The Planning Institute has been forthright in calling for a better way to live in a changing climate.

We need to build capacity in our communities and our institutions to become resilient to more frequent and severe natural hazards.

Two of the three worst Lismore floods in recorded history have happened this year – reaching 14.6m, well over roof tops including much of the CBD.

Other big floods were in 2003, 2011 and 2017. The loss of life and impact on livelihoods is traumatic. This pattern follows the black summer bushfires that burnt a historically unrivalled extent of land and forest.

Seeing the danger and ruin of repeated fires and flood demands a shift in thinking – away from dealing with these events as contingencies – towards orderly planning of settlement and budgeting for their inevitable re-occurrence.

For the fourth time since 2019, PIA has provided evidence to bushfire and flood inquiries. Each time we echoed the Productivity Commission’s call to prioritize planning, prevention and preparation as the most cost-effective approach.

“Land use planning is perhaps the most potent policy lever for influencing the level of future disaster risk ” (Productivity Commission Report into Natural Disaster Funding 2015).

Recovery and reconstruction must be generously funded but have historically taken up over 95% of all budget commitments towards natural hazards. Forward planning accounts for less than 5%.

PIA has consistently advocated ‘build back more resilient’ – not ‘build back the same’ property and infrastructure. We support planning to avoid or minimise costs and risks to future development taking into account climate change. But where human life is threatened, we agree:

“One of the basic principles of environmental management is: if you can’t remove the risk, move people from the risk ” (Rugendyke, Vanclay and Witherby, 2022).

A spectrum of planning approaches to floods

PIA urges all tiers of Government to build capacity to plan, invest and act across the full spectrum of hazard situations identified in a risk-based framework. This should extend through:

  1. Planning to avoid future exposure – by preventing or restricting vulnerable development based on best available knowledge and emerging climate scenarios.
  2. Managing known risks to existing settlement – by improving access and community awareness and capability to adapt.
  3. Strengthening governance and funding arrangements for ‘planned retreat’ for some legacy situations where the threat to human life cannot be mitigated.

First, we need to plan more uncertain future through more conservative flood planning controls. We need to be circumspect about approving developments in the floodplain, and very clear about not building where homes will get inundated, and lives put at risk. This demands investment in better modelling and mapping using more conservative assumptions and introducing climate change scenarios.

What is safe will vary across a floodplain; it is no longer reasonable to set a 1 in 100 year level for buildings – you need to know how floods behave and take account of different scenarios for more frequent and intense rainfall across multiple catchments. The recent NSW Flood Prone Land Package was important in enabling Councils to set higher controls in areas of increasing exposure.

The next generation of Regional Plans should embed resilience strategies and provide a framework for addressing different levels of flood hazard and risk. Regional Plans should identify where settlement can occur without increasing exposure and without locking in demand for high-cost engineering projects.

Second, where there is a flood threat, we need to strengthen the ability of communities to adapt – and build institutional capacity to make the right investments in infrastructure and services. PIA supports councils, organisations such as Resilience NSW and local community preparing their own planning and management responses referencing a regional resilience strategy. This would include identifying where and when evacuation is the priority or if built solutions like floor-raising can be effective.
The third pillar involves legacy situations in which homes are fundamentally exposed and lives are increasingly at risk. This is already the case in parts of the Hawkesbury Valley and around Lismore.
We need a long-term plan and budget for possible relocation and a way of sharing the costs and risks between individuals (and their insurers) and government for a resilient pattern of settlement. This should not only be for the benefit of relocated households – but to strengthen the economic and social functions of regional towns set out in resilience strategies.

The community and political realm would be more open to participate in conversations on the relocation of settlements when we have the frameworks in place. The relocation of Grantham in the Lockyer Valley involved many professional planners and provided institutional responses and other lessons towards a larger scale model of planned retreat.

Already Lismore Council has set out options for future settlement planning in their Discussion Paper on the growth and rebuilding of the town centre. We will need to build the institutional capacity and funding to manage planned retreat for major centres like Lismore. The model should be transferable to different future hazards / places. It should involve a capacity to prioritise where planned retreat / reconstruction is appropriate (eg via Resilience NSW) and have the powers and capability to support Council in planning, relocation and construction of new settlement. The Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation has been set up for this purpose and it could consider the broader planning powers available to the Queensland Reconstruction Authority. Community leadership should steer any relocation and involvement should be voluntary.


All Governments need to adapt

More frequent and intense natural hazards in a more energised climate demand a new approach. PIA sees the roles of government adapting. PIA are calling for:

  • The Commonwealth to set a coherent framework for considering climate scenarios and the broad distribution of growth through a National Settlement Strategy.
  • The Commonwealth, States and Territories to move from resourcing natural hazard responses as contingencies – towards treating adaptation planning and works as part of a program budget to build resilience.
  • The arrangements for co-funding these programs, plans and infrastructure to be re-established across all tiers of Government – based on planning to avoid hazard and ‘building back more resilient.’
  • Regional plans to be well resourced and integrated with resilience strategies which set out where settlements should grow and how they would address risks.
  • State and Territory Governments should build capacity and adopt a framework for prioritising involvement in significant legacy situations where ‘planned retreat’ is appropriate.
  • Councils and local communities to build on successful examples and actively manage adaptation in the context of their resilience strategies.
  • Councils need have the resources and capacity to update modelling and mapping tools and continue to work with local communities on their unique priorities.

PIA have set out these calls for action in our submission to the NSW Flood Inquiry and have made comparable recommendations for building resilience to bushfire and other natural hazards.


 By John Brockhoff, National Policy Director, Planning Institute of Australia