COMMENT: By early afternoon on Thursday the people of Lismore – and everyone else who lives in a flood plain or bushfire zone – will apparently be offered a communique about how we might resolve our future climate disasters.

Meeting at a roundtable in Sydney will be four representatives of the organisations that should, theoretically, be able to solve what promises to be the growing and intractable climate disasters we may well have to contend with, given the insane heat experienced in parts of the northern hemisphere right now, and potentially making its way downunder to wreak havoc. And if not this summer then probably soon. And if not bushfires, then floods.

All Australians know how that might play out.

Present at the roundtable, the first meeting of the National Industry Roundtable: Land Use Planning and Resilience, will be:

  • Andrew Hall, chief executive officer, Insurance Council of Australia
  • Denita Wawn, CEO, Master Builders Australia
  • Matt Collins, CEO, Planning Institute of Australia
  • Linda Scott, president, Australian Local Government Association

What they might or might not say is a state secret at this minute – because a joint statement needs to be decided and that’s the job of the discussions.

But regardless of the fine details what we do know is that the issue of where people want to live – their homes, their communities – is a highly emotional issue. And dealing with who pays when it doesn’t work out Barbie style, is a massive and growing problem that should concern us all.

At Lismore, hit by devastating floods twice in recent times, the story coming through is that people don’t want to leave the place they’re attached to. There’s a reason they call it “putting down roots” we guess.

Dean of the Department of Design, Architecture and Building at University of Technology Sydney, Elizabeth Mossop, who has been involved in reconstruction plans at Lismore – after similar work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina – was clear on Tuesday afternoon that there’s a lot riding on the insurance industry.

“It’s often the insurers who drive a lot of the planning outcomes,” she said. “That’s what happened in New Orleans – insurers redrew the flood maps by default because they decided what they would and wouldn’t insure.”

In the US though, the federal government has become the insurer of last resort. Which has seen people build and rebuild in dangerous areas.

If Australia wants to avoid this situation it needs to develop clear plans and guidelines and we guess that’s what the roundtable is about.

Certainly, the insurers have the biggest pile of cash at stake in these scenarios and they therefore bring the best minds and the best dat- mining skills to their determinations.

“Risk and probability is their business,” Mossop points out. “So they have the most sophisticated thinking around this because it’s their business.”

But how to meld the reality of people’s fierce passion to remain in their homes and their communities and the need of governments to avoid becoming the insurer of last resort means offering communities attractive alternatives.

Such as well designed appealing housing – maybe with communities built in – that rivals what they leave behind.

It’s certainly time for some “really creative solutions” as Mossop puts it.

“You’ve got to give people flexibility – everyone thinks they will make rational decisions but they won’t. We need to make sure people are informed about the risk.  And you have to put in place really excellent evacuation plans.”

There’s apparently maps drawn for areas that will be out of bounds for rebuilding but they’re not yet public.

What is most certainly known is that government funds are limited.

Another near certainty in our view is that maybe it’s time for the federal government to step in and steer state governments in the best direction.

In Sydney for instance that might start by finding a way to absolutely prevent placing 4 million people in an area in Western Sydney that’s already been the hottest place on earth. Until now. Before that angry heat beast decides to wander down our way and wreck another summer. And another set of records.

Housing and YIMBIES

Another interesting and near-top secret event it appears, will be the inaugural meeting of the now fully fledged YIMBY phenomenon. That’s the “yes in my backyard” sentiment in case you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t noticed the growing anger matching the growing housing crisis.

At this meeting also on Thursday, but in the evening and at pub in Sydney’s inner west, will be:

Ben Hendriks, managing director of Mecone Urban Planning and author of Committee for Sydney’s recent Planning for Growth report.

Jason Falinski, former Member for Mackellar and chair of the federal parliamentary inquiry into housing affordability

Philippa Scott, deputy mayor of Inner West Council.

David Borger, former NSW housing minister and executive director of Business Western Sydney.

What will be discussed was hard to prise out of one of the speakers when we called but it should keep the crowd highly engaged given the high profile achieved by this debate.

In essence, we gather, the idea is to reverse the fierce protectionist actions of communities to stop pretty much all and every development. In some cases by slapping heritage orders on properties slated for redevelopment.

In Marrickville, in Sydney’s inner west, such a heritage flag cost the church group that wanted to build a Nightingale style affordable housing in the suburb, pay around $1 million on top of development costs, to defend the proposal that required knocking down a church.

It seems something has shifted in sentiment with some councils now dropping heritage investigations.

You want housing? But what KIND of housing do you want?

Perhaps it’s been the insinuation of selfishness from the critics – “keeping the area nice for our people” and so on. We’ve seen plenty of that in upmarket leafy suburbs for decades now. Just because it’s inner west and not Lane Cove is no reason to double down on the NIMBIES (not in my backyard). But…we do need more housing. What kind of housing though is the critical question.

What’s concerning is that this public rising will tip the delicate balance of good planning in favour of the slightly unhinged call for deregulated planning and deregulated zoning so that we get untramelled mid or high-rise development – and all of it for upmarket apartments!

We hope the debate on Thursday night flags that there is a vast difference between rolling down the zoning and planning barriers to allow more market-based housing and rolling down the barriers to allow more affordable or social housing. (The Marrickville property is providing housing for 50 families.)

We know we need more density.

But there is a middle ground that can deliver both. Like Central Park and Harold Park in Sydney have done. Both are dense, really dense, but they are also generous to the community and they’ve been embraced.

We trust the apparently level-headed people speaking at the event and the organisers who seem to be on the side of sanity will, amidst the sound and fury of people rightly calling for more housing, remember that it’s not density that’s the problem but density done badly.

And that we don’t have a shortage of upmarket or market-based housing.

Maybe this nascent little group of agitators in Sydney and their cousins in Melbourne will also call for more social and affordable housing and that it be made decent and liveable. Just like they do in so many places in Europe and just like we used to in this country.

We reckon they’re on a winner.

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