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Q+A: Corin Dann interviews Maurice Williamson

Published: 1:41PM Sunday July 07, 2013 Source: Q+A

CORIN DANN

Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

MAURICE WILLIAMSON - Building and Construction Minister

Good morning.

CORIN This is a nightmare, isn't it? This is the last thing you needed.

MAURICE Well, it's certainly the last thing the Government needed, and it's certainly the last thing the people of Christchurch needed. I mean, they've got a massive job of getting that city rebuilt, and, frankly, you would have expected a really professional organisation to have streamlined their processes, knowing the volumes of work that are coming. And we've known this for a couple of years now.

CORIN Why didn't that happen?

MAURICE I can't tell you. IANZ went in on many occasions right back to when this accreditation stuff first started back in 2007. They found it really difficult to get the Christchurch City Council across the line. Other councils were reasonably well and done and dusted and through. And along the way - so well pre-dating of the earthquakes - Christchurch City Council had issues about getting its accreditation to be a consenting authority.

CORIN Should you have been tougher, though, then?

MAURICE Sorry?

CORIN Given that you knew those concerns from right back then?

MAURICE Well, actually, I wasn't in power in 2007 when it all-

CORIN No, sure. But should central Government have been all over these guys?

MAURICE No, no, because all councils have issues. It's a little bit like ERO reports for schools. The ERO report comes out and they've found this is wrong here, you need to tidy this up here and so on. So when you look at the report that was done in November or September, actually, last year and then when it was released in November publicly, it said there are 17, sort of, areas where the council needs to tidy up and tighten. It doesn't mean that you'll lose your accreditation. It just means these were issues. When they released their report on the 27th of May this year, and I got it fairly soon after that, IANZ just said, 'Look, this is now so serious, and there are six major issues where you should not maintain your accreditation.'

CORIN But when the 17 issues were raised, should you not have then perhaps got involved a bit more?

MAURICE No. No, no, actually, we did get involved in terms of ministry officials. People from the ministry that I administer went and worked with the Christchurch City Council and said, 'Look, you've got a big range of issues here. None of them are severe, none of them are actually, at this point, losing accreditation, but cumulatively they're quite serious.' And they tried to work with the council, but there was actually a culture of denial at the senior management level. So, look, let me stress right away, this is not the people working down at the grass roots. I went and spoke to them on Thursday afternoon, and I told them, 'Don't you feel bad.' It's like blaming the guy stoking the boilers at the bottom of the Titanic that somehow hit the iceberg.

CORIN So who are we talking about? Tony Marryatt?

MAURICE I'm talking about management right through, right from senior management through to people running the consenting operation. They, sort of, were almost in denial. They never even notified the mayor or the council that they'd been given a notice from IANZ: 'We're going to withdraw your accreditation.'

CORIN Why would they act like that?

MAURICE I don't know. I mean, you'd have to ask them. It beggars belief that anyone would be that foolish. It would be like in central government, I got a piece of paper that said, 'Next week, you're going to lose a vote of confidence because three people are going to cross the floor.' And I knew, and then I say, 'Oh, no I won't go and tell the Prime Minister. It's not a big deal.'

CORIN Did they think there was not a problem? Did they dispute the findings?

MAURICE That's what I said. There seemed to be a culture of denial. They kept saying publicly, 'Look, we've got all this under control. We'll get it all sorted.' Well, IANZ are very methodical. They go through very detailed processes. They are very staturally independent, so they can't be directed. I found it really interesting. The Greens got stuck into us in the House one day, saying, 'This is central government trying to take control of Christchurch.' We want this like a hole in the head. We actually would have loved for them to be functioning well, doing it properly.

CORIN That's an interesting point. I wonder whether because of that tension which there has been between central government and local government, particularly in Christchurch, did that perhaps make you be a bit too shy when you should have been getting involved?

MAURICE No, no, no, no, none of the reports- I repeat again, when IANZ did their report last year, and they do a whole lot of councils bi-annually, they actually said to me that it was not the worst of the councils. There were others that had more serious issues.

CORIN But you must have known that Christchurch is a special case.

MAURICE Well, I just said they were not the worst. There were others-

CORIN But because of the earthquake, you must have known they needed particular attention.

MAURICE Well, hang on. Why would I pick one that might be ninth or 10th down the more seriousness-?

CORIN Because they have a massive rebuild coming that you knew was crucial.

MAURICE That's right, and IANZ were quite confident that if the council took on board the recommendations of their report and moved to fix them, then they would be ok. They said that. It's not a matter of we're taking your accreditation. When they came back and looked at them in May, whoa. Not only had they hardly done anything, it had actually stepped backwards in some parts of it, and they just said, 'Right, you've got one month's notice.' So they issued that on the 27th of May. 'You've got till the 28th of June, and if you don't fix it now,' and that's when it was brought to our attention. Now, we'd had ministry officials down there, and when I've talked to them since, they've said, 'There just seemed to be this culture of, "I don't know what you're talking about. There's nothing wrong here."'

CORIN Ok, do you think heads need to roll over this? Is it that level?

MAURICE Oh, well, I think heads are already rolling, aren't they? I think, you know, the mayor's not going to stand again, and I think the chief executive has now taken gardening leave and so on. And we are now going to, because we've been invited, to put a Crown manager in. So we'll appoint that person in the next week, get it gazetted hopefully by Thursday, and that person will be able to go in and take control of the management structures.

CORIN Can they fix it?

MAURICE Yes, I do believe so, because again it's to do with the structures and the procedures and the systems. It's not the people. I've talked to the people down on the floor doing the work. They're as frustrated as anybody about trying to get on with their job and being let down by bad management.

CORIN Do we even actually know the size of the problem? Do we know how many consents were issued that may have been illegal?

MAURICE No. That's one of the first questions about why was their system so bad. They can't even tell us that. So we've had to bring in some of my ministry officials and some external technical experts, and they are now trying to evaluate what's the size of the problem, how many consents are there?

CORIN You must have a ballpark idea, though. Because they have 500 consents in the pipeline at any one time, don't they?

MAURICE No, at this point, we don't have a ballpark because we don't know how far back it goes, you see? So they've got to go back quite a distance. It might be that we go right back to the earthquakes. We might even have to go back. So until we get that, I'm not making-

CORIN So we could be talking hundreds of thousands of consents?

MAURICE Don't think we're talking hundreds of thousands, but we're talking a big number. We don't know what that is. It would be foolish of me to put a commitment on that.

CORIN Are you confident that none of those buildings are going to be unsafe? I mean, that people could be in buildings that were poorly consented?

MAURICE No, I can't be confident, but I'm confident that it's very unlikely. What my officials have said is it's likely that the failing to comply with the code is more of a technical nature, more of a minor, how your paperwork wasn't correct, your documentation didn't line up with how the code requires, rather than it being a structural integrity issue. But I can't give that commitment till we go back and do a second look at every building.

CORIN I mean, we've seen Riskpool, the insurer on the potential, you know, they've pulled out. This is a nightmare for investment, for confidence and for insurers. This could seriously hold back the rebuild.

MAURICE It's a total kick in the guts for Christchurch, and they didn't deserve it. They've been through enough, and the people of Christchurch must be pretty-

CORIN Will it delay the rebuild?

MAURICE We hope that we can make sure it's as seamless as possible. If a Crown manager takes control of this now, if our IMBY officials go in and do an evaluation of what's already been done, and we're already beginning to farm the consenting process out of lots of other- I think one of your panellist's council are actually doing some work. We're farming that work out to a whole range of other councils so it doesn't delay things. I mean, that's our end objective - to make sure that it's a pretty seamless piece of work.

CORIN Do you have any information from people saying, 'Look, we don't want to invest in Christchurch now. We don't have confidence'?

MAURICE No, I haven't had that, but of course it's only early days. We've got the big kick from Riskpool saying, 'We're not going to cover the consenting process anymore.' And I understand that. They're about risk, and they are saying, 'Well, if we can't guarantee the process of doing the consenting, how can we ever put an insurance coverage on it?' And so it's a matter of, I think, restoring confidence really quickly. I think we can do it very quickly. A good person appointed to the Crown manager's position - and I'm hopeful of getting somebody in that position quite soon - will take control of it, put some clear directions in. We've already prepared an induction package for whoever he or she - we're going to make sure it's a 50/50 - so it might be a he, or it might be a she, who goes in and does that job.

CORIN Ok, just very finally, for other councils are there lesson here, and I'm in particular thinking Auckland. If they've got to build 39,000 houses over the next three years, there's going to be pressure on consents there. Will they get that right?

MAURICE Well, Auckland's always been well and truly over the line and never given us a problem, so I don't think it's an issue. We did have a problem with Kapiti Council earlier in the year where they were sailing right near the line. They did the right thing. They brought some systems in place to fix it, as any council should have. I don't know any other council that poses a risk other than Christchurch.

CORIN Maurice Williamson, thank you very much for your time.

MAURICE Pleasure.

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