Here, last month, I used the mathematical tool of first principles to clarify the issues around coastal retreat. It seems I threw fuel on the fire.
Byron United’s James Lancaster on Radio National last Friday night tied himself in knots trying to explain why he is against man-made structures such as the rock wall at Main Beach but in favour of structures that mitigate damage to individual property. He told The National Interest’s Peter Mares, “Of course, we could all move five metres up the escarpment … but at some point, you have to draw the line.”
This pretty much defines the problem in a nutshell. Whether it overallocated water, bushfire endangered housing or coastal erosion, no individual human wants to be the one on the wrong side of the line. We want to remain just where we are.
The NSW town of Nyngan was evacuated in 1990 after major floods. The government offered to relocate the town but the people refused and demanded an extra metre on the levee. A long-term resident justified her instrangience thus: “We refused to move thirty years ago. Why should we give in now?”
If an engineering report had suggested moving Lismore up the hill to Goonelabah rather than building the levee that saved the town last year and in 2005, how would you have responded?
Where indeed, do you draw the line?
I put the dilemma to Mayor Jan Barham on The Generator this Monday. How does a government manage the issue of guiding development away from certain disaster when commerce, tradition and emotion all encourage us to stay put.
“You take a long term view and develop policies that give people time to adapt,” she said, gently reminding the property owners of Belongil that most of their properties have been renovated, bought or sold in the twenty years that the coastal retreat policy has been in place.
Part of the challenge for local governments in low lying coastal areas in NSW is that the state government has removed their power to develop local criteria for planning laws.
That makes it very hard for local councils to move their communities up the hill to safety. Those determined to maintain the status quo, however dangerous, can shelter in the labyrinth of detail until a real disaster hits. Then, as humans always do, they’ll complain that no-one warned them.