The future of rural town centres is at risk, according to lower North Island district councils who say they’re crippled by earthquake-strengthening regulations introduced last year.
The district councils of Tararua, Manawatu, Rangitikei and Whanganui say the Building Act’s earthquake-prone building amendments are not appropriate for provincial, rural or low-rent areas, where they say there isn’t enough money to meet the new deadlines.
“You’d see a decimation literally of our rural towns throughout New Zealand,” Rangitikei District Mayor Andy Watson told 1 NEWS.
The councils met with Building and Construction Minister Jenny Salesa this month and are calling for the Government to introduce financial incentives for owners carrying out earthquake strengthening, lengthen timeframes and change certain criteria that triggers strengthening work to be carried out on entire buildings.
Tararua, Manawatu and Rangitikei are classified as at high-risk of an earthquake, and Whanganui is classified as at medium-risk.
Remedial work has to be carried out in 7.5 years after a building is deemed vulnerable to an earthquake if it is a priority building, and in Whanganui, the deadline is 12.5 years.
For non-priority buildings, there’s a 15 year deadline, and in Whanganui, the deadline is 25 years.
“Seven and a half years may sound like a long term but the reality is that a couple of years of that could be tied up with construction, you can lose time with consenting.. especially for a heritage building,” Rangitikei District Mayor Andy Watson said.
Most buildings in the area hold low capital value due to lack of demand and average weekly rents of just $250, or land-only value if they need strengthening.
Therefore, councils says the criteria of any work costing 20 per cent of an earthquake-prone building’s value triggering the need for entire property strengthening is restricting owners from carrying out any work.
Local Government New Zealand said in a statement it also wants to see this criteria altered.
‘This would incentivise building owners to undertake earthquake strengthening work without triggering additional costs which are simply not affordable for many small town heritage building owners,’ a spokesperson said.
Fears empty buildings will only increase
Mr Watson said around 35 properties in the main street of Marton need strengthening, with half of those being heritage-listed buildings.
While assessments are yet to be completed, at this stage nearly 500 buildings are expected to need work across the region, 350 of them being in the Whanganui district.
“There are some businesses, not only in Rangitikei but in the Manawatu, Whanganui and all other parts of rural New Zealand who are saying literally, ‘We won't do anything and at the end of the 15 years we will pass the keys on to the council and it becomes their problem,’” Mr Watson said.
Many buildings already sit empty in Marton with costs and the Building Act limiting redevelopment, Mr Watson said.
He said strengthening work usually costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per building.
The Rangitikei District Council has decided to not classify the main street as a priority area after going through a public consultation process, but the Marton council building remains in this category.
As the property needs earthquake work, the council has purchased a ‘reasonable chunk of the main street of Marton’ for around $170,000 with plans to either strengthen the space or demolish it to make way for a new council office, he said.
Mr Watson said councils have a responsibility to provide incentives, but for town centres to have a sustainable future, the Government needs to act now.
“If we're prepared to waive some of the consenting costs or give rate reductions then surely some of those could be matched by Government,” he said.
“We’re not trying to walk away from the safety aspects here but we are wanting to highlight the difficulties that people are facing with this.”
John Vickers, a local historian, said older buildings, many of which are heritage-listed, give towns in the area their character and appeal.
“We want to keep them and reuse them if we can but we need more time,” he said.
“The margins are very fine between a building with a future and a building without a future,” he said
‘Impossible’ deadlines for strengthening work in small-town New Zealand
Feilding long-time retailer Kerry Gracie, of clothing store Gracies, says if the legislation doesn’t change, he’ll have to leave the building.
“We are scared, we’re being boxed in and they’re giving a timeframe which is impossible,” Mr Gracie said.
“The buildings are virtually worthless. A lot of landlords would only be in the situation of walking away and that’s the frightening part about it because councils don’t want the buildings so you’re being pushed into a corner.”
He said even if paying the cost of strengthening was viable for his business, there isn’t the construction staff available to carry out the work.
“It’s too short a timeframe, do you think Auckland carpenters will come down and stay in Feilding for two or three years doing up old buildings or demolishing? No I don’t think so.”
“It comes to the situation where we just drop the keys round to our local council and say it’s your building, I’m gone. ”
Mr Gracie said the Building and Construction Minister needs to review the legislation and offer tax exemptions for strengthening work.
He said freestanding verandas and reinforced rooves for buildings deemed earthquake-prone in Feilding is the only work that should be required in the next decade.
“That would protect the public and if we did that as the first-step in a 10 year period, then I think that would be affordable and we could do it and then look individually at buildings in worse shape.”
Feilding business owners are meeting to discuss the situation next week.
MBIE to report back to Government on issue
Building and Construction Minister Jenny Salesa said she’s asked MBIE to give advice on the situation, with a report due back within the next three weeks.
“I presume that it would include possible amendments to the legislation,” she told 1 NEWS.
The Minister said district councils had suggested many incentives that could be introduced to her, such as loans and tax exemptions.
“After I get the advice I would have to take papers to cabinet, especially if there are any fiscal implications, then it would be a decision for cabinet to make.”
In a statement, Whanganui District Council said locals councils have recommended that the Minister visit the area to gain a better understanding of the extent of earthquake strengthening required.