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Mission impossible

6/3/14 · Posted in Accessibility

We have talked about the Government planning to change the Law so that some buildings undergoing earthquake strengthening can get an exemption from having to meet access rules. With the Earthquake Strengthening Bill now in Parliament, we have had the chance to take a look.

It turns out, even if you are not a human rights champion (and you should be), there is good reason to oppose the proposed exemption. The exemption looks completely unworkable.

In addition to not yet created regulations, councils need to ensure when granting an exemption that the benefits of earthquake strengthening the building outweigh any downside to not meeting the access and fire requirements.

This means councils have to objectively compare the benefits of access and fire safety to the benefits of earthquake strengthening. To compare them, councils need to be able to measure them.

For the earthquake strengthening side this is tricky, but probably possible. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s cost benefit analysis predicts the total benefit of earthquake strengthening 15,000 to 20,000 buildings over 20 years to be around $29 million. This means about $1000 to $2000 for each building on average. There will be plenty of variation, but at least there is a ball park figure.

The other side of the equation is almost impossible. To predict the benefit of access upgrades (let alone fire upgrades) you would need a robust model and good data, neither of which really exists at the moment. Councils would need to be able to measure the potential cost benefits of access upgrades for individual buildings. Councils would also need to assess these benefits quickly, efficiently and make sure they are legally robust. Councils would need to deliver consistent judgements across the country.

Developing a tool to do this would be a major piece of work, possibly a world first.

Yet nowhere in the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment information about the accessibility exemption does it mention developing such a tool. It would also be a major change for the Ministry to develop a tool. The Ministry has still not provided comprehensive guidance on the far simpler reasonably practicable test in the 1991 and 2004 building acts. A point the Ministry acknowledges (see clause 60).

Instead councils and building owners have been left to fumble over an unclear law for twenty three years! It looks like this proposed exemption is going to be far worse. Far from benefiting building owners at the expense of access, it looks like the proposed exemption is just going to cause headaches for everyone.

Councils are being handed an impossible mission. This impossible mission comes on top of all the other extra work the Earthquake Strengthening Bill delegates to councils. Last time I checked, although councils generally do a good job, they are no Tom Cruise.