Friday, 4 September 2015

A welcome win for Ann

Usually, harrowing individual cases make for terrible law. In this case, it's been rather the opposite.

Ann Brower was the only survivor on the bus crushed by falling unreinforced masonry on Colombo Street in the February 2011 earthquake.

Unreinforced masonry facades are the clearest case where government regulation to save lives very likely passes cost-benefit assessment. Passers-by, or those in buses on the street, are bound by no contractual nexus with the building's owner. Falling bricks are a rather clear externality. There are a few ways of solving it. Regulatory standards can do the job, but risk over-protecting in areas with few passers-by and under-protecting in busy places. A liability standard could be preferable, as a per-casualty penalty should induce appropriate risk mitigation where coupled with requirements either to insure against the loss or to post a bond against it.

Ann's win has the government targeting those facades first. 
In the very first sentence of his press statement on changes to proposed legislation, Building and Housing Minister Nick Smith singles out the contribution of Christchurch earthquake survivor and Lincoln University lecturer Ann Brower.
Ms Brower was the sole survivor of the bus crushed by a collapsing fa├žade in Colombo Street in the February 2011 earthquake.
“We need to heed every possible lesson from the February 22 earthquake in Christchurch in rewriting the building laws to minimise future fatalities,” Mr Smith says.
“Falling parts of unreinforced masonry like parapets and facades killed 35 people that tragic day, including every passenger on the Red Bus except Ann Brower,” he says.
“I pay tribute to her fastidious advocacy and professional research that has persuaded us to change the law and prioritise these buildings for upgrade.”
Ms Brower’s pleas that the government act to prevent such building features killing others in the next major quake were supported by many organisations who made submissions on the Building (Earthquake-prone Buildings) Amendment Bill. (See report attached)
Ms Brower’s supporters ranged from New Zealand Society of Earthquake Engineers (NZSEE) to GNS Science.
The latter had said many people were likely to die unnecessarily in the next major earthquake because the bill was pursuing the wrong objectives.
Like Ms Brower, GNS director Kelvin Berryman told NBR he felt the government was ignoring his organisation’s advice.
Mr Smith now estimates about 2000 buildings nationwide will be affected by the new category covering building parts which could fall into public space during an earthquake.
Such features in high risk areas will now have to be upgraded within seven-and-a-half years instead of 15 years and in medium risk areas they will need to be fixed within 12-and-a-half years rather than 25 years.
Next, though, councils will have to think carefully about how the facade reinforcement requirements intersect with councils' rules around heritage buildings. We may be simultaneously mandating and prohibiting some rather important work.

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