Wednesday, 13 July 2016

A stifling regulatory environment

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Six near-new, well-designed and beautifully-crafted buildings are under scrutiny accused of not meeting the stringent new earthquake codes. This should be ringing alarm bells all around Masterton’s central business district. Throw the solidly-built majestic town hall into the mix and you can’t help but conclude that government regulators have gone quite mad.

One of New Zealand’s biggest ever earthquakes occurred in Masterton in 1942. No one was killed or injured; though masonry falling off the old post office may well have caused casualties had the earthquake occurred during business hours instead of late at night.

Much of the damage was residential; many chimneys were damaged and had to be demolished. The government offered encouragement to those who wanted to strengthen their commercial buildings in the form of a tax rebate to the value of the cost of the strengthening.

The work was delayed given we were in the middle of a world war, however most of the restoration was eventually completed in the decade 1950 to 1960. Prominent among these were the Masterton Municipal Building and the Empire Hotel.

Retired Masterton architect Neil Inkster, in a submission to the Ministry of Business Administration and Employment, noted that some of the strengthened buildings have since been demolished to make way for new modern buildings and in almost all cases the difficulties encountered in the demolition and the cost of the work was far greater than anticipated. Masonry, mainly brick, sandwiched between and keyed and bonded to concrete does not make for easy demolition. This also suggests there is a good measure of strength in such ‘sandwich’ kind of structure.

Under the heading ‘Life is a Lottery’ Mr Inkster reminded the ministry that earthquakes are just one form of disaster. The worst disaster was the airline crash on Mount Erebus where 257 lives were lost, 3 more than the death toll in the Hawkes Bay quake where 254 deaths were recorded.

New Zealand’s earthquake death-toll totals to date are Mount Tarawera where 108 lives were lost in 1889, 254 in Napier/Hastings in 1931 and 185 in Christchurch in 2012. That’s an average of 4.5 a year over 126 years. It may not be a fair comparison, but about 250 people a year are killed on our roads. If the government was to apply the same standards to our roads as they are to our buildings they would all be one way or at the very least have mandatory concrete median barriers on every carriageway.

But Masterton is suffering badly from the overthought regulations. The fence on the corner of Queen and Church streets is an ongoing eyesore and I doubt that the building that was demolished there posed any real threat.

A Real Estate agent told me recently that national retailers will not rent premises that aren’t up to code; hence the town has a lot of empty shops and he warns there are more to come.

One proprietor was told it would be cheaper to demolish his single-storey central Queen Street shop and rebuild rather than strengthen it. Demolition and construction costs would require a rent that simply wouldn’t be attainable in the present retail environment.

Never mind, after the last door closes we can all move to Auckland.

“It is not easy nowadays to remember anything so contrary to all appearances as that officials are the servants of the public; and the official must try not to foster the illusion that it is the other way round” - Sir Ernest Gowers


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