A mayor whose district is at the sharp end of climate change is welcoming a proposed policy to better protect life and land from natural disasters and make it easier for councils to plan for them.
The Ministry for the Environment is seeking input to its proposed national policy statement (NPS) for natural hazard decision-making, which will have wide-ranging impacts on all future rural and urban development once in place.
Buller district mayor Jamie Cleine heads a district council whose catchment has been hit hard by repeated flood and weather events over the past 18 months.
The damage to Westport has prompted some intensive planning not only to mitigate against immediate flood risk, but on where the town will ultimately be relocated to over time to avoid longer term risks.
Cleine has yet to have a deep look at the NPS, but said at first glance it provides a guide to councils on how they interpret information and the level of importance they place on it.
“An NPS could work alongside the district plan changes, and the whole focus here is on hazard-prone land and zoning changes.”
Prompted by the fallout from Cyclone Gabrielle and a year of mounting community losses across the country, the NPS requires decision-makers to determine the level of risk for a particular project.
That risk is categorised as low, medium or high and the tolerance of those being exposed to that risk must be considered.
It aims to try to iron out the high level of variability between local councils in how natural hazards are identified and how their risk is assessed.
At present there is no national direction to guide assessment where natural hazards may be an issue, meaning less weight is attributed to that under demands for the new infrastructure itself.
Westport is being regarded as something of a test case for community response to climate change impact. Cleine said the district is taking a sensible, considered approach to how it responds.
The NPS will have to be included in future local council considerations whenever new developments of residential, commercial or government infrastructure and buildings take place to minimise the effects on communities from natural hazards.
Westport received $22.9 million in resilience funding from the central government, with the lion’s share going towards a new flood protection scheme, but $2.5m has been allocated to adaptation and master planning for the future.
“And we are creating that right now. For us it is not about going to electric cars, it is about adaptation to what is happening now.”
He said it was not just about future flood risks for Westport, with the town facing triple risks of earthquake, flooding and liquefaction from rising water tables. Planning has meant there is room to relocate 300-plus homes over time nearby.
Cleine said there are as many as 35 communities throughout NZ facing challenges similar to Westport.
The insurance industry has also welcomed the NPS proposal.
Insurance Council CEO Tim Grafton – who is also still studying the NPS’s proposals – said at a high level having such an NPS will be helpful for insurers, councils and communities.
“We know we have seen developments in flood plain areas and building as close as possible to the high tide mark. Neither serves us well into the future.”
Last year set a new record for New Zealand insurance payouts, with climate-related extreme weather claims topping $350m. Estimates are that, in Gabrielle’s wake, this year will be higher again.
Grafton said the challenge will be determining what is tolerable risk, but it means when developments are considered, risk will at least be on the agenda.
The NPS is open for consultation until November 20 and can be read here.