Editorial: Lessons from tragedy

Last updated 05:00 11/12/2012
CTV tragic aftermath

TRAGIC AFTERMATH: A huge rescue effort at the CTV building was compromised when fire broke out.

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OPINION: They are grim reading but the conclusions of the Royal Commission into the collapse of the CTV building are unsurprising.

The hearings that guided the investigation were reported in detail, held the public's attention and pointed to faulty design as the cause of the disaster - a cause the commission has confirmed. But the lack of surprise does not lessen the shocking reality of the CTV collapse: 115 people killed in terrible circumstances, their families traumatised and forever scared, the deaths the result, largely, of appallingly poor design.

For the families, the commission's report provides a detailed account of the building's lethal failings, and it is such facts that can lessen grief. Some of the dreadful speculation that surrounds the deaths has been lessened, and more will be when the coroner reports. The families can thus start to deal with the emotion of their experience and not have to wonder about what exactly happened.

They, though, and the wider community, now need to bring into focus the business of ensuring the shonky consenting and design that doomed the CTV building does not happen again. It would be intolerable were New Zealand's inevitable future earthquakes made worse by deaths from ill-designed buildings.

That is so obvious that moves are under way nationally to identify structures that have the weaknesses of the CTV and PGC buildings, the Government is considering the degree of strengthening required for buildings and local bodies are paying more attention to dangerous structures.

But those welcome moves seem unco-ordinated with lack of clarity about the division of responsibility between the Government, councils and engineers and builders. It is the Government's job to clarify issues of responsibility, as it is to enforce the inspection procedures needed to certificate a build's quake-proofness, and to decide the quake-proofness required.

The CCC controversially wants buildings strengthened to 67 per cent, and is being challenged about that in court by the Insurance Council. The commission and the Government say the existing 34 per cent standard is sufficient. If uncertainty and legal proceedings are to be avoided, the Government will have to impose a standard.

Maurice Williamson, the Building and Construction Minister, clearly favours the lower standard, on the grounds that it provides a reasonable level of safety at an affordable cost.

He parts company with the commission on its recommendation that unreinforced masonry buildings be assessed within two years and brought up to standard or demolished within seven.

Williamson thinks the 15-year period recommended for most other buildings is sufficient. Unreinforced masonry buildings killed people in Christchurch and pose a risk throughout the country because significant numbers exist.

Many New Zealanders would welcome their rapid strengthening or demolition, and the minister's lack of backing for that is already causing a backlash in Christchurch. That message is bound to come through in the four months that the recommendations are open for comment. It will increasingly be felt by landlords as their unreinforced properties lose popularity.

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These disagreements are minor, though, in the context of New Zealand rapidly learning the tragic lessons of Christchurch and beginning to act on them.

- The Press

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