Government to release long-delayed sea level rules

Damage to the seawall at Island Bay Wellington following storm surge in 2013. Photo by Lynn Grieveson.

The new Climate Change Minister, James Shaw, will release long-delayed new guidance to councils on planning for new coastal developments and sea level rise on Friday, Eloise Gibson reports.

But coastal developments that were approved during the guidelines' long gestation period, after factoring in lower-than-ideal amounts of sea level rise, will have to be treated as existing developments, says Shaw. That means they'll be dealt with alongside the billions of dollars worth of homes and infrastructure that are already in the potential future risk zone.

The news comes after a Newsroom special inquiry found that, in the Coromandel alone, hundreds of new, permanent land titles were created on the coast in the past two years, after modelling at most 1m of sea level rise.

One development of 73 apartments factored in just 0.49m higher seas in its engineering and flood risk report.

Former Climate Change minister Paula Bennett told Newsroom today that, despite National not publishing the guidance, coastal councils already had access to the draft. That draft, leaked to the public by the Green Party, advised councils to look at the impact of 1.9m higher seas on flood risk before letting big, new housing developments proceed.

The draft was held back from being formally published so that councils could be consulted, says Bennett.

Asked if councils would have treated developments differently had the guidance been released sooner, Bennett told Newsroom that councils affected by rising seas "did have access to that information".

"They were being consulted very early on and that's why there was a delay in releasing it publicly ... we were consulting with those very councils," she said.

Yet when Newsroom previously asked one council dealing with coastal subdivisions about the gap between the 1m higher seas it is using to test new developments, and the 1.9m test in the draft Ministry for the Environment guidance, Thames-Coromandel District Council said: “The guidance you refer to continues to be in draft form and the most recent formal guidance from the Ministry for the Environment continues to be the 2008 guidance ... We are awaiting the new guidance being released officially before we update our assumptions as a council.”

In other words, it would not use the guidelines based on an informal consultation draft.

Emails released to Newsroom after an official information request show flood experts at the Waikato Regional Council failed in a bid to get Thames-Coromandel Council to consider 2m higher seas before approving a 167-lot estuary-side subdivision in 2015, largely because the 2m test was not written down anywhere in the official government guidance. The district council used 1m instead.

The advice was written by scientists and policy experts for the Ministry for the Environment and remained in 'final draft' form for several months awaiting sign-off from the former government and wasn't released before the election.

Based on recent science, it says people should be planning for 1m of sea level rise for existing neighbourhoods, and 1.9m for “green-fields” developments or redevelopments that intensify land use in already built-up areas. The goal is to avoid adding lots of new housing to areas that might one day be flooded.

While 1.9m higher seas may never be reached, the leaked version of the as-yet-unpublished guide advised councils to test big, new developments against that level, because it represents the high end of the sea level rise we’re likely to see by 2150 without drastic emissions cuts. Even some of the rosier emissions scenarios have seas reaching above 1.5m higher than pre-industrial times, eventually, with 0.5m being the best-case scenario under some new projections.

It isn't clear how many titles or homes would need to be involved in a development proposal before the more cautious 1.9m "stress test" for sea levels would apply.

'Inconvenient truths'

During the election campaign Shaw criticised National for not releasing the report.

"The public deserves to have more up to date analysis and information .... It seems that there are inconvenient truths in this new report, which the Government would rather not talk about in the lead-up to the election,” he earlier told media.

Today he said: "I absolutely think that central Government can do a lot more to support local authorities around this issue I think the last government should have released that information, because there are a lot of developments that are already happening that should be factoring sea level rise in. That's why I'll be releasing the sea level and coastal hazards guidance on Friday."

Exactly how the Government would help people already living in the risk zone to adapt and prepare for rising seas would be the subject of a major work programme next year, he said. That would include recently-approved developments like the ones covered in Newsroom's inquiry, he said.

"The last Government could have released the information to councils to make it easier to factor in these decisions and they didn't and that's why you're seeing some pretty dumb decisions being made."

In response to Newsroom's question about whether councils would have acted differently had National promptly released the latest guide, Former Prime Minister Bill English suggested it was up to councils to make sure they had access to the latest information.

"Councils have been dealing with the issue for quite some time ... and trying to solve quite practical issues like how you measure rise in sea levels," he said.

English appeared to express doubt about the 1.9m test for new developments that is recommended in the draft.

Newsroom understands that the 1.9m test was contentious under the National Government. "The 2m seems to... I don’t know if that’s generally accepted or not, but the councils have responsibility for those decisions so they need to make sure they have access to the best information around," said English.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, published a report in 2015 on sea level change that called on the then Government to consider the fiscal risks.

English rejected the call and said at the time: "I see the Commissioner for the Environment has put out a report, but it's pretty speculative both as to the level of the sea level rise and the costs that might incur."

See Lynn Grieveson's report from November 2015.