As residents of western Sydney return to their homes after another flood-induced evacuation, everyone is asking what more could have been done to prevent this disaster. Alongside the gut-wrenching clean-up, we need to take stock, take a breath, and explore the options for reducing flood risk in our city. Doing nothing is not one of them.
This disaster is not the fault of people who built homes or bought in flood-prone areas. These areas were zoned for residential development, with building permits granted for the homes now being washed away. The responsibility for halting these recurring disasters sits with planners and policy makers.
The first priority must of course be ensuring affected communities are safe and that every support is given to people who have had their homes damaged or destroyed. At the same time, we must do everything we can to make sure people are not again put in harms way, in areas that are known flood hazards.
Of 25,000 houses built across the Hawkesbury-Nepean floodplain, there are now 5,000 below the historic one-in-100-year flood level, and a further 7,000 under the one-in-500-year flood level.
Potential for a major policy review
Premier Dominic Perrottet described the latest floods as “unprecedented” and said “development should be minimised as much as possible” in flood-prone areas, flagging that the NSW Government will “reflect and look at potential changes in policy.”
Deputy Premier Paul Toole called for a reassessment of where housing developments are permitted across the state, saying the government needed to ensure people were not settled in the path of potential natural disasters.
The Committee fully supports these commitments to rethinking development in the floodplain.
We recommend the NSW Government takes a two-stage approach to this review, consistent with the Committee’s policy advocacy around flood risk in the Hawkesbury Nepean floodplain – to do everything in our power to:
- Reduce the risk to life and property for current residents of the floodplain
- Revise our approach to development on the floodplain, ensuring we do not put people and properties at unacceptable risk.
Doing nothing is not an option
Regardless of the decision on raising Warragamba Dam, communities in Sydney will remain at risk of severe flooding because flood evacuation infrastructure is lagging behind population growth – and because the main purpose of the additional dam capacity is increasing the amount of evacuation time residents have in future floods.
Insurance premiums are extreme – as much as $40,000 per year – and will undoubtedly rise as insurers price in the costs of future disasters. The floods of 2021 and 2022, combined with the rising costs of insurance, make flood risk an issue that needs to be solved urgently.
By 2100, Sydney is projected to have as many as 91,000 ‘uninsurable’ addresses — the most of any city in Australia — with more than five times as many uninsurable properties in 2100 than 2019. The most ‘uninsurable’ areas will be concentrated near the Georges River in the southwest, the Hawkesbury River to the north, and the Nepean River in the west.
Some of the planning has been done
In 2019, the NSW Government started developing a Regional Land Use Planning Framework to manage flood risk in the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley for the 134,000 current residents and workers, and current state government plans to double that number by 2041.
This plan needs to be revisited. It is not acceptable to be building homes in locations where people will live under constant threat of losing everything to a flood.
It’s time to break this cycle of disaster
The Committee recommends the following urgent actions to address the rising costs and risk of flooding in Sydney:
- Upgrade evacuation infrastructure, without unlocking additional development potential. We need evacuation routes to reduce risk to life and increase the time for people to leave, with controls to ensure this is purely a safety measure for existing populations rather than an enabler of additional development potential.
- Restrict future development on the floodplain in areas of high risk. Create a ‘traffic light’ style map of the floodplain identifying areas of high, medium and low risk, which reflect the expected impacts of climate change, and implement planning mechanisms to stop dangerous development. The Minister for Planning put a halt to new development on flood-prone land in Sydney in 2021 due to concerns about evacuation. This restriction should become permanent where there is a high risk to life and property, preferably through a change to existing zoning.
- Introduce a voluntary buyback to provide a pathway for vulnerable residents out of high flood risk zones. We understand the NSW Government is considering stamp duty exemptions for property owners leaving the floodplain. Our recommendation goes further, we think the evidence is clear strong incentives are needed to move people out of harm’s way and reduce growing pressure on our emergency services agencies. Funded by state government, and using the existing voluntary purchase scheme mechanism, this would enable residents to sell properties below the one-in-100-year flood line to the government at market rates, transferring ownership into state or local government hands.
- A long-term regional land use strategy that uses tradeable development rights to provide a path out of the floodplain for landowners, and which progressively reduces density in the highest areas of risk. This approach would build on the traffic light style map to help each local government area identify where increased density would be appropriate. In areas of the floodplain where development was targeted for reduction, developers could buy existing residential lots and transfer that development potential (or existing use). Effectively this mechanism would act, over time, to redirect development from areas of high risk to areas of low risk and planned growth.
- Create a taskforce to investigate the rising costs of flood insurance in the floodplain. The purpose would be to understand how rising insurance is affecting residents and businesses now, what the likely future scenarios might be as insurance becomes less accessible to many, and what the right policy interventions would be. This would be done in partnership with the Insurance Council of Australia.