Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements was established on 20 February 2020 in response to the extreme bushfire season over the last 12 months. The Commission has examined the coordination, preparedness for, response to and recovery from fire, as well as ways to improve resilience, adapt to the changing climate and mitigate the impact of natural disasters.

The Royal Commission delivered a final report to the Australian government on 28 October 2020.

In our media release responding to the recommendations in the final report the Institute called on the government to act urgently highlighting that many of the recommendations need to go further and faster.

The Royal Commission has noted key evidence that will save lives and deliver a more resilient built environment that is better equipped to face future challenges. This includes the need to re-evaluate the National Construction Code to include making buildings more resilient to natural hazards as a specific objective, as well as revisiting the effectiveness of the Australian Standard AS3959-2018: Construction of buildings in bushfire-prone areas.

However, with some 5,900 buildings destroyed and communities anxious to rebuild, governments have a limited window of time to effect reforms that will ensure a higher standard of more resilient construction.

The Institute’s original submission highlighted research that suggests up to a million existing houses in bushfire prone areas across Australia have little or no bushfire protection, with 2.2 million people living in high or extreme bushfire risk areas.

Laying out 24 recommendations the submission provided key lessons from the bushfire season, with the aim of highlighting the critical role of built environment professionals in improving the resilience and adaptation of Australian society to changing climatic conditions.

Following the submission, Mr Nigel Bell gave evidence to the Royal Commission on behalf of the Institute on 8 July 2020. Mr Bell is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Architects and the Institute representative to Standards Australia regarding bushfire issues. He played a key role in the response of the Institute to the 2019-20 Bushfire season, including the development of online education materials and professional development training to prepare and support architects to contribute successfully to disaster recovery and “Build Back Better”.

Appearing alongside representatives from the Planning Institute, Bushfire Building Council and Property Council of Australia, Mr Bell outlined key recommendations for building design in fire prone areas including the potential use of private bushfire shelters and community refuges as places of last resort; the use of water spray systems in domestic settings; and the need for enhanced data collection and analysis to allow bushfire risk to be appropriately quantified and identify mitigation actions. This evidence has been reflected in the Royal Commission’s final report, including the need to review Australian Standard AS3959-2018: Construction of buildings in bushfire-prone areas.

In all our advocacy work we have continued to call on Australian governments to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2030, with the royal commission report highlighting that “Extreme weather has already become more frequent and intense because of climate change; further global warming over the next 20 to 30 years is inevitable.”

Resilience must include a commitment to net zero emissions in our buildings and responsiveness to our new climate reality because it is critically important to ensure that all rebuilding projects following natural disasters look to enhance the standard of our built environment. This has the added benefit of helping to mitigate the emerging issue of energy poverty while also reducing vulnerability to future disasters.

The Institute will advocate for a timely response from government to the Royal Commission report and recommendations, and where needed continue to call for further reform.