Making our cities climate resilient – and urban planning in general – used to be niche topics. But this week’s episode of Four Corners, focusing on the recent floods and planning policies around it, shows the public is starting to sit up and take notice of these issues and how they affect everyday life.

It’s likely to make things uncomfortable for political leaders, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet in particular, who in recent times backed a development industry against his own former planning minister, who is highly educated in the field.

It’s a topic we’ve been vocal about in recent weeks: the need to make our built environment resilient to climate-related disasters. Unless we adapt our buildings, suburbs and towns to more intense cycles of dry (El Niño) and wet (La Niña) weather (driven by climate change’s impact on ocean currents), some areas will become uninhabitable.

Now there’s some excellent cut-through on the issue – the kind that only television can manage – through the ABC’s Four Corners program, which looked into the recent east coast flood emergency.

This well-researched episode opened with footage of a cow on a roof in Lismore.

The show made some strong points:

  • the floods we’re seeing right now are unprecedented 
  • climate disasters are making properties uninsurable
  • whole cities (such as Grantham in Queensland) have already been relocated
  • NSW Planning Minister Anthony Roberts’ policies allow new housing estates to be built on western Sydney floodplains.

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Four Corners also confirmed indications from our sources that there are already serious high-level conversations going on right now about relocating Lismore.

In fact, Lismore Mayor Steve Krieg even advocated the state government sacking the council to make it happen.

Former NSW planning minister Rob Stokes was diplomatic when asked by the ABC’s Adam Harvey why the state government dumped his planning principles, designed to leave us better prepared to face the floods and extreme heat.

The planning principles underpinned another vital planning policy that would have prepared the community to severe weather and floods, but was abandoned by Roberts: the urban design guide for master planned communities that was part of the design and place SEPP.)

“Well, whatever approach is taken, and different ministers may have different approaches, the challenge we face is not going away. The challenge we face remains before us,” Stokes said.

But the big thing that stood were some of the thoughts shared by Urban Taskforce chief executive Tom Forrest. 

Forrest is known as a fierce and passionate advocate for the interests of his developer members.

Here’s a sample of his comments, which we think speak for themselves:

“You shouldn’t be building in areas that are seriously flood prone, particularly where it might involve risk to life. However, these are always going to be difficult and complicated decisions because there is a strong consumer demand for purchasing larger properties in the outskirts of Sydney.”

And: “I would say buyer beware. I would say if you’re buying a $1.2 million house in western Sydney, you need to read the 200 pages of documentation as to all of the issues associated with your home.”

But: “We have an over-cautious response to flood evacuation.”

Forrest continued: “We’ve had a flood emergency come up about as quickly as we’ve seen a flood emergency come up in recent times, and I’ve not heard of roads that are choked with people who are stranded in flood prone waters as yet.”

And: “I think the most important thing up front is to not start immediately making decisions about where we shouldn’t build in the middle of a flood crisis.

“It’s really important that we step aside from the obvious emotions of the difficulties people are facing and not make knee jerk responses that may sometimes be inflamed with passion.”

Well, as the premier is fast discovering, nothing inflames passions quite like a home that’s been destroyed in a climate related disaster.

You can see the full episode, including Mr Forrest’s insights, below:

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