19 Apr 2024

Fire engineering expertise may take a big hit with job cuts at MBIE

9:54 am on 19 April 2024
Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment

Job cuts at the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment will reduce the number of senior fire engineers from two down to one. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The public sector cuts are poised to take out a big chunk of fire engineering expertise at the country's building regulator.

The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment has just two senior fire engineers and is proposing to axe one of them.

It also wants to cut four of the nine senior advisors who help support the engineers.

An internal report shows about 120 positions going in its building, resources and markets wing, with policy advisors the most affected, but the fire unit, too. A handful of new jobs would be set up.

The report says: "Disestablish 1 x Senior Fire Engineer from the Building Engineering team, resulting in a reduction in Senior Fire Engineers from two to one."

A graph from the internal proposal document at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

A graph from the internal proposal document at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). Photo: MBIE

The cutback proposal comes despite the demands on MBIE from a full fire regulations review triggered by the fatal Loafers Lodge blaze in Wellington 10 months ago.

More recently, a fire at an Auckland boarding house and an evacuation order at an apartment building in the city have raised fresh questions about fire rules. MBIE is the overall watchdog of how councils police fire rules.

The ministry did not respond to RNZ's question about why it was reducing its fire engineering capacity.

Instead, it listed the crucial tasks ahead of its team.

This includes the Loafers review, and having to look into rapid recent changes in "building uses, building materials, construction methods and fire hazards".

These changes include greater intensification of housing that presents a greater risk of fire spreading, and the government's plan to allow in more building products on the basis they have approval from certifiers overseas.

"The Loafers Lodge fire put a spotlight on the importance of fire safety in buildings in New Zealand and highlighted long-standing issues in the building regulatory system," the ministry said in a statement on Thursday, after RNZ queried the objectives in its proposal document.

A fire engineering spokesperson said the industry had not been advised by the ministry of its proposal.

"We hope that it isn't going to detrimentally impact the work that we do going forward to improve fire safety," said Greg North, president of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, speaking also for the Fire Protection Association and the Institution of Fire Engineers.

Axe also set to fall on systems implementation team

In addition, the axe is poised to fall on another team in the building, resources and markets wing, one that would have done key work for the government's big changes to try to cut the price of building product.

The systems implementation team would disappear under the proposal. It would normally have done a lot of the grunt work on freeing up building products, and also on the move announced by the government on Thursday to review the whole earthquake-prone building system.

A builders' industry group expressed worries that overall the various cuts would mean there were not enough people to do the work properly.

"It's difficult to understand who's going to be there," Malcolm Fleming, chief executive of Certified Builders said.

The ministry is consulting until May, with the changes to apply from June. It told RNZ it would be able to provide further information once final decisions had been made.

In the proposal document, deputy secretary Paul Stocks wrote:

"As the Government's work programmes start moving at pace, it's time to ensure that BRM [building, resources, markets] is set up in a way that aligns to this work and the resourcing required to progress it.

"We have considered areas where work is scaling up, joining up, and scaling down.

"As government priorities develop, it is likely that further changes will be needed in the future - to reflect both this and the new fiscal conditions we will be operating in ... The changes proposed in this document set us up to be able to flexibly respond to future demands and ensure we are 'right-sized'."

The proposal also signals an end to a name - the 'Building for Climate Change' team - changing it to 'Resilience Policy' covering climate change emissions reduction and adaptation, seismic resilience and fire safety.

Geotechnical engineers who provide earthquake expertise are not being cut.

Fleming said the government has ambitious plans to fast-track consents and import more overseas product.

"All the regulatory work that wraps around that, if we're reducing head count, there's a concern about, does MBIE have the capability and expertise to be doing all that very good work and important work?

"Who's gonna be there in the future for us to reach out and get answers?"

The cuts remove 25 positions related to the Construction Sector Accord that the ministry has with the industry.

The Accord was "undertaking some really good work ... demonstrating some real value, in regards to sustainability in the circular economy, reducing carbon, what we're doing in the education space for small businesses", Fleming said.

"It was also very useful throughout Covid and has created quite a lot of value.

"That work has effectively come to a grinding halt."

"We feel like sacrificial lambs," one worker said.

Beyond the team managing building risks, MBIE's proposed cuts also extend to another wing whose central job is to provide "the answers" Fleming referred to, and sweeping cuts are proposed in that area. RNZ will report more on that shortly.

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