Persons with disabilities left behind by disaster plans

NEW ZEALAND: Large parts of the country’s building stock will be off-limits for persons with disabilities under a proposal to trim the cost of upgrading thousands of earthquake-prone buildings, advocacy groups have warned.

One of the lesser-known changes recommended by a Royal Commission on the Canterbury Earthquakes is a move to allow property owners to bypass requirements to fit their buildings with facilities and accessibility for persons with disabilities.

With up to 25,000 buildings expected to require earthquake strengthening, those who needed accessibility could be excluded from many private, public and residential spaces.

Disability rights groups say that if the recommendation is to go ahead, it would mark a step-change in the treatment of persons with disabilities in this country.

“It’s a test for where, as a country, our priorities exist,” CCS Disability Action chief executive David Matthews said. “Is it about safety per se, or it is about a more inclusive society as well?”

The Government has sought feedback on the recommendation in the Building Seismic Performance discussion paper, and Building and Construction Minister Maurice Williamson stressed that it was far from settled.

At present, councils cannot issue consents for strengthening works unless the owner upgrades the building’s access for persons with disabilities and fire escapes in line with the building code.

The royal commission said this rule could impose additional costs on owners of earthquake-prone buildings, and recommended that it should be removed.

Mr Williamson told the Herald: “One of the big concerns about this whole earthquake-prone policy is that we will make some buildings uneconomic. A lot of landlords are saying if they have to spend a lot of money bringing it up to standard, this building may not be viable and we may actually be better to leave it barren.”

He said it was a “double-whammy” to impose strengthening costs on these owners and also new costs for fire safety and accessibility. “In principle, I’m a bit reluctant to enforce a building owner to spend a lot more money on their building that they didn’t have to at the time when it was built.”

Mr Matthews felt that the commission’s recommendation had focused too narrowly on costs to property owners.

He noted that the Government spent $2 billion on sickness and invalid-related welfare, but many of these beneficiaries were prevented or discouraged from working because of accessibility barriers.

The commission did not do a cost-benefit analysis of upgrading accessibility to the current building code. One estimate of the cost of installing modern fire escapes and mobility access was around 1 per cent of the total cost of a new building or renovation.

Mr Williamson said a thorough analysis would have to be done before any amendment to the Building Act was approved.

He also said there could be a significant pay-off in earthquake-proofing buildings, in particular lower insurance premiums and the ability to charge higher rent.

“In some cases, where public access is important, it will dramatically improve the value of your property.”

Mr Matthews said the commission’s recommendation had also presumed that only persons with disabilities required accessibility to buildings.

He felt that the upgrade of building stock was a golden opportunity to prepare for an ageing population. By the time all earthquake-prone buildings had been strengthened, 20 per cent of Kiwis would be 65 years or older.

Seismic performance

Proposed:

  • 193,000 buildings assessed within five years
  • 15,000 to 20,000 buildings earthquake strengthened within 10 years of assessment

Being considered:

  • Amending the Building Act to allow owners of earthquake-prone buildings to strengthen them without upgrading fire escapes or disabled access

Source: The New Zealand Herald