Total private insurance payouts from the Auckland floods and Cyclone Gabrielle were estimated at $3 billion to $4.2 billion by the Reserve Bank earlier this year. Photo: Hawkes Bay Civil Defence

The Government is consulting on new national direction under the Resource Management Act to prevent development in areas exposed to risk from natural hazards, including climate change.

A discussion document and draft National Policy Statement on Natural Hazard Decision-making were quietly released last week, without the usual ministerial press release.

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The draft policy would require councils making planning decisions to evaluate the likelihood of a natural hazard occurring in the given area and the likely consequences (including loss of life and damage to property), as well as the risk tolerance of the participants.

In areas of high risk, new development is barred unless the risk can be reduced to “at least a tolerable level” or in special circumstances where the development is necessary and there’s no practicable alternative location. Areas of moderate risk can be developed as long as mitigation measures are taken and areas of low risk can be developed without any additional requirements.

When action is taken to reduce natural hazard risk, “nature-based solutions are preferred over hard-engineering solutions” and “comprehensive area-wide measures are preferred over site-specific solutions”.

The policy would also require Māori to be consulted early in the process of natural hazard risk determinations on Māori land, with the discussion document noting Māori are disproportionately exposed to natural hazard risk.

Environment Minister David Parker told Newsroom the national direction would help ensure consistency across councils when making development decisions.

“It builds on learnings that we’ve had out of EQC, actually, who of course do quite a good job,” he said.

Toby Adams, Hauraki Mayor and a member of the Local Government New Zealand National Council, said the consistency from central government was welcome.

“One thing we always hear from customers is, ‘Oh I can do that in this council, why can’t I do it here?’ To have some national direction gives us some consistency so we’re all singing from the same song sheet and doing the right thing,” he said.

Preventing new development in risky areas is “very important” said Parker.

“You’ll have seen the news in the last day where one of the major insurers has already said they’re not going to insure things that are built in these high-risk areas anyway. So if you allow people to build and then they can’t insure them, you’re not only creating additional future losses for the country but you’re creating uninsurable losses.”

On Wednesday, IAG said it wouldn’t offer ongoing insurance for properties affected by this year’s extreme weather events which have been rated as Category Three (which are considered unsafe to live in because of flood or landslide risk). It may also change terms of insurance for properties in lower-risk categories.

Total private insurance payouts from the Auckland floods and Cyclone Gabrielle were estimated at $3 billion to $4.2 billion by the Reserve Bank earlier this year.

A significant amount of land could be considered high risk under the proposed rules, Adams said.

“Anywhere that’s close to a coast would be considered a high risk. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that there’s some sort of climate change out there. The climate has changed and is changing, the weather events are getting more and more frequent and any time you introduce water to the land at a high rate, you’re going to end up with some high risks,” he said.

“It’s all good for people to build in those risks, but at the end of the day councils are the ones carrying the can for it.”

Parker said nature-based solutions can be more effective at protecting infrastructure than hard engineering.

“The good example of that is enabling natural flow paths for water, which is a preventative measure. If you block them and have a big rain event, you can have increased damage as Aucklanders found recently.”

Issuing clearer guidance to councils about assessing natural hazard risk is one of the measures in the National Adaptation Plan adopted by the Government last year.

Consultation is open until November 13 and the policy is scheduled to be in force early next year.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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