Source: New Zealand Herald news article (March 10th, 2021) – an opinion piece by Christina Hanna (lecturer in environmental planning, University of Waikato), Bruce Glavovic (professor at Massey University) and Iain White (professor of environmental planning, University of Waikato).

Despite living in dynamic environments and facing an uncertain future because of climate change, New Zealanders generally expect their land and property rights will endure indefinitely. At present, coastal properties continue to be in exceptional demand and command top dollar but for how long ?

As last week’s offshore earthquakes and tsunami alerts reminded us, our coasts and the people who live near them are vulnerable to a range of hazards. Such risks will only increase as sea level rises because of climate change.

The government has announced that the Resource Management Act will be replaced by three new laws, including a Managed Retreat and Climate Change Adaptation Act. The writing is on the wall: planners and communities need to prepare for change.

For those living in highly exposed places, managed retreat may be necessary to save lives and secure public safety.

These “managed retreats” — from low-lying shorelines vulnerable to rising sea levels, areas that flood regularly and unstable or exposed land — may be a bitter pill to swallow – especially in the midst of a national housing crisis and a global pandemic.

But the effects of climate change are already being felt, and will compound natural hazard risks well into the future. Some existing developments are already proving untenable, exposing people and the things they cherish to severe harm.

So it’s imperative to include the option of managed retreat in adaptation planning for the most at-risk communities.

What are managed retreats?

Basically, managed retreats involve moving people, assets and activities to reduce risk.

For obvious reasons, retreats require difficult sacrifices for individuals, families and communities. The process can involve a range of mechanisms, including providing risk maps, official notices on land information memorandums (LIMs), development restrictions and financial incentives to relocate.

Planners and academics have been calling for a national managed retreat strategy, and the law change provides a unique opportunity.

Aside from compulsory acquisition powers used to deliver public works, New Zealand-Aotearoa may be the first country to develop specific legislation for managed retreats. The world will be watching with interest.

Managing retreats that are sensitive to the dislocation of people from their homes, livelihoods, landscapes and culture is challenging. Developing the new legislation will involve difficult decisions about why, when, how and where retreats take place — and at whose cost.

Putting people first

Just how these retreats will be managed, however, is yet to be determined. Research just published by Hanna et al. in the journal Climate Risk Management, examines who manages retreats and how. This article is a very timely cue to examine the broad policy options and planning implications as we start to tackle the climate threats we face.

The proposed legislation presents an opportunity to transform land use patterns in New Zealand-Aotearoa. But as we have seen in the aftermath of natural disasters affecting communities in Canterbury, Matatā and elsewhere, the way managed retreats are handled matters greatly to the people affected.

The research analysis indicates that at present, local managed retreat interventions are risky – professionally, politically, financially, culturally and socially. The necessary planning frameworks and resources are seldom available to support effective and equitable outcomes.

Some communities exposed to hazards and climate perils also face the risk of maladaptation — paradoxically, their vulnerability is increased by inaction or misguided efforts.

Who manages retreats and how?

In the analysis presented by Hanna and her co-authors they distinguish three approaches to making policy for a spectrum of possible retreats.

Broadly speaking, these are:

  • Government control: using legislation, standards, policies and regulations, central or local government may restrict certain developments or compulsorily acquire property to enforce retreat.
  • Co-operative managed retreats: collaborative decision-making and negotiation between government agencies and affected parties, using instruments such as opt-in buyouts, relocation subsidies or land swaps.
  • Unmanaged retreats: individual choices influenced by factors such as loss of insurance cover and other market changes, decisions not to invest more in a property or to sell it (potentially at a loss), or to remain in place and face the risk.

In their research article they consider the risks and implications of each form of retreat. Furthermore they draw upon decades of lessons from international practice in disaster resettlement and planned relocation.

Getting the law right

Hanna and her co-authors support the implementation of co-operative managed retreats as the most preferable approach. This means people and communities are actively embodied within the retreat strategy design, decision-making and delivery.

Necessarily then, flexible, collaborative and fit-for-purpose policies and practices are important. To manage expectations around at-risk, transient and marginal land, regulation of new development or land use is also required (such as placing time limits on consents).

Managed, co-operative and unmanaged retreats each have a role to play. But their associated practices and policy interventions must be strategically planned. To promote public safety, justice and equity, co-operation must be a central focus when managing the relocation of people.

New Zealand-Aotearoa has an opportunity to foster long-term resilience in the face of climate change and many other land use challenges. Determining who manages retreats, how, and who pays is important work.

Hanna and her coauthors are optimistic regarding the shape of the new legislation — ‘the processes and outcomes it encourages — will influence the lives and well-being of current and future generations’ – let’s support those outcomes.

What can homeowners or buyers do?

How can homeowners, or homebuyers, go about finding out if a property is vulnerable to a natural hazard?

There’s a range of ways to find out. First up, they should read the Land Information Memorandum (LIM) report for the property. A LIM report has to outline the known hazards, like floods, that the property might face. Checking Google Maps to establish your property’s proximity to potential hazards like waterways is useful.

If a property is up for sale, the vendor and their real estate agent have an obligation to disclose what they know about the property, which should include any known risks. Most council’s should have relevant information on hazards and risks available for property owners to look up and see what their property might face- however this data might be historic. The Commissioner for the Environment reports on, and has maps of, low-lying areas and rising sea levels. Organisations like NIWA and EQC can also provide information to help.

Another sensible option is to contact Geohazard Assessment Services to arrange an expert and affordable site-specific assessment to identify any potential natural hazard issues – afterall when thinking about buying a property – its infinitely better (for peace-of-mind) to ‘know the ground beneath your feet

Photo credit: Grant Maiden-Dominion Post-Stuff

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