Last week RNZ covered a conflict between residents of a coastal village and their local council over climate change action (video below). The Whakatane District Council wants to evict 34 households because it believes they are no longer safe in extreme weather event floods. They’ve offered to buy out the residents but for well below previous market values (less than half). Some of the residents are wanting to stay, others are saying the buy-out isn’t enough. Where the council and residents appear to agree is that Matata is about to set a precedent for the whole country.
This is hugely significant for NZ. While South Dunedin has been wrestling with floods and impending climate change issues for a while, it hasn’t yet gotten to the point where people are having to move and where the big, ugly issues of lost financial housing assets comes into play. So no-one has yet solved this problem. What’s fair when your home is about to be lost? And how much should financial investment also be considered in what is fair?
I feel for the residents. I’d probably be one of the people who would want to stay for as long as possible. For people that have a connection to place, being able to stay can outweigh financial considerations. The residents in the video strike me as good kiwi blokes and blokesses, of the kind I’ve known in many different coastal communities. I look at where they live and completely understand why they want to be there and why they want to stay.
However if it was a place I didn’t feel a deep connection with, I’d probably be ok with taking what compensation I could and moving on. My sympathy starts to wane a bit when I hear the complaints about not being paid enough and not being able to afford to buy the equivalent elsewhere. Yes, that sucks, especially for people that have been working hard to get free of a mortgage and will need to spend much more time doing that. But we’ve known about climate change for a very long time. This is a community highly vulnerable to climate change. If not the flood issue, then eventual sea level rise.
Many of the houses were rebuilt after a massive flood and slip in 2005. The council is being blamed for allowing that rebuild, and in hindsight it does look like a significant error on their part (at the least all the rebuilt houses should have been moveable), but perhaps it was just a deferral of the inevitable, and in the end we’re all going to pay.
In a capitalist society where housing is a commodity eventually someone is will lose out when there is an end to the pass-the-parcel property values game. Who should be left holding the dud? At what point do councils start notifying that areas will have to be abandoned, and then the asset value of the land and buildings becomes useless? Are the people in Matata the fortunate ones because in the decades to come the council probably won’t have enough money to pay out anything for the other sea level communities that will by then be facing inundation or their own flooding/slips? Maybe we need to rethink putting all our eggs into the financial investment basket.
We’ve got some tough years ahead, and this is where we need to be at our most creative and think laterally rather than seeing everything through the money lens. If the people residing there, who’ve made their lives there, want to stay, why not give them a cash payment and let them stay. It opens up their choices. Rezone the land, don’t let any new builds happen, or sales, put in additional civil defence protections for when the next flood comes, but let them stay. Those people can then make better use of their time, their homes, their income and their working lives.
This is congruent with Powerdown thinking, where we make use of existing resources and where the currency of highest value isn’t the NZ$ but community and the ability to work with what we’ve got. Bulldozing ten year old houses that are still sound is a profligate waste in a world at the limits of growth and in a country in the midst of a housing crisis with immense change on the horizon. Forcing locals into legal action is likewise a squandering of community right at the time when we need it most.
Beyond that there are serious questions about what councils are doing to prepare for climate change. In 2008 the Ministry for the Environment produced a series of guides for local bodies on how to assess and prepare for climate change,
Thus, councils and communities should be giving serious consideration to the potential future impacts of climate change on their functions and services. Particularly important are infrastructure and developments that will need to cope with climate conditions in 50–100 years’ time. Examples include stormwater drainage systems, planning for irrigation schemes, development of low-lying land already subject to flood risk, and housing and infrastructure along already eroding coastlines. Climate change may also bring opportunities (eg, growing new horticultural crops in a particular area) to which councils may wish to pay attention.
It’s past time that we stopped thinking this is a problem for later generations to deal with. We’re here sooner than expected and things are likely to move faster than we think we need to be prepared for. I find it bizarre beyond belief that 6 years after Christchurch NZ still doesn’t have an integrated tsunami warning process in place. Maybe it’s always like this with change that’s too big to take in properly. But I can’t help wondering if NZ’s apparent complacency isn’t simply inability to act due to shock at what our country has become. Everywhere I look at the moment I see stress and fractures in our natural ability to do the right things. But I also fractures in the forces of neoliberalism. That along with our innate resiliency and the willingness to push back gives me some hope.