FLOODS AND FIRES: What do extreme fires and floods have in common? They are both manifestations of climate change and these events tend to attack low density and often low-quality regional housing.

Maybe it is too soon to talk about a structural response to these attacks, but I would say that now is the perfect time for such a discussion for various reasons.

Firstly, the attacks are there and seem to have become present. The verdant growth on the side of the highway as you cross the Blue Mountains is nice but also scary. What’s grown up with all the current rain, looks a lot like tomorrow’s bushfire.

It seems we are locked into a pattern of flood and fire. And it’s a little bit more than the cliché of Dorothea Mackellar’s sunburnt country, the land of droughts and flooding rains.

The climate has gone rogue. People should not be living in the path of these events!

Secondly, COVID has accelerated intra migration out of our cities to the regions and moved more people into harm’s way.

The 2021 Census should provide some real data on this later in the year but what data there is, from banks looking at house movers or ABS sampling studies, suggest net migration to regional areas has more than doubled over the last two years compared to that prior to the pandemic. And once you take your housing capital out of Sydney or Melbourne, it’s hard to go back, as metropolitan housing prices still tend to outperform the regions.

And not everyone owns a house. Perhaps the cruellest indicator of regional migration has been the dire state of rental markets in these places. The average rental vacancy rate in regional NSW in February 2022 was around 0.8 per cent compared to 2.1 per cent in metropolitan Sydney. A vacancy rate under 3 per cent is considered tight, a rate under 1 per cent can only be described as cruel. And these figures are just going to get tighter once migration proper starts again and the effect of all those lost homes in the floods flow through (pardon the pun).

And thirdly, there is some potentially better news. The Switzerlandisation of Australia continues. Money continues to flow into this country. See M3 data below.

(The long-term trend with the M3 money supply in Australia has been growth, the pandemic seems to have accelerated that trend.)

Money is still global and looking for a home. As the world becomes a nastier place, the relative safety and certainty of Australia, in a geopolitician and economic sense, makes us a more valuable and desirable place. And some of those emerging markets like Russia and mainland China are not looking like a smart place for money anymore. Australia has distance, space, and a world class legal framework. In NSW our Torrens titling and a relative lack of property taxes looks pretty good from a global perspective.

People may complain about all this loose money in our economy because it pumps up prices, but it’s better than capital flight. And loose money doesn’t stay in bank accounts for too long and will find a home. That place could further the public interest or just flow into existing assets making mega prices.

The downside in Australia is the unresponsive nature of our institutions, our love affair with regulation and our cultural phobia to change and innovation. All these downsides are present in the regions and in some ways amplified. The regions have additional obstacles in terms of lack of skills and capacity to develop land. And a provincial attitude to change and doing things differently.

Loose money is an opportunity not a problem. It becomes a problem when no one appreciates what the answer to the problem is. As Roosevelt said, the real problem is fear itself.

The risk of this money bloating prices and just heading into the same old boring places, bigger houses, cars, prices etc, could be likened to the story of megafauna on our continent. Before humans showed up, Australia was a big, lazy, isolated place. The wombats just got bigger and bigger.

Then the Aboriginals came, lived with the megafauna for a while, got hungry, speared them, and ate them. Imagine the steaks off that wombat!

Suburban housing strategies for regional Australia went mega long before the pandemic. The housing strategy for most regional towns is another suburban release area. Even the dumbest idea of all gets up sometimes – large lot housing just off the town water far enough away, big enough and dispersed enough to prejudice agriculture (or a solar farm) and put that housing in harm’s way.

The reckoning for mega habitation might be on an accelerated climate change timeline. And the proverbial spears are climate change events and the uneconomic reality of these places. Loose undirected money in an unresponsive environment has a mega effect.

Climate change is bringing into relief something that was already ugly – post war, coastal development in Australia. It is spread out, car based, poorly considered and often eerily vacant. Like an oversized wombat.

After destruction there is always an option to rebuild on the pad of the burnt or flooded home site or start to think differently about these places. And then there is the perennial definition of stupid, doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result. In summer of 2019/20 we had our climate change bushfires, this year our climate change floods. Are we the lucky or stupid/mega country?

During the recent rain, again in a strange climate change induced lock down, it was clear these extreme weather patterns are not going away. There is now a clear climate change Jing and Yang taking place. Today’s extreme wetness will become tomorrow’s extreme fire. It’s a seesaw that will become increasingly uncontrollable, particularly if no one responds to the pattern.

Climate change is bringing into relief something that was already ugly – post war, coastal development in Australia. It is spread out, car based, poorly considered and often eerily vacant. Like an oversized wombat.

The dispersed can give rise to the incoherent in politics

And it’s not just the physical landscape – dispersed regional communities can come up with dispersed and incoherent political responses too: Pauline Hanson, Clive Palmer et al. 

Have a look at any voting map after an American election, the Republic (red) areas are all concentrated in rural and regional areas and the democrat (blue) areas are in the cities. 

People living with other people vote in a coherent and collective fashion, whereas people in more isolated communities vote individualistically and that tends to favour the right wing populists. And does the world need righter right wing populists right now? Or bigger wombats?

These political forces capture the unconscious unhappiness of rural and fringe urban communities. 

The Morrison election in May 2019, which in some way was Australia’s soft Trump/Brexit moment, was delivered by non-metropolitan voters, (“how good is Queensland”) and in metropolitan areas perverse votes from traditional Labor areas. An ABC voting map showing swings between parties showed this clearly. The blue dots are swings to the coalition and the red swings to Labor.

Sydney voting map 2019 (red dots are swings to Labor blue dots swings to the coalition) 

The landlords voted for change and tenants voted for their landlord

The landlords voted for change and tenants voted for their landlord. (And to be fair to our regional areas, the voting pattern is more diverse than the American example with some progressive standouts in the regions: our regional voters are smarter and more discerning than those in America.)

So, what does this have to do with floods, fire, and wombats. Well, it all gets in the way of a solution. And wombats are well known for their unpredictable voting habits.

The visions of remote bush and rural communities completely burnt out or washed away suggests that habitation needs to take a more defensive form. Learn from the wombats.

Housing in the age of climate change should become denser, communal, servable, and defendable. The idea of the sole climate change prepper with their solar cells and water tanks in a remote valley is a dangerous mirage. The reality of sustainable habitation is more likely to be individuals and households living more communally and in tighter urban spaces. Not like a wombat burrow, perhaps more like a medieval European walled town.

I would suggest that has happened before and the forms of housing are known.

Habitation in general needs to become more defensive. Like the walled cities in northern Italy, but instead of walling off and clustering together to defend against rampaging Visigoths, it’s climate change events that are attacking. 

When the bell rings and it’s time to head back to the town on the hill, it’s not to avoid a confrontation with a Visigoth (why are those people so angry?) but now it’s about a rapidly rising river or an approaching fire front. And I speculate that there are some climate change weather events we have not seen yet. (An army of wombats surfing a tsunami?)

All this money flowing into our country is an opportunity to manage the change and build denser, more collective regional settlements that don’t periodically get destroyed. And to avoid the now repeated spectacle of Scott Morrison wandering around dismayed communities looking for a hand to shake, and the members of those communities looking to a government with no direction to fix their dire problems.

If I am still watching this happen again and again, no more donations to the fire/flood appeal, the wombat refuge gets the lot.

What a climate change habitation strategy might look like is an urban densification strategy for regional towns (not on flood plains) and those towns then becoming end points and the focus for infrastructure improvements such as regional rail. 

The logic of urban consolidation fits neatly into a climate change world. Living in the bush or outside the town should be actively discouraged and for households that have a productive reason to be there, such for agriculture, some tourism, renewable energy generation or Landcare, or it’s ok if you’re a wombat. 

Insurance companies are likely already formulating premiums that reflect this sort of approach just as industry seems to understand that a low emission operating environment is in our future. Some hints from government would be useful.

Think San Gimignano on the south coast, with wombats.

Philip Bull, Civic Assessment

Philip Bull is the principal of Civic Assessment a development consulting business, focused on development and social impact assessment. He has worked in the planning departments of Woollahra, Botany, South Sydney, Randwick, the City of Sydney and Waverley Councils. More by Philip Bull, Civic Assessment

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