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Planning failures deepening the flood crisis: ABC reveals

As Australia is faced with another flood crisis questions are being raised about how future developments in floodplains are being managed.

In the wake of the recent flood disaster that has struck the eastern parts of NSW, a Four Corners episode on the ABC on Monday (11 July) revealed what actions government agencies are taking to ensure the future of Australian homes is protected.

The total number of disaster-declared LGAs for the weather event that started on 27 June 2022 is now 37, with the federal and state governments expanding the local government areas eligible to receive the Disaster Recovery Payment.

With suburbs still underwater there’s a renewed debate about whether we should be building on floodplains such as the Hawkesbury.

Chief executive of Urban Taskforce, Tom Forrest, told the ABC, while there shouldn’t be buildings in areas that are seriously flood-prone, there was strong consumer demand for purchasing larger properties in the outskirts of Sydney.

As homes in west of Sydney are getting snapped up for prices tipping $1 million, Mr Forrest said “buyers beware”.

“If you are buying a $1.2 million house in Western Sydney, you need to read that 200 pages of documentation as to all of the issues associated with your home,” Mr Forrest said.

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In 2017 Infrastructure NSW warned that the road networks “were insufficient to evacuate the people” who lived in the Hawkesbury Nepean, but construction continued, the ABC revealed.

Former NSW SES deputy director-general, Chas Keys, said while most people understand the risks, it was “frustrating” to see more developments being built or planned that increased the issues.

“The problem in Hawkesbury is the difficulty of escape and the fact that people don’t want to evacuate. Which means a rising river will cut evacuation routes and people will be trapped,” Mr Keys said.

“I think there needs to be some careful planning. The more development that comes into this area the greater the risk increases.

While the NSW government has not committed to moving people off floodplains just yet it had paused residential rezoning on the floodplain, and announced a number of jointly-funded support measures for those impacted.

The federal government’s Disaster Recovery Payment was extended to eight additional local government areas (LGA), offering $1,000 grants for eligible adults in 37 communities across the Greater Sydney, Illawarra, Hunter and Mid Coast regions.

In addition, the federal and the state governments expanded the support for in both eligibility and scope, offering grants of up to $50,000 for both small businesses and not-for-profit organisations that are suffering from direct flood damage.

Other measures include grants of up to $75,000 for directly affected primary producers and $1 million grants for each of the 37 impacted LGAs. 

Both the federal and NSW governments also confirmed that an initial estimated $80 million will be committed to assist with the clean-up of flood and storm-related damage, and an estimated $36 million for property assessments and, if necessary, free demolition. 

Lenders have also rolled out financial support measures such as waived fees, short-term payment reliefs, and loan deferrals with NAB announcing grants to its customers up to $1,000.

Insurance challenges

With the likelihood of more extreme weather events and thousand of homes approved in flood prone areas, insuring properties will become more challenging, head of Insurance Council Andrew Hall, told the ABC.

“It’s already going to be a very expensive job protecting Western Sydney and the communities that live and work there from the risks that exist for flooding,” Mr Hall said.

With insurance in flood-prone areas becoming more expensive and harder to find, Mr Hall said further developments will exacerbate the problem.

“A sustainable insurance industry will only work when the premiums of the many pay the claims of the few and in this instance, when we have a situation where you’ve got whole communities that are at risk, the insurance sector starts to become untenable,” he told the ABC.

Qld government’s land swap

Grantham in Queensland was relocated to higher ground as part of a land swap deal funded by the federal, state and local governments after disastrous floods 11 years ago that took the lives of 12 people.

It left the local Lockyer Valley Regional Council with a $6.3 million bill, the ABC reported.

Under the arrangement, those who chose to relocate needed to foot the bill to rebuild and demolish their flood-stricken home – a welcomed offer for many who relocated at the time.

This year Grantham was hit again leaving those who stayed behind in a muddy mess.

In 2022, more than 7,000 Queensland homes were damaged by flooding across 37 local government areas, according to the federal Emergency Management Minister, Murray Watt.

As part of the government’s support measures, Queensland home owners who experienced damage to their residential property can access the jointly funded $741 million Resilient Homes Fund.

Flood historian Dr Margaret Cook, who has been documenting the impact of floods in Brisbane and beyond told the ABC the 2011 inquiry into the floods didn’t go far enough.

“We didn’t do the big issues that I’m talking about, which is actually marking areas where we don’t continue to build,” Ms Cook said.

She explained there were a lot of players “who don’t really want to stop the system”.

“Councils get a lot of rates from houses being built. The state government gets land tax from land being subdivided. The real estate industry and the building industry is very, very powerful in Queensland,” Ms Cook said.

“It’s the developers, it’s the real estate agents, it’s that sort of industry and lots of people are moving to Brisbane. They want new houses and so there’s that pressure as well.

“We do know how to prevent them through design and zoning and moving people. It’s never too late.”

Flood resilience-building guidelines

In the wake of Brisbane’s floods, the Queensland government released flood resilience design guidelines to help safeguard homes against the impact of floods.

The guidelines were developed in collaboration with Queensland government architect Leah Lang and James Davidson Architects, a practice that specialises in designing in extreme climates.

“We need to retreat from certain areas,” Mr Davidson said.

“We need to think about changing building types in other areas that suit population pressures and flooding.

“We need to change, reform building codes for more appropriate building material usage and then we have to deal with the legacy of the people that still get flooded every now and then.”

Northern NSW

In Lismore, which has a long history of flooding saw its worst on record by “two metres”, former deputy director-general at NSW SES Mr Keys told the ABC.

“Lismore broke its record established over 150 years, Mr Keys said. 

While people are faced with the dilemma of whether to stay or leave their homes, a council report has recommended moving people to higher ground through a land swap arrangement.

But Lismore’s mayor Steve Krieg believes the decisions are “too big for council”.

“Council can’t do it. It’s as simple as that. We cannot do it. We need the state and the federal government to help us, Mr Krieg said.

“This is a very personal opinion, this is not a council statement, but really you can’t do the work that needs to be done in Lismore through the council.

“You actually need an autocratic approach and if you want me to be totally honest… but you actually need to sack the council to make this happen.

A new reconstruction authority has been set up by the NSW government to take charge, but no decisions on the future of Lismore will be made until an independent inquiry reports at the end of the month, the ABC reported.

One of the biggest decisions in the report will be whether to relocate Lismore’s CBD, as the event will inevitably repeat itself.

Weather events prompt change

With more extreme weather predicted over the coming months attention on the government’s planning minister is mounting.

Last year the-then NSW planning minister Rob Stokes announced guidelines to address the increasing risk of floods caused by climate change.

“It’s to ensure we take a very precautionary approach when we look at future development because we know that the nature of the risks we’re facing are changing and amplifying and that’s a direct cause of climate change,” former NSW planning minister Mr Stokes.

But a ministerial reshuffle saw a new planning minister, Anthony Roberts, who dumped the guidelines due to unnecessary delay and cost for developments.

Pointing towards the devastation across NSW, Professor Elizabeth Mossop said it “seems crazy” that we would not be taking climate change into account in every decision that we make about planning and development.

“We can’t continue with a business as usual approach in this space, any longer. Everything has to change right now,” Professor Mossop said. 

[Related: Government flood support expanded]

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