Family forced from Lower Hutt home by slip says council complicit in extended hardship

4:47 pm on 15 March 2023
Tim and Jaime Philips have just won an eight-month battle to have the red sticker lifted from their Stokes Valley home after a major slip.

Tim and Jaime Philips have just won an eight-month battle to have the red sticker lifted from their Stokes Valley home after a major slip. Photo: Supplied

A Lower Hutt family forced to leave their home eight months ago after a massive slip has won a reprieve from the council, which lifted the dangerous building notice this week.

However, they argue Hutt City Council had evidence months ago that their house was safe - and unnecessary delays have cost them many thousands of dollars.

On a stormy night last July, Tim and Jaime Philips were woken by loud knocking at their door. It was emergency personnel telling them a huge chunk of their backyard had sheared off in a slip and they and their young son needed to evacuate.

That was terrifying enough. But what they did not realise then, was that their long, real-life nightmare had only just begun.

Their house and two of their neighbours' were red stickered.

The problem for the Philips family was the house itself was sound - a report by Tonkin and Taylor for their insurer and EQC in September found there was no imminent risk - so they could not claim insurance.

EQC decided against remediation after calculating it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and instead paid them for the value of the land lost.

In November engineers contracted by council confirmed the house itself was safe, but concluded there was risk of a further slip on council land impacting the Philips' land.

Then their bank told them they couldn't borrow against their house to remediate because it was essentially worthless.

"So basically we didn't have enough money to do anything, so we've been in this limbo state.

"And at that point the council had not committed to doing any remedial options, so we were on our own."

Jaime Philips says the geotechnical report found the council stormwater drain contributed to the slip.

Jaime Philips says the geotechnical report found the council stormwater drain contributed to the slip. Photo: Supplied

They were paying their mortgage, rates, insurance and other costs on a property they could not afford to fix, would not be able to sell and were not allowed to live in.

QV revalued the house at the council's request and put its current worth at about $10,000 - down from more than $800,000 before the slip.

Stuck between a crumbling rock and a very hard place, Tim Philip "stumbled across" an old report on slip faces completed for the council by the geotechnical engineers Ian Brown Associates (IRBA).

The Philips paid that firm to carry out a full geotechnical assessment, which last month concluded the overall stability of the site had not changed since the landslide, the building was sound and safe to occupy.

The IRBA report also found a council-owned stormwater system, which runs down the Philips' driveway and then parallel to the slipface, probably contributed to the landslide.

On Friday, the couple was told of the council's intention to remove the dangerous building notice on Monday.

They were relieved and planning to move back into their home at the weekend.

However, Tim Philips questioned why it had taken so long and the process was so complex and murky.

"It would have nice if we could have been back around September, November, or potentially even earlier, given some of the EQC information.

"But then again we didn't really know the system we were navigating."

The couple want assurances from the council that it will fix the antiquated stormwater system.

If it fails, the money to fix the slip (earlier estimated at $5.6 million dollars for the initial work, including demolishing their neighbours house) could literally be "money down the drain", Tim Philips said.

Aside from the financial cost, the past eight months had taken a personal toll on them all, Jaime Philips said.

"I've managed to chip two teeth from grinding my teeth in my sleep. I have horrendous nightmares. Even now, knowing I'm going home, the nightmares are pretty horrendous."

Her husband has had to take time off work because of stress and anxiety.

At the same time as they were battling the council over the red sticker, the council was also negotiating with them to access its land through their property in order to fix the slip above Eastern Hutt Road.

The Philips say local MP Chris Hipkins was helpful in brokering the deal, but council staff warned them against talking to the media or elected councillors.

They say the council also tried to insert a clause in the access agreement barring them from contesting the dangerous building notice.

Their lawyer, Chris Boys, said that was an abuse of power.

"It's an illegitimate use of power by any organisation to say, 'If you don't do what we want you to do, we're going to use the powers we do have to stop you disagreeing with us'."

It was "almost certain" that the Philips family should have been allowed home earlier, he said.

"As soon as council were aware that the risk of this slip spreading up to affect the house was no longer a likelihood, the council should have said 'right, we have to revoke that notice'."

In a written statement, it said the dangerous building notice had been cancelled on Monday, the same day as the council received a final report confirming the findings of the Philips' geotechnical assessment.

Lower Hutt Mayor Campbell Barry told Morning Report it was a difficult situation for all the residents impacted by the slip on Eastern Hutt Road.

"My understanding is that it had gone through a process of engineer reports being looked at, some actions being taken or some questions that were asked from our officials and once that report was finalised the red sticker was removed."

Barry said he did not have the detail of the Philips' case and would have to get a briefing from the council's regulatory officials, but it came down to having absolute confidence that the land was stable and able to be occupied.

Jaime Philips said her heart went out to those affected by the Auckland floods and Cyclone Gabrielle.

"Their situation is almost a hundred times worse because some of those people don't get to go home and they don't get to take the things out of their house because it's full of silt.

"But it's just knowing the journey they've just begun and what they've got to go through to get somewhere in the future... it's not the same, but we can put an emotional understanding to it."

A spokesperson for Toka Tū Ake EQC said under the EQC Act, the maximum amount of cover for residential land was capped at the market value of the damaged land and indemnity value of the land structures.

"EQCover cannot pay any more than the value of the insured land that has been damaged."

The choice to remediate any land damage was up to the individual landowner after they received the cash settlement, he said.

"We empathise with the stressful situation the Phillips family find themselves in, but our staff can only assist homeowners within the boundaries of the act."

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