the streets, the report said.

"The possible consequences of this failure to act is to create or reinforce a negative view of council – that the council had closed down and there was neither the willingness nor the depth in the structure to allow for remedial works to happen for four days in the holiday period," it said.

The council was unable to respond to the report, with the relevant managers, Peter Mitchell and Steve McCarthy, on holiday.

The report was written last January but surfaced publicly only after the Canterbury earthquakes royal commission demanded it be submitted as evidence.

In a letter to the royal commission in August, Mitchell, the council's regulation and democracy services general manager, said the report was still being reviewed and was "not finalised from the council's perspective".

The report was written by Esther Griffiths, of Sisirc Consulting, and Dean McNulty, of McNulty Engineering Management, both of whom were hired by the council to help establish or run the BET team.

Griffiths, who was the BET team's project manager, said she did not view the report as critical but in hindsight wished she had included more positive comments.

"We had numerous things that went well. In incredibly trying circumstances, I think the team did incredibly well," she said.

Other criticisms in the report include:

* There was no common understanding among inspectors about what constituted a "dangerous" building and when further assessments were needed.

* Civil Defence coloured stickers remained on buildings long after they had lost their legal status, sometimes next to new notices.

* The BET team communicated poorly with the council and the public, losing files and sometimes giving conflicting and "embarrassing" advice.

* Most owners never received notification their building was dangerously damaged.

* The BET team was under-resourced and overworked, and it was "unclear whether the council had a sufficiently good grasp of the magnitude of the project".

* The team exceeded its original mandate, operating for 12 weeks instead of three and costing ratepayers $50,000 a week.

* The team had no accurate record of how many buildings had been demolished and relied on an "insufficient and unwieldy" spreadsheet system to keep track of assessments.

In one instance, a frustrated building owner threw a photo album at a council officer who was unable to provide information about the building, the report said.

The council faced intense scrutiny in the royal commission hearings last month, with questions raised about the inspection of dangerous buildings after the September 2010 quake.

Evidence showed the council incorrectly cleared a green-stickered part of a building after September 4 that collapsed in the February 22 quake, killing one of the occupants.

It has also been alleged in the commission hearings that a Colombo St building in which people were killed in the February quake should have been cordoned.

Council figures show it received 1670 notifications of potentially dangerous buildings between September 20, 2010, and February 22.

It issued 377 notices to owners of dangerous buildings after the September 4 and Boxing Day quakes, requiring them to repair or demolish the building by January 31.

When the February 22 quake struck, only 62 building owners had completed the required work.

Click here to view the report

The Press