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New laws requiring the identification and upgrade of earthquake prone buildings come into effect this week, Building and Construction Minister Dr Nick Smith says.

“Earthquakes are New Zealand’s biggest natural hazard risk, with the greatest danger coming from building failures. We cannot completely eliminate the risk to life from quakes but, just as modern cars are safer in an accident, modern buildings are safer in a quake. These new laws involve an uncomfortable and inevitable trade-off between safety and cost but will save hundreds of lives in future quakes when fully implemented.

“The new regime divides New Zealand into three earthquake categories. In high risk areas, like Wellington, buildings need to be assessed within five years and upgraded within 15 years. In medium risk areas like Hamilton or Nelson, the timeframe is 10 and 25 years respectively, and in low risk areas like Auckland it is 15 and 35 years. There is also flexibility in the regime to add 10 years to the timetable for registered heritage buildings and to exempt buildings with low risk and low usage.

“We’re prioritising schools, hospitals and emergency buildings like fire stations, requiring that they be assessed and upgraded in half this time. We are also prioritising unreinforced masonry facades and parapets in high traffic areas because too many lives were lost in Christchurch from these features.

“We are supporting implementation of the new Act with regulations to help councils identify potentially earthquake prone buildings and also new engineering guidelines to ensure better consistency in assessments. The new law targets many public buildings, and we have committed hundreds of millions to replacing and upgrading these. We have also established an assistance fund to help private owners of heritage buildings.

“I am also exploring options for Government assistance in multi-unit complexes where some parties may struggle to raise the finance for their share of strengthening costs. Officials are considering whether we could extend other Government housing guarantee products schemes to assist in these circumstances.

“This is an ambitious new policy for better managing earthquake risks from buildings. Few seismically active countries require upgrades of existing buildings. There has been years of consideration following the Christchurch earthquakes, with the Royal Commission and multiple rounds of consultation. Now it’s time for getting on with the job.”

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