N.Z. in lock down: DAY 29

Yesterday was DAY 29 of New Zealand in lock down as we try to fight the COVID19 pandemic.

One of the most constant – and least surprising – conversations that is being had is about the effect of the lock down on the economy.

As a Christchurch lad who witnessed the devastation of the 04 September 2010 earthquake, along with the February 2011 and June 2011 aftershocks, I think I have an idea of what could constitute grim times. It is certainly true that the pandemic has not physically destroyed any buildings, but the number of businesses closing around Christchurch, the jarring uncertainty about whether they will reopen, the massive job losses that are occurring, certainly have brought on a feeling of deja vu about it all.

I have huge sympathy for the many many people who have lost jobs, who do not know if they will have a job to go back to when most of New Zealand goes back to work. I know that the socio-economic toll grows the longer we keep the country in lock down and I agree that we cannot stay in it forever.

But that is where the doom and gloom ends. I am optimistic about New Zealand coming thundering back from all of this. Will it happen overnight? No, but with no past experience on shutting a country down and restarting it again, it was never going to happen overnight.

I am optimistic because there is a massive, almost unparalleled opportunity for an economic revolution right now in New Zealand. Earlier this year I wrote consecutive blog articles about why neoliberalism is a massive, abject failure here and why we need to be rid of it. Here now is that perfect opportunity to do exactly that. But not only is there a unique opportunity to get rid of an economic model that has failed the vast majority of New Zealand, the potential model that could go in its place is even more thrilling.

So what is that model that could replace the failed neoliberal experiment?

The model I am calling for is a massive investment in skilled trades; niche industries backed by a complete overhaul of the New Zealand no. 8 wire model of research. It will be green, it will be designed by New Zealanders and it will work for New Zealand and New Zealanders.

We have hundreds of tradies in bad need of a steady work stream. One thing that could sort a significant number of them out is refurbishing all of the state house inventory so that they have 21st century standards of warmth and dryness. This will indirectly partially pay for itself by helping reduce the problems many New Zealanders have around asthma and other respiratory ailments.

Another one is seismic retrofitting large buildings in high seismic risk areas with shock absorbers so that the buildings can sway backwards and forth, whilst the absorbers take the seismic energy. With hundreds of buildings in the South and North Island in urgent need of this and no idea how long before the next big earthquake hits, this is a priority we should take note of.

But it is not just singular buildings or jobs for a couple of people per site that we need. New Zealand is critically behind on infrastructure. We need a comprehensive overhaul of our railway system; we could be building a hydrogen plant and investing in that instead of fossil fuel; maybe a hemp crete research facility to help cut the carbon emissions of the concrete industry, which I understand puts out about 8% of total carbon emissions.

Much of the knowledge for these ideas is already there. But is the political willpower to do something truly radical?

You tell me.



Coronavirus dangerous, but not New Zealand’s biggest medical threat

Around the world 62 nations, including New Zealand have closed their border to Chinese visitors as a result of Coronavirus (COVID19). The closures, which in the coming weeks will be reviewed, have drawn much criticism from China, upset that its nationals are being denied entry into other countries.

Whilst I believe, given the lack of Chinese government transparency around COVID19, these are the correct measures to be taking, it should be noted that other medical threats around the world with a much lower profile cause significantly more deaths per annum. In other parts of the world COVID19, despite the reputation it is building, still does not come close to their biggest medical threats to human beings. In Africa, Asia and South America combined 100,000 people each year die from snake bite, from snakes that are far more prolific than COVID19 cases. They include the Lancehead in South America, the Russell Viper in Asia, the Saw Scale Viper in both Asia and Africa and Cobras of various types throughout both continents.

In New Zealand, snakes are obviously not an issue. And so, the major killer is actually respiratory illnesses caused by poorly insulated housing. 1600 people die during each winter from respiratory illnesses caused by mould, by excessive moisture content in the house, by simply not having enough insulation in the house. And this is not a new problem either, but rather one that has been quietly working away in the background known by authorities and the public all along, yet somehow despite the significant annual spike it causes in the deaths per month, not viewed seriously by the Ministers (and their Ministries)of Housing, Health and Social Development.

So, what to do about it? Attempts have been made to address our substandard housing insulation standards, the Government will tell you, but those attempts fit with what I call “the best we can” approach of New Zealand Governments, which read correctly actually means “the best we can be bothered doing”. In these cases, the case exists for higher quality regulations, but in order to avoid offending those industries a watered down version often gets released instead.

I have not been in many rental properties, but the ones I have been in, I noted significant mould around the shower from condensation that has not been allowed to escape. At home, prior to having double glazing installed, I noticed that if one uses a scraper attached to a scope which doubles as the handle, on very heavy condensation days the scope might collect nearly a litre of water. And people talk about how frequently they have to empty the dehumidifier tray of its contents.

But how much of this could we potentially prevent if we got really serious and required insulation to reach say R7.0 in new homes and R5.0 in everything else? I suspect the death toll would come down significantly.

But is New Zealand prepared to tackle this quiet, low profile agent of death that lives among us on a day to day basis in our colder months? Are we prepared to demand law changes that require these new standards, or is another potential New Zealand killer, the “she’ll be right” attitude that makes “the best we can be bothered doing” an acceptable outcome going to continue its equally dirty work aiding and abetting such outcomes.

The choice is yours New Zealand.

Kiwi Build facade still there: No building behind it

Those living in Christchurch could be forgiven for looking at the gutted Kiwi Build programme and thinking that it reminds them of certain derelict facades left behind in the post-earthquake central business district. Battered, clearly having seen better days and with literally nothing of substance behind it, Kiwi Build’s future was announced yesterday after months and months in the repair shop. So what will become of the scheme that was going to promise 10,000 houses a year or about 100,000 all up?

In a press conference that was perhaps fitting for its size given the time, money and resources invested in Kiwi Build by the Government, Minister in charge Megan Woods was keen to make sure New Zealanders know that Kiwi Build still exists. She acknowledged the problems with the promises made and drastically marked down the number of houses expected – an interim target of 1,000 as opposed to the 100,000 that had been promised when the then Housing spokesperson Phil Twyford had basically plucked the number from thin air in 2017.

Kiwi Build was never really going to happen. The number promised was unrealistic and would have tied up our building sector in unaffordable delays to major projects. Phil Twyford should have understood this – and probably did – but instead of quietly admitting Kiwi Build was unrealistic, he let it drag out for months, showed his incompetence and finally lost the Housing portfolio. Dr Woods understood Kiwi Build was not realistic, but she was new to the portfolio and needed time to get up to speed on it, as well as figure out what to do with the facade of a grand idea that was attached to nothing.

Rather than set targets, Dr Woods could be looking at why councils have unused housing that could be made available. In Christchurch, rather than build a wad of new houses, how about appropriating the ones that were uplifted and transported to Yaldhurst from the eastern suburbs.

I want all New Zealanders to have warm healthy dry accommodation. Rather than a straight jacket one size fits all mentality, we should be looking at a diverse housing mix, including single bedroom flats as well as apartment options. Not all of us need a 3 bedroom stand alone house sitting on 1/3 acre such as my parents property in Bryndwr, Christchurch. And rather than promoting urban sprawl which consumes good arable land that is best left for agriculture and so forth, apartment blocks 3 or 4 stories high, such as that which a friend in Sweden lives.

What Kiwi Build eventually gets remembered as, we do not yet know, but we do know that the facade of it is not going to have any respectable structure behind it for sometime yet. Just like certain facades in Christchurch.




Collapsing building firms suggest construction industry has a risk issue

It has been a grim 48 hours in the New Zealand building industry with two smaller firms collapsing a day apart. The demise of Ebert Construction in Auckland and Maven Interiors in Christchurch, aside from potentially leaving 150 workers with no jobs follows on the heels of turbulence at Fletcher Construction in June.

The recent decisions to put these two firms into liquidation strongly suggests to me that the building industry in New Zealand has issues with its understanding of risk. When a building firm places bids for work, it needs to be able to have enough work to grow and employ staff. It also needs to be able to maintain the bottom line – that is to say, cover costs, such as wages, equipment, maintenance and so forth. And that is where a lot of builders seem to be falling flat on their faces.

Such issues are not new in New Zealand. In February 2013 Mainzeal construction collapsed. It was owing creditors $151 million when it folded. Little of the monies owed – if any at all – has been recovered. The costs might be greater when one considers that thousands of dollars a day would have been lost from construction sites being locked up.

To what extent cases like this are genuine risk that might not have been foreseen, as opposed to being caused by reckless behaviour, will vary from one case to the next. However the consequences are the same: half completed building jobs; contractors and sub contractors left out of pocket; expensive equipment that could be getting used to complete other projects being locked in building sites that cannot progress.

The risk has been no more graphically demonstrated than by the huge losses accrued by Fletcher Construction. Once a mighty building company running the largest building projects in New Zealand, Fletcher was a corporate high flyer. But a combination of the Christchurch earthquakes, inept handling of the airport short stay hotel for those only in town for a few hours in between flights along with a number of Auckland building projects striking trouble saw Fletcher announce a projected $660 million in losses in February 2018. When added to $322 million in losses between 01 July 2017 and 31 December 2017, the overall losses for Fletcher are nearly N.Z.$1 billion.

If the laws were not amended after the Mainzeal collapse, then what needs to change is several things:

  1. Amending the law to ensure that the little man who might have sunk much of his life savings into a project is able to recover costs and continue to work
  2. Require a company to have bonds that can be seized if it goes under
  3. Exposure of Board members, top level executives to accountability for their part in any large scale collapses


Unacceptable risk posed by quake prone hospital buildings

Staff working in Christchurch hospitals have expressed concerns that the buildings they are working in pose an undue risk in an earthquake. Furthermore the staff are concerned that they have only one option: accept the risk or resign.

It is all the more unacceptable to have these buildings in such a state as they are in a city still recovering from New Zealand’s worst seismic disaster in 80 years. The Canterbury District Health Board should not be treating this in the manner that it is, as C.D.H.B. will bear responsibility for any failure of duty of care to all those working and around the buildings on a day where they fail or suffer significant structural damage in an earthquake.

The staff are right to be concerned. It is not paranoia or anything else – aside from a duty of care to their patients to make sure that they are in as safe an environment as possible during their time of care there, staff also have the right to know that they will be safe in delivering that duty of care.

I am concerned that Christchurch as a city, and the C.D.H.B. as a Government entity are not recognizing and upholding that unspoken promise many of us would have made in mourning the passage of those who died, to learn the lessons of 22 February 2011. What example are we setting for future generations by failing in this relatively simple yet fundamentally important task?