Long Term Ramifications of Insufficient Oversight of Local Government

The 2010/2011 earthquakes in Christchurch were a huge wakeup call for local government in terms of its capability and willingness to ensure high standards were being achieved in building safety. We believe that the standards subsequently exposed in Christchurch were woefully inadequate. There had been a long legacy in the city of failure to properly implement the requirements of Government legislation to ensure land subject to natural hazards was not being built on. However that legislative environment was also particularly weak. Claims by Christchurch City Council politicians that there should have been less involvement by central government in earthquake recovery simply do not stack up. The Government was not only forced to bail out homeowners who could have been caught in the crossfire of legal action by insurers against CCC for failure to properly apply the natural hazards criteria, but it was also compelled to respond to the ongoing risks and challenges posed by the Council’s weak handling of earthquake prone buildings. These issues raise the question of whether Government oversight of local governance is sufficient at times and whether too much faith has been placed in local politicians to safeguard the interests of the wider public as opposed to what is becoming their core constituency, land owners and developers.

This is in part highlighted by a report that appeared on the Stuff website a few months ago entitled “State of shock: How our buildings save lives but little else“. Whilst the focus of that article is more related to building resilience and has also drawn into wider questions about Government building standards regulation that is somewhat outside the scope of local governnment authority, it is just another aspect of the ongoing ramifications of failure at the highest levels of governance to ensure that functions devolved to a local level of administration and management are being adequately supervised. As it is clear in the article, the whistle is again being blown by insurance companies due in no small measure to their large financial exposure to these natural disasters as a result of perceived inadequacy in construction standards of buildings.

There definitely appears to have been a shocking level of complacency at central and local levels about the risk of earthquake damage in this country. The Building Act 2004, passed by a Labour government, was a very weak piece of legislation for dealing with earthquake prone building hazards. Councils were not required to have any policy on this issue and were given wide leeway in how they dealt with it. Unfortunately, Labour tends to kowtow to a great extent to local governance because it is a breeding ground for political power for the Labour Party at a local level. So Christchurch has been failed by that legislative failure and that’s also spread to Wellington when they had their recent seismic events.It’s definitely of concern that towards the end of that article there is highlighted what appears to be a Government push to relax the earthquake prone building regulations for smaller rural communities. There is no less risk in those communities in the event of a natural disaster than anywhere else and we hope this does not turn into yet another example of a Labour government devolving too much power and responsibility to local councils without the necessary structures in place to ensure standards are maintained. Certainly what New Zealand needs is a big shakeup in Government oversight of many of the roles and functions performed by local government.