Flexibility + planning = uncertainty

Clear guidelines for planning in new housing areas is needed

This article appeared in the Autumn 2013 edition of Fire Australia magazine.

By Professor Barbara Norman

Clear guidelines for planning in new housing areas are needed to respond to the issues facing emergency management now and in the future.

Fire, floods and coastal storms continue to dominate the landscape across Australia, placing significant stress on communities and emergency services. For bushfire risk, the recognition of the importance of land planning was noted as early as the 1939 Stretton report into the Black Friday bushfires in Victoria. The report identified “a lack of policy integration between the range of departments concerned with land utilisation control” (Norman and Sullivan, 2013) . In 2013, a key question is whether the Australian land planning system is helping or hindering the process of minimising risk to affected communities.

There are eight planning systems in Australia, one for each state and territory. There are significant commonalities, but differences lie in policy and implementation. This is due partly to geography but also the political landscape. In that sense, place, planning and politics are never far apart.

As part of the broader Bushfire CRC research project Mainstreaming Fire and Emergency Management Across Legal and Policy Sectors, the University of Canberra, in conjunction with the Australian National University and RMIT University, has been examining planning and bushfire. Workshops in the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, Victoria and the Northern Territory during 2012 have highlighted different local experiences with fire, risk and planning responses.

Planning for risk and uncertainty across the landscapes (cities, coasts and inland) involves considering a range of potential impacts. Recent experience indicates we need to better plan and prepare for the impacts of extreme events. In this respect, improvements can be made with connections and communications between urban and regional planning and emergency management. Key issues include assessing risks, including cumulative risk and a coincidence of events, coordinated planning across government to minimise disaster and an understanding by decision-makers of the range of policy responses available at a level that facilitates coordinated action. Scenario planning can assist here, resulting in a deeper understanding of the impacts. The 2011 Brisbane floods, which coincided with a king tide that had disastrous consequences, is a good example of this.

All of these issues need to be considered in the context of climate change. A recent editorial in Naturehighlights that following Hurricane Sandy in late 2012, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is now incorporating “long-term climate projections, including for sea-level rise, into its rate structure for the federal flood insurance programme”. It goes on to conclude that “how fast New York bounces back will depend not only on damage to infrastructure but also on the strength of socialnetworks and the general health of the communities affected.” In other words, FEMA has placed the risks of climate change squarely on the agenda and is actively building onto its decision-making processes.

In further recognition of climate change, the US Government Accountability Office has placed climate change for the first time in the list of ‘high risks’ facing the US—in this context, financial risks:

Climate change poses significant financial risks to the federal government, which owns extensive infrastructure, such as defense installations; insures property through the National Flood Insurance Program; and provides emergency aid in response to natural disasters. GAO added this area because the federal government is not well positioned to address the fiscal exposure presented by climate change and needs a government-wide strategic approach with strong leadership to manage related risks.

The larger challenge then is planning for risk and uncertainty in the context of climate change. There is already shared learning emerging from the range of recent disasters involving fire, flood, coastal storms and heat. Adapting to a changing environment adds a new dimension to risk of a scale not planned for previously. In this respect ‘business as usual’ in planning decisions will not be sufficient and will require at the very least a review of planning controls throughout Australia on the location of development in high-risk areas. An insight into why we keep building in high-risk areas (fire, flood, eroding coastal edge) is provided in the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) report of 2012. This report concludes that:

In recent years, there has been an increasing tendency towards departures from the stated requirements. The existence of a wide discretion to approve projects, which are contrary to local plans and do not necessarily conform to state strategic plans, creates a corruption risk and community perception of lack of appropriate boundaries. A re-emphasis on the importance of strategic planning, clear criteria to guide decisions and a consistent decision-making framework will help address this issue.

There is considerable research on a number of these issues with the Bushfire CRC, the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility and the CSIRO Adaptation Flagship. The research provides a good basis of evidence concerning risk. However the next step needs to address the process of better implementing clear guidelines for planning and land-use development decisions that incorporate the considerations of emergency management.

Continuing to build on floodplains, on the edge of eroding coastlines and in high-risk fire areas is not responsible or sustainable from any perspective. This will require some tough decisions with significant policy implications. In essence:

  • adapting to climate change requires a more integrated and coordinated response across government
  • business as usual’ is not sufficient to minimise risk to communities in the future
  • there are areas where building, rebuilding and locating infrastructure will not be possible due to
  • high risk of disaster
  • clear criteria are required for better integrating risk management into land-use and development decisions at all levels of government and need to be implemented throughout Australia
  • a changing environment will require a continuing risk assessment involving the latest science,  the financial sector including banks, and community leaders
  • an ongoing program of capacity building is necessary through education and training, particularly for planners, to better understand the risks and needs of emergency management.

In recent months there has been increasing public discussion about flexibility in the planning process and cutting the ‘green tape’. While efficiency in delivery is important, so is effectiveness. In support of ICAC’s conclusion above, I argue that flexibility in process and flexibility in policy is code for no planning at all. This scenario does not provide sufficient certainty for communities at risk or industry for long-term investment decisions. Clear guidelines for planning need to be developed that better respond to the issues facing emergency management now and in the future.


Norman B and Sullivan K, 2013, Urban and regional planning for risk and uncertainty in a changing climate, Bushfire CRC Fire Note 103.

Nature, 2013, Vol. 494, 14 February, p 148.

United States Government Accountability Office (USGA), 14 February 2013.

NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), 2012, ‘Anti-Corruption Safeguards and the NSW Planning System’.

About the author: Professor Barbara Norman is the Bushfire CRC Urban and Regional Planning Systems project leader. This project is identifying leading practice in spatial planning for bushfire risk and broader emergency management, and determining the extent to which current strategic and statutory planning is effectively integrated with this risk, with the aim of identifying barriers and enablers to leading practice in this area.