Editorial: Be open on buildings

Tricky, tricky, tricky.

How far to go in forcing commercial building owners to declare how earthquake-prone their structures are?

Especially when there is no legal requirement on them to do so.

Nor is there one on local councils to gather and make available such information.

Yet, given the type of buildings in the main streets of South Canterbury towns, and that largely they are shops, it would be rather nice to know.

Already local structural engineers have beaten warning drums, but client confidentiality means they cannot divulge just which buildings are suspect.

But building owners do not have to do anything unless they are undertaking renovations that require a consent, or there is a change of use of a building.

And when that happens and reports are done, the Timaru District Council has been reluctant to release them, but has done so when requested under the Official Information Act.

The council's stance is roughly midway on a scale of councils nationally.

Some are proactive in requiring reports and then making them available, while at least one refuses to release anything on the grounds of commercial sensitivity.

Now though central government, with the backing of Local Government New Zealand, wants a consistent approach, with the leaning towards the ready release of such information.

That's to be welcomed.

So would the next step, a requirement that all potentially earthquake-prone public buildings and multi-storey residential ones be assessed, regardless. Some councils do this already, but all will be required to if other Government proposals are implemented, but with a five-year breathing space. For now, it's the release of known information that's the issue.

The reluctance to undertake a mass audit is understandable. In Timaru's case, Stafford Street is the heart of the city. If half the buildings were found to not meet even a third of the earthquake standards, and everyone knew that, what then?

Some owners might not be able to afford the required strengthening. Some might not deem it worthwhile, and opt instead for demolition.

But surely the public has a right to know. People can then decide if the risk is acceptable.

And if they don't think it is, doesn't that say something in itself.

Isn't there a moral responsibility for building owners, and even the council, to have assessments done? And then to release the findings.

The Timaru Herald