26 Jul 2019

Hamilton City Council 'too lax' on building warrants of fitness, councillor says

8:10 am on 26 July 2019

Hamilton City Council says it is holding building owners to account for safety systems despite 200 buildings in the city not having warrants of fitness.

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At Waikato Hospital, nine major clinical buildings have between them had just five warrants of fitness since 2016, when they should have had a total of 36, or one each per year. Photo: Supplied / Facebook

This includes many hospital buildings that haven't had a warrant for years due to firestopping defects.

An Official Information Act response from the city council shows nine percent, or 200, of the city's commercial buildings have annual warrants of fitness that have expired.

In 107 of these no reason was supplied for why this was, though the council did say its inspections of the buildings were on track to ensure public safety.

At Waikato Hospital, nine major clinical buildings have between them had just five warrants of fitness since 2016, when they should have had a total of 36, or one each per year.

"I'm confident that the work that we've been doing with the Waikato DHB is achieving compliance at a necessary rate to ensure the safety of the building occupants," said council building control manager Cory Lang.

Twenty-four of the 200 unwarranted buildings are vacant; 14 are being refurbished or have building consents in place; and 55 are "currently being actioned".

Unlike for car owners, commercial building owners do not cop an immediate penalty for having no WOF.

The city council first gave the DHB a hurry-up on WOFs in 2016, it told RNZ.

A year later the DHB told the council the delays were "purely an administrative issue", but was at the same time finalising a plan to fix the firestopping defects. These repairs have taken three years so far and are expected to carry on for several more years.

It was not a case of the council giving greater leeway to a financially stressed hospital, Mr Lang said.

"No, I think this isn't specific to the Waikato DHB. We work with all of our building owners to try to achieve compliance."

He would not say if other building owners could expect to be given years to fix inadequate firestopping, as the DHB had been.

A warrant could remain expired for many reasons such as the paperwork being late, or ongoing renovations, or a change in building ownership, the council said.

"A BWOF is not the determining factor in whether a building is safe on any given day, as it is simply a recognition that the building's systems have been maintained for the last 12-month period," it said.

At the hospital, the buildings were safe, Mr Lang said.

"There may not be sprinklers in some of the [ceiling] cavities or even in some of the buildings, but the buildings have been designed in such a way that the active systems that are there, are in place and operational to ensure the safety of occupants and the means of escape."

The hospital's evacuation plans did not depend on the fire-rating of its walls and floors being up to scratch, he said.

City councillor Dave Macpherson sought a full council briefing about the DHB situation from Mr Lang, who told them his team was "chugging through" the work as usual.

That did not gel with the latest information, that the city had 200 buildings without warrants, or the high-risk status of many of them, Mr Macpherson said.

"We're looking at something like 10 percent of our commercial buildings not having building warrants of fitness," he said.

"That's clearly not good enough - and the majority of them just listed as overdue for warrants, not even having any action underway. That clearly shouldn't be business as usual."

The council said all buildings without a BWOF were flagged, followed up and then inspected, with reporting timings updated daily. "All required inspections ... are within our process timelines."

It had had no correspondence in the last two years from anyone raising concerns about BWOFs, it said.

The aim was to have no buildings without a warrant, but the building control team's performance was not judged against that target because they had limited tools to force owners to get a warrant, Mr Lang said.

The team's rate of on-site audits of buildings has been falling in the five years since the last external review by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment: down from 66 percent in 2014 to 55 percent now (compared with MBIE's recommended rate that suggests checking about a quarter of a city's stock of buildings every year).

Only the paperwork is checked in 80 percent of those audits; just 20 percent of buildings get a visual check too - which is better than at many other councils.

Mr Macpherson said the warrant of fitness problems had not been flagged, either while he's been on the council, or while he was on the Waikato health board up until earlier this year, when the board was replaced by the government.

"We, and possibly a lot of other councils, are too lax on this. What is the point of having councils responsible for doing that if we've got quite literally hundreds of buildings that don't qualify, that haven't had warrants of fitness issued?"

He has asked the council chief executive to take action to clear the backlog of buildings without warrants, and to demonstrate to councillors how it is being kept clear.

A lot of the DHB's hospital buildings in the regions also have firestopping defects and in many cases these have not been fixed yet, including at Morrinsville, Thames and Te Kuiti.

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