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Govt launches $3M fund, compels building owners to fix quake-risk masonry within a year

Wednesday 25th January 2017

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The government has launched a $3 million fund to subsidise strengthening on earthquake-prone buildings in Wellington, Lower Hutt and Blenheim, with work required to be completed within a year.

Unreinforced masonry facades and parapets pose a major risk to the public in areas such as the capital, particularly with the eightfold increase in risk of an aftershock in Wellington, Hutt City, Marlborough and Hurunui district following the Kaikoura earthquake in November, Building and Construction Minister Nick Smith said. Falling masonry killed 39 people in the February 2011 earthquake in Christchurch.

The $3 million fund will provide a 50 percent subsidy for work on buildings up to a maximum grant of $15,000 for a façade and $10,000 for a parapet to help building owners with the cost, Smith said. Local councils will contribute one-third of that grant, with central government paying the remainder. The government estimates building owners will have to pay about $4.5 million in total, with local councils to contribute $1.5 million. 

The government is using its powers under the Hurunui/Kaikoura Earthquakes Recovery Act 2016 to require building owners to do the work within 12 months, and will, under the same legislation, exempt the work from having to get resource and building consents as long as it's overseen by a qualified engineer. 

The fund follows a report from the New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineers in late December, which estimated there are about 300 buildings in the high-risk category. Areas of concern include Cuba St in Wellington central, Riddiford St in Newtown, and Jackson St in Petone, the report says. 

“This is about taking a prudent and pragmatic approach to the aftershock risks from the Kaikoura earthquake, while acknowledging we cannot remove all the risks," Smith said. "The initiative complements the checks being made on buildings following the preliminary investigation into the Statistics New Zealand building and the long-term upgrade requirements in the new Earthquake Prone Buildings Act. It shortens the usual timetable for addressing these high-risk buildings but also provides taxpayer and ratepayer support to help fund half the cost for the urgent work."

Building owners will be notified by their local council if they are required to carry out securing work, with about 250 buildings likely to be eligible for the grant in Wellington, about 50 in Lower Hutt and 10 in the South Island. No buildings in Kaikoura met the criteria, the government said. 

Wellington mayor Justin Lester said he would ask the city council to reprioritise $1 million for the council's contribution. 

"Wellington has taken a leading role on earthquake resilience but more remains to be done and the investment from both central and local government will be a great help to owners," Lester said. "Unreinforced masonry is a real threat to people’s lives during a strong earthquake. It has been responsible for many earthquake-related deaths in New Zealand and overseas. As we are in the middle of an active earthquake sequence, it’s important we get this work done as soon as possible."

The city council is developing a full list of the streets and buildings these rules will apply to and which will be eligible to draw on the fund, Lester said. 

The aftershock risk in the affected areas will drop to twice the usual risk by the end of the year and return to normal levels about 2020.

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