Letter to the Newcastle Herald regarding sea level rise and coastal planning

The following is an opinion piece and constitutes a response to recent articles in the Newcastle Herald regarding sea level rise and planning.  This was submitted to the Newcastle Herald on Sunday 11 March 2012.

The Australian Coastal Society (ACS) takes the position that the NSW government’s sea level rise policy is based on the best available international and national science.   It introduces consistent land use planning requirements and provides a degree of certainty which is critical for making investment decisions.

ACS supports local councils that are implementing the NSW Government sea level rise benchmarks and making decisions to reduce the impacts of long term environmental change on their communities.  One example of this informed management of risks is the introduction of additional controls on the types of new development that are permitted on land affected by flood hazard.  Local councils such as Lake Macquarie City Council and Newcastle City Council have extensive areas of low lying land around estuarine waterways.  These Councils are rightly considering the risks of flooding driven by sea level rise and storm surges, as well as local flash flooding and major river catchment flooding.

Many of the natural disasters that have hit NSW coastal communities in the last few years have been worsened by the failure of past land use and urban design decisions to properly take into account risks associated with climate variability.  Robust scientific studies project sea level rise and climate change over the next century which will further increase risks to existing low lying development.  Those past decisions were based on the knowledge of the day, before we knew that sea level was rising.  Decision makers today do not have the same excuse.  Uncertainty around the exact rate of sea level rise must not be used to delay taking precautionary action.  This uncertainty does not mean the science is flawed.  We know enough about sea level rise, and we need to act now.

Local councils have a clear obligation to ensure that today’s decisions about new development are informed by good science and proper consideration of risks.  It is irresponsible to rezone land where it is known that within the life of the permitted development the land is likely to become uninhabitable through persistent or frequent flooding by sea water.  Rezoning and intensifying development on land where flooding hazards will be increased by sea level rise not only affects private investors but places at risk public infrastructure such as roads, stormwater drains and sewerage systems.  Failure to adequately plan for increased risks to life and property in coastal cities could result in huge expenses for everyone involved.

Deferring tough decisions about development sites affected by coastal hazards or flood risks may be appealing to today’s investors but tomorrow’s residents and their governments would be the losers.

NSW has received national and international recognition and praise for its sea level rise policy.    This policy is about protecting future land owners, communities and their governments, at all levels, from unnecessary hardship and expenditure.  ACS urges communities to support informed and risk based land use planning by their local councils.  We must not add to the many existing properties already at risk by placing additional development in areas which we know will be subject unacceptable risk in the future.

Further information on Lake Macquarie Council’s sea level rise policy can be found here.  Related articles in the Newcastle Herald can be found here.