The devastating quake which hit Christchurch and large parts of rural Canterbury has demonstrated how unprepared the New Zealand Historic Places Trust has been to deal with the emergency. Local staff members are being worked off their feet to help with assessment of damage to heritage buildings, but with the best will in the world they cannot cover enough ground. They simply do not have enough manpower to deal with the scale of the damage.
What has become very clear is that the NZHPT, as the lead heritage agency in the country, should have had an earthquake contingency plan in place. Such a plan should include provision for an emergency team that can be called in to assist with assessments of earthquake damage. The team would be drawn from a list of engineers sympathetic to heritage buildings, heritage architects, archaeologists, stained glass conservators, earth building specialists, and skilled heritage stone masons, to name just some of the obvious skills likely to be required. It is important that the list of skilled people able to form an emergency team should be drawn from across the country so that no matter where a quake hits, there will always be people available somewhere .
What would have happened if members of the local staff had been incapacitated by the quake? How soon would we have seen an HPT presence here. As it is, buildings are being lost because there are not enough heritage consultants on the ground to assist property owners to make informed decisions about the prospects of retaining buildings. It is now a week after the event, and no-one from head office has been near the city. It is apparently being viewed as a purely regional issue, despite that fact that a high number of Category 1 buildings (and therefore buildings of national significance) have been damaged in the quake.
In stark contrast to the absence of any comments from the CEO of NZHPT, ICOMOS New Zealand issued a Press Release soon after the quake, urging caution before taking the decision to demolish any damaged heritage buildings. Since then emails of solidarity and support have been received from members of the heritage community around the globe. It is clear that the world is watching to see how we deal with our heritage after this natural disaster, and I am afraid that the response of the NZHPT will be found wanting.
I hope before another major quake hits somewhere in New Zealand, NZHPT will have addressed the shortcomings of its response to this event and that it will have in place national and regional emergency plans so that it is in a position to step in and help immediately with all the manpower necessary to adequately cover the affected area.