The National Construction Code and coastal planning

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Over many years ACS and other organisations have been involved in discussions on ways the Australian Government could have a sustained role in coastal management. At many federal inquiries, and through work with different federal agencies, the case has been strongly put that sustainable development of the nation’s coast is central to the health of the Australian economy and environments and the well-being of its communities. Population will continue to grow in coastal cities and towns under current population policy of the federal government and there will be pressure for some of that growth to be accommodated in locations that are vulnerable to natural hazards. These hazards are most likely to become enhanced under climate change. All this was well documented back in 2009 in the House of Representatives Standing Committee report chaired by Jenny George.

It is frustrating to see how over the years different federal governments switch on and off their approaches to coastal management. We continue to look for ways where the Australian Government can use its constitutional powers to address issues that are left to individual state governments without any national guidance or direction or even sustained financial and technical support. ACS has noted that we are left with a fragmented approach implemented by each jurisdiction without agreed overarching principles. This situation will become even more serious as consideration is given to the impacts and implications of climate change in urban and periurban sections of coastal Australia.

There are of course examples of how Australian governments can collaborate and coordinate their actions on critical issues impacting the well being of communities. One example, relevant to coastal management in the face of coastal development, population growth and climate change, are the national standards we use to guide the design and structural integrity of our buildings and infrastructure – the National Construction Code (NCC).

The NCC is managed by the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB), a joint initiative of Commonwealth, State and Territory governments established by an Intergovernmental Agreement in 1994. A new Agreement is negotiated every 5 years and signed by Ministers of the national Building Ministers Forum. The ABCB addresses issues of safety and health, amenity and sustainability in the design, construction and performance of buildings and plumbing. In effect, it is a jointly funded COAG standards body that is responsible for the NCC which comprises the Building Code of Australia (BCA) and the Plumbing Code of Australia (PCA). The NCC guides the states in their statutory obligation for oversight of the building and plumbing regulation within their jurisdiction.

Given its broad remit and need for the agreement of governments to adopt and implement, one question arises is does the NCC actually make a difference? Over two decades of intergovernment agreements, annual review of building codes and responding to natural disasters (eg. bushfires, cyclones, floods) suggest it does. It’s far from perfect but clearly all governments see the benefit of ongoing commitment to an evolving construction code where consistent national standards can be used to address the impacts of natural disaster and related climate change risks. The code provides for local variations to the NCC, to suit each jurisdictions unique circumstances, and allows for innovative performance based solutions as well as the familiar deemed-to-satisfy solutions. The Federal Government has a seat at the “NCC table”, contributing to the development of the NCC and a nationally consistency of approach to construction standards.

So effective collaboration between governments can happen.

Exploring the example of the NCC further, how effectively does the NCC address the emerging threats of climate change around the Australian coast? That depends….on state and territory planning laws. While planning laws reference the NCC for compliance with construction standards, specific requirements for buildings and infrastructure exposed to natural hazards like flooding and shoreline erosion are only triggered when planning laws identify risk areas. Not surprisingly there are significant differences between states and even between local governments within states as to how best to identify the areas at risks and accommodate and adapt to climate change.

The consistent coordination of planning and construction remains difficult, caught as it is at the intersection of jurisdictional interests and responsibilities, but one that demands national guiding principles as we increasingly factor in climate change when determining investment in buildings and infrastructure. Resilience of structures and their location are matters that should use nationally consistent standards in the new climate era. The annual review and update of the NCC negotiated by all governments takes into consideration natural hazards and scientific projections for how these may evolve in a warming world. The challenge is to get similar national consistency on the principles informing the coastal planning that guides where our buildings and infrastructure are best located.

Bruce Thom and John Hudson


Words by Prof Bruce Thom and John Hudson. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2017, posted 11 October 2017, for correspondence about this blog post please email admin@australiancoastalsociety.org