We need a masterplan to deal with worsening disasters
Sometimes it takes a disaster to shake the complacency out of us. To rethink the attitude of ‘she’ll be right’ when clearly things are not right.
So isn’t it time to develop a national masterplan to help guide future planning and development in this country to try and stop the increasing loss of life and damage that the natural forces around Australia unleash?
If you look at the past decade there have many natural disasters, both fire and flood, which have destroyed so many homes. We have seen the fires in Victoria which swept through the hill communities of Flowerdale, Kinglake and Marysville in 2009 destroying over 2,000 homes and taking 173 lives. Back in 1983 Ash Wednesday fires in South Australia destroyed 2,400 homes.
Increasingly our cities are at risk. Around Sydney, the Christmas Day fires in 2001 ended up destroying 109 homes; in 2003 we saw almost 500 homes destroyed in Canberra. Worse was to come. In 2011 we have our third largest capital city devastated.
The reality is that each time the devastation and cost is worse. In the 1974 floods, Brisbane was little more than a country town when 7,000 homes were flooded and the damage bill was over $200million. The 2001 Christmas Day fires caused approximately $75 million in damage.
Then in 2009, the cost of the Black Saturday fires disaster is estimated to have exceeded $4 billion. The Queensland flood bill alone is estimated to surpass that - $5 billion and the loss to our GDP is being put at $15billion. The cost of natural disaster is extensive, expensive and each time the bills keep rising.
The costs may not be what this country can afford but it is a cost we will have to pay. The Federal Government is going to pay 75c of every dollar spent by the Queensland Government. In doing this isn’t the Federal Government, on behalf of taxpayers, entitled to step in and say ‘If you want us to bear the risk you must share the responsibility to make sure that all new development is appropriate’?
Should the taxpayers be asked to continually accept the risk as the cost of these events moves from the millions to billions of dollars? As a nation we should do our best to insure against future costs.
Like an insurance company managing risk, we should as a nation demand that the risk is lessened, the future costs contained. The best way to do that is to stop development where buildings and lives are potentially at risk.
The Federal Government can take the lead to help reframe our planning laws to ensure sustainable safe development, where development is less likely to be ravaged by fires or inundated by flood at such cost. In the national interest we should look at ways to discourage home owners or prospective buyers or other people who might take up residence in flood or bushfire-prone areas.
Compensation may be required for some.
A national master plan can draw on state planning experiences. Following the 1983 bushfires that exploded across South Australia on a day that will forever be remembered as Ash Wednesday, the SA Government enacted an Environmental Policy to prohibit development in bushfire-prone areas.
More recently the Black Saturday Royal Commission in 2009, the most comprehensive investigation of a natural disaster in the country’s history, made recommendations after 154 days of evidence from more than 400 witnesses. It is timely to recall a key recommendation:
Develop and implement a retreat and resettlement strategy for existing developments in areas of unacceptably high bushfire risk, including a scheme for non-compulsory acquisition by the state of land in these areas.
Both the SA and Victorian governments promised to seriously consider the recommendations of the Commission. Yet the SA government didn’t accept that recommendation. The Victorian government didn’t accept that recommendation. The Federal Government should step into the breach and drive a critical rethink of what this nation must do to better manage disaster.
No doubt there will be other useful findings out of the Queensland Flood Royal Commission.
According to Premier Anna Bligh, 28,000 homes need to be completely rebuilt. At a time of such loss no government is inclined to dictate the terms on which the victims can rebuild their lives. However tough leadership is required - building 28,000 homes involves a huge effort and cost when history has the habit of repeating itself.
If we simply allow development on the same land, it overlooks the fact that some land should not be rebuilt on. In land demonstrated to be prone to flooding, new development, even if it rivals the iconic Seidler Riverside Centre, should not be given the green light.
A national master plan would be a blueprint for Australia and an aid for State governments - a planning tool based on the best science available as to what areas are suitable for what types of development and what should be left out of harm’s way. Already the information we need for a masterplan for floods is being collated. Defence has sent out mapping experts who have flown over affected areas to record the extent of the floods.
Now is the opportunity to seriously rethink the way our planning laws operate to ensure sustainable safe development, development that is less likely to be ravaged by fires or inundated by flood. It is a matter that should be on the agenda at the next COAG meeting.
One suggestion might be that the former ‘Commonwealth Natural Disaster Mitigation’ Program be refocussed on planning to achieve that very outcome – disaster mitigation.
This disaster, as horrible as it is, provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to seriously look at a master plan for this country – drought and flooding rains we can live with, but not live in.
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