New laws are urgently needed to stop houses being built in high-risk floodplains or bushfire zones, says federal Emergency Management Minister Murray Watt, as he warns current planning systems are not fit for purpose in the face of escalating natural disasters driven by climate change.

Watt said necessary reforms to the “complex system” of state and council planning laws had been put in the too-hard basket for too long.

Floodwater in Forbes on Wednesday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“We must think more seriously about climate and disaster risk when planning future housing development,” Watt said. “It makes absolutely no sense for all levels of government to spend billions in disaster recovery while we continue to see housing built on floodplains.”

National cabinet will discuss the overhaul of planning laws in disaster-prone areas, Watt said, confirming the work would be led by the NSW government.

The NSW government will soon respond to an independent review of the state’s flooding disasters, which recommended at-risk communities are helped to move from floodplains.

“Our focus is on progressing the recommendation of the flood inquiry,” a NSW government spokesman said.

“The inquiry also made it clear that it is not a one-solution-fits-all proposition – different communities want different solutions.”

Rural Victoria, Melbourne and northern NSW were hit with floods in October and November, they followed other devastating floods in Sydney’s Hawkesbury region and northern NSW, which cumulatively caused billions of dollars in damage.

Inland NSW is currently underwater with fatal flash flooding in the state’s Central West, while in Victoria, Geelong and Mornington Peninsula are on flood alert as well as Murray River communities.

A home buyback scheme for up to 2000 homeowners was jointly funded by the NSW and federal governments last month for victims of the Northern Rivers floods earlier this year.

Emergency Management and Agriculture Minister Murray Watt.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The $800 million scheme will fund voluntary house purchases as well as repairs of residences overwhelmed in record floods in February and March, which left more than 4000 properties uninhabitable and damaged a total of 10,000 homes.

Watt told Radio National on Thursday he was considering more buyback schemes across the country, but it may be better for governments to relocate people.

“There are certain areas in the country that are prone to repeated flooding and it often ends up actually being more cost-effective, let alone avoiding the emotional heartbreak, if we can move some of these people to higher ground,” he said.

“I can certainly think of other areas of the country where these kinds of approaches might be needed.”

Grantham in southeast Queensland is considered an exemplar of flood relocation. Governments offered voluntary home buybacks and relocation to safer ground for the 600 residents following the 2011 floods that claimed 12 lives. Only about 50 homes remained in place, which were flooded again in following years.

Watt said there is no doubt Australians are copping “longer, more frequent and more intense natural disaster seasons due to climate change”.

On Wednesday, 200 Defence Force personnel were sent to inland NSW to help the state’s emergency services clean up.

Watt said he and Defence Minister Richard Marles were working on plans to form a permanent workforce dedicated to assisting state services with natural disasters and hinted it could take shape by the next federal budget in May next year.

The federal government has launched a $200 million annual fund to invest in natural disaster mitigation, such as flood levies, which Watt said was needed to lower the cost of insurance premiums.

Many householders in the NSW flood-prone town of Eugowra were uninsured when floods hit this week, unable to afford fees of up to $40,000 a year. The federal government last year bankrolled a $10 billion underwriting scheme in northern Australia, to help lower the cost of premiums that have been driven up by increased cyclone risks.

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