Strengthening laws could spell the end of small town NZ

Proposed legislation requiring buildings that fail a seismic test to be strengthened or demolished could spell the end for small-town New Zealand, says Otorohanga Mayor Dale Williams.

Official figures suggests 8 to 13 per cent of buildings may currently be earthquake prone but Mr Williams said work done by local authorities around New Zealand suggested the figure could be as high as 70 per cent in some towns.

''I'd say more than 70 per cent of Otorohanga's main street buildings won't meet the benchmark, and I'd guess all of Kawhia's commercial buildings won't either,'' Mr Williams said.

''Essentially, all larger homes, flats, commercial and industrial buildings, even cowsheds will have to be engineering assessed at a cost. We believe that almost all buildings built pre-1993 will fail a seismic test.

''Once the report is received by the building owner, the clock is ticking towards rebuild or demolish. Already insurance companies are requesting these reports before reinsurancing, and potential and existing tenants are requesting assurances the buildings are safe.''

Mr Williams said most tenants were struggling to pay rent and stay in business and he didn't  see how they could pay more rent to cover the work required.

''They also won't be able to stay in the buildings if it can't get insurance. So we could see empty buildings, business closures. Also, many landlords may not be able to borrow to rebuild, and will be unlikely to be able to raise rents to compensate. I can see buildings being unsalable, unrentable, and abandoned all round New Zealand.

''It's really serious, and it seems the government is determined to proceed with this.''

Mr Williams based his conclusions on those of 10 Lower South Island councils whose research showed more than 50 per cent of all commercial and industrial buildings would not pass the seismic test assessment.

''They have identified there will need to be over 20,000 assessments done in the five-year requirement, and ask where are the engineers in New Zealand for this work. They believe this will cost $31m, for the assessments alone. They have costed strengthening work to be around $1.8 billion.

''We haven't done this work at Otorohanga, and submissions close on March 8. A cynic would say that the legislation is already drafted and this is just lip service to consultation. All councils have agreed to support the South Island councils submission.

''My advice to the government is to consult properly with local government. We need to negotiate around level of risk, cost/benefit analysis, timeframes, heritage status and so on.

"If legislation is formed as its benign suggested in the discussion documents, it will dramatically alter the face of all New Zealand towns, and the economic viability of many.''

Mr Williams said he was hoping the legislation would not turn small town New Zealand into a series of ghost towns.

"But frankly, when you look at how strong the government is in the polls I don't sense they're in any mood to back off the throttle over the changes they are determined to bring in, and to hell with the consequences."

The proposed legislation, drafted in response to the Canterbury Earthquake of two years ago,  is being discussed at a public meeting this afternoon at Hamilton City Council in Garden Place at 5.30pm.