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Housing demand, extreme weather up the ante on planning 

Preventing high-risk building on floodplains is becoming increasingly urgent as climate threats combined with a rising population and greater housing needs potentially put more people at risk from extreme weather events. 

Master Builders Association CEO Denita Wawn says Australia’s population is projected to grow by 50% by 2060, reaching nearly 40 million people, requiring a “massive construction uplift” in creating new communities and expanding existing residential areas. 

Past decades have seen housing mushrooming across swathes of flat land, with minimal consideration to potential threats from natural disasters, and floods in particular, but last year’s catastrophes have upped the ante on calls to rethink the way in which development is considered. 

The Insurance Council of Australia (ICA), Master Builders Australia and the Planning Institute of Australia came together at an inaugural roundtable last week, supported by the Australian Local Government Association, as the campaign for nationally consistent reforms gains traction.  

“Housing shortages place massive pressures on all governments to solve the problem as quickly as possible. Time is of the essence,” Ms Wawn said in opening remarks at the roundtable. 

“Nevertheless, decisions on removing impediments to the housing supply cannot be undertaken without incorporating a resilience overlay.” 

The roundtable was timed to coincide with a planning ministers meeting as resilience issues feed into National Cabinet considerations. But reforms are never easily achieved and there’s a long road ahead. 

ICA CEO Andrew Hall told last month, ahead of the roundtable, that all governments are recognising the problems and it’s a matter of turning that buy-in and positive sentiment into action. 

The roundtable provides a way to put forward a broad, consistent industry approach that helps drive the process by advocating concrete proposals around preventing development on floodplains and ensuring responsible land use.  

“We've got to take it from these motherhood statements to something that's actionable and makes sense,” Mr Hall said. 

Roundtable participants noted the importance of planning that is state-led, catchment-based and locally supported, incorporating flood risk and water catchment boundaries rather than local government boundaries. 

Recommendations discussed included that planning ministers must complete work this year to develop a national standard for considering disaster and climate risk, as agreed by National Cabinet. 

Federal, state and territory governments should work with industry via the Hazards Insurance Partnership to update, standardise and make publicly available climate hazard data and mapping that considers the long-term and prioritises high impact perils, including flood, a communique says. 

Governments should, taking account of climate modelling, also use agreed parameters to limit development in areas prone to other extreme risks, including bushfires, cyclones and coastal hazards, it says. 

The need for nationally consistent principles for future action and investment where planned retreat is needed was also advocated. 

The issues were highlighted again on the weekend, with NSW Premier Chris Minns expressing concern over development applications approved on the Hawkesbury-Nepean floodplain. 

The Premier flagged the potential for a ban on new development in the high-risk area, noting “astronomical” costs for taxpayers from flooding, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. 

Planning Institute of Australia CEO Matt Collins told the roundtable that a changing climate means there’s a need to act now to limit the impact of extreme weather on communities. 

“By adopting new risk-based policies and investing in better mapping and data, we can ensure development avoids or minimises exposure to flood hazards,” he said. 

“Australia’s town planners support governments taking clear action to ensure more climate-conscious planning systems, and this roundtable is an important step towards this goal.” 

Terms of reference for a Federal Government parliamentary inquiry into insurers’ responses to last year’s devastating floods have yet to be released but the planning issue may also arise as part of that process. 

Assistant Treasurer Stephen Jones said in announcing the inquiry that it’s important to look at the underlying risk and to ensure more houses and communities are not placed in peril. 

“We want to ensure that at the very least we’re not building more houses and suburbs in floodplains,” he said. “We want to ensure that at the very least when we are building things back, whether it's infrastructure or houses, that we’re building them back better and more resilient to the risks in the areas that they live in.” 

The problem is known, the solutions are clear and its increasingly recognised that failing to act will mean more people will live in harm’s way in future, with all the resulting repercussions.