NSW Flood Response to Include Buybacks, Land Swaps for Northern Rivers Homes
By Alexandra Smith and Catherine Naylor
Buybacks and land swaps will form part of the NSW government’s response to the devastating Northern Rivers floods, as a landmark inquiry into the disaster puts the additional recovery bill at an extraordinary $3 billion.
The long-awaited independent flood recovery report has recommended a voluntary buyback program for the thousands of residents in Lismore who lost homes in this year’s deadly disaster.
Lismore faced severe flooding in February and March
Premier Dominic Perrottet has committed to accepting all recommendations from the inquiry, undertaken by former police commissioner Mick Fuller and former NSW chief scientist Mary O’Kane, including buybacks and land swaps, which regional councils have supported.
However, NSW will need federal support for the program, which will also include the rebuilding of long-term assets.
In Lismore, the Wilsons River peaked at 14.4 metres on February 28, more than two metres higher than the previous record, submerging two-storey buildings in the Lismore CBD. Hundreds of people had to be rescued from their rooftops.
An aerial view of the damage.
Five months after the disaster, more than 1000 people are still sleeping in emergency accommodation, while others are staying with friends and family.
Lismore Council has estimated that 1000 households should be relocated, at a cost of $400 million.
The Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation, the agency tasked with reviving the flood-ravaged communities in northern NSW, gave advice to the inquiry that the government faces a recovery bill of $3 billion, on top of what it has already spent.
In June, Minister for Emergency Services Steph Cooke said the NSW and federal governments had committed more than $3.5 billion for the clean-up and recovery effort.
The plan recommends offering people a voluntary buy-back of their properties to the government.
The government is set to unveil its full response to the floods disaster – and the cost – while engaged in an ugly dispute over funding for sports stadiums with the NRL and its powerful chief Peter V’landys.
The $3 billion recovery cost in NSW will dwarf a Queensland scheme introduced after Grantham was hit with devastating flash flooding in 2011. The Grantham scheme was a joint approach by the federal and state governments and saw residents offered properties on a piece of high land in exchange for their low-lying, flood-ruined homes.
In response, Perrottet said in June that he would adopt recommendations from the independent inquiry, including any proposals relating to the possible relocation of homes in flood-prone areas.
“We absolutely have to,” Perrottet said at the time. “If we have another flood like that in two or three years, and we’ve just gone back and done the same thing again, I would feel personally responsible.”
Queensland announced a $350 million home buyback scheme in March, a month after floods hit the south-east part of the state. The scheme is expected to help 500 people sell back their houses to the government.
The report has also recommended that Resilience NSW boss Shane Fitzsimmons be dumped and the disaster agency dramatically scaled down after the agency was widely criticised during the floods.
It will also call for the agency to be cut to a small office and its responsibilities reallocated to other government departments.
Former premier Gladys Berejiklian created the disaster management agency in response to the Black Summer bushfires, installing Fitzsimmons as its boss.
It has since faced scrutiny over its role, budget and employee-related expenses amounting to $38.5 million for 245 staff.
Former Bega MP Andrew Constance, who almost lost his south coast home in the Black Summer bushfires, was critical of the treatment of Fitzsimmons, given his work during the fires.
“For goodness’ sake, this is a bloke who saved lives, who was there for my community and our state during Black Summer,” Constance said in a video posted to Instagram on Thursday night. “I think he deserves a bit better than this.”
The flood inquiry report is a 700-page document that includes three volumes that address the preparation, response and recovery from natural disasters.
It is still under review by the government and a response to recommendations is expected in the coming weeks.