Wednesday, 1 June 2022

City of Lismore - first Australian city to begin a major planned climate change reconstruction. Will all three tiers of government, the building-construction lobby, property developers & land speculators be able to resist the temptation to indulge their personal or political ambitions as well as their financial greed, in order to ensure the restoration of safe living space for a vibrant community whilst securing a culturally & environmentally sustainable future?

Lismore City in happier times
IMAGE: Lismore City Council

The Sydney Morning Herald, 28 May 2022:

Public servant David Witherdin holds the fate of the Northern Rivers in his hands, charged with extensive powers to rebuild the flood-ravaged region, writes Heath Gilmore.

David Witherdin is about to begin one of the biggest reconstruction jobs in Australian history, restoring the flood-blighted Northern Rivers of NSW, but he also must confront an even bigger task, almost existential in complexity: can he stop Lismore from drowning?…..

Extensive powers have been bestowed on Witherdin, chief executive of the newly created Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation, including to compulsorily acquire or subdivide land, fast-track the building of new premises and accelerate the delivery of planning proposals through the Department of Planning and Environment.

From July 1, and based in Lismore, the corporation will work with all state government agencies, seven local councils and the private sector to ensure that the reconstruction of infrastructure is co-ordinated and streamlined.

And, it is not only the building of new schools, bridges, roads, water and sewerage infrastructure that Witherdin will oversee. Thousands of residents potentially will be rehoused in new estates signed off by him; buildings rebuilt in a manner dictated by him; the order of infrastructure projects determined by him; and multimillion-dollar contracts awarded by him. Undoubtedly, developers and big contractors will lobby him. Further, he will drive a new master plan for Lismore City that responds to these changes, shaping the social and economic fabric of lives for generations.

He will have an advisory board, consult widely with community and local representatives, but ultimately, he will be answerable to one person: Deputy Premier Paul Toole.

It makes this father of three from Newcastle - a trained civil engineer who worked across the mining, utility, transport and local government sectors before a senior leadership role with the Department of Regional NSW - one of the most powerful figures in the Perrottet government. He has to succeed.

Walking the streets of towns and villages in the Northern Rivers it becomes clear why so much power has been vested in a stand-alone, unelected body. "We'll be pushing through mud literally for the next six months to make things happen, yeah, literally wading through s---," Witherdin says…..

Desolation is splattered right across the Northern Rivers, in the tongue-twister towns of Murwillumbah and Mullumbimby, along the winding rivers bordered by earthier named villages such as Wardell, Woodburn, Coraki and Broadwater, right up into the isolated dreamscape communities of the surrounding hills that are cut off by landslides. The region's population is about 280,000.

Ground zero is Lismore, known as the flood capital of Australia, with a population of about 27,000. Four people died in February as rising water inundated 3045 residential, commercial and industrial buildings and damaged hundreds of millions of dollars worth of critical infrastructure.

Large swaths of the city remain in limbo, waiting for the state or federal government to make a call on their future. Lismore City Council believes at least 1000 households should be relocated to higher ground at a cost of $400 million. And, the region faced flooding again this week.

Usually, elected officials in NSW - councillors, mayors and local MPs - jealously guard their role as the democratically elected repositories of political power that plays out across our lives. Lismore MP Janelle Saffin, Ballina MP Tamara Smith and the regions' seven mayors, however, all support the elevation of Witherdin and his corporation. This disaster was just too big to argue otherwise.

From the first day of the disaster, a still wet Saffin, who had to swim for her life through the floodwater, voiced the need for a single body to rebuild the Northern Rivers, similar to what happened after Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin, and the Queensland Reconstruction Authority, which was created after the 2011 floods.

Saffin made it her mission to convince the NSW government to back the idea by being "persistent, consistent". "We were wiped out," Saffin, a Labor MP, says. "I've been through over 40 years of floods, and even 2017, which was really catastrophic, we were able to manage to get up, even with a lot of trauma and pain, but this one was different.

"State and federal governments can be with you in the immediacy of a big event. But they get consumed by the daily business of everything else and everywhere else in the state.

"So I wanted a commitment from government, with a reconstruction body, recognising that this event is like no other we've experienced, and we're going to back you for the long haul.

"Otherwise we'll be buggered."

An ongoing NSW Flood Inquiry, chaired by Professor Mary O'Kane and former NSW Police commissioner Mick Fuller, is conducting hearings and taking submissions, examining everything contributing to the frequency, intensity, timing and location of floods, including climate change.

NSW Deputy Premier Toole says their recommendations will drive the focus of the corporation. The first report from O'Kane and Fuller is due by the end of June.

Toole says the corporation will look at areas where it makes the "most sense" to rebuild as well as work with the insurance industry to ensure reconstruction is sustainable and insurable.

"We want the NRRC [Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation] to make decisions on what the evidence is telling us because we're not just building back for now, this is about future-proofing these towns," he says.

The Northern Rivers can be a chaotic and passionate mix of rural conservatism, hard-scrabble working class and loud green activism. It straddles world heritage rainforest, prime farm land and a multimillion-dollar coastal property market, including Byron Bay.

Ballina MP Tamara Smith, from the Greens, whose electorate includes Byron Bay, Mullumbimby, Lennox Head and Ballina, says the community will be on guard for opportunists trying to take advantage of the flood disaster.

"The Greens are very concerned that under the cloak of a natural disaster, we could see open slather development," she says.

"I'm less worried about them compulsorily acquiring property, as I am about them declaring a moratorium on planning laws so developers could do what they want in certain areas, under the argument of providing more stock."

Witherdin will not be drawn on how the lives of Northern Rivers residents will be safeguarded until the inquiry presents its first report. However, he says engineering and planning expertise will be vital, especially in the areas of hydrology and flood modelling. Promising a full and honest dialogue with the community, respecting their wishes, he candidly admits that some decisions may be unpopular. "This won't be easy," he says. "I think as soon as you draw a line on a map, we will absolutely feel that. But we'll get there. I know the solutions will be different from town to town, catchment to catchment. We've got to listen to our community and understand what they've been through, a lot of pain. I know the corporation will have the tools in the toolkit and the relevant experience [to meet the government's aims], but the corporation is there to work with the community to also find out their best outcomes, not to sort of walk in there and impose things."

Witherdin says the work of the corporation will set up the Northern Rivers communities for the next 50 to 100 years. "As we look to the future [with climate change], I think we are likely to see more of this kind of natural disaster - not just in Australia but internationally," he says. "If we do this reconstruction well, it could really serve as a great template of what to do in the future across Australia."

No comments: