Should Australia have a bushfire-star rating for homes?

Ten per cent of homes lost in Shoalhaven were outside the bushfire risk mapping area. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Ten per cent of homes lost in Shoalhaven were outside the bushfire risk mapping area. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Australia's building standards should be overhauled to make homes more resistant to bushfires and other natural disaster, the royal commission has heard.

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements on Wednesday began to examine how land use planning and the built environment could adapt to the changing climate and mitigate the impacts of natural disasters.

Bushfire Building Council chief executive Kate Cotter said there were huge gaps in the current bushfire risk maps relied on by planning officials.

"Out of Shoalhaven, we know that 10 per cent of properties lost were outside the risk mapping and they will not be required to build to bushfire planning or building regulations, and so that's failed on a number of fronts to have the house built to the standards in the first place, and then also to build back better," Ms Cotter said.

Maps were not taking into account the risk of ember attacks, or house-to-house ignition, the commission heard.

"All people should be able to access their level of risk," Ms Cotter said.

The Insurance Council of Australia's head of risk and operations, Karl Sullivan, said even insurance companies had problems accessing the information they needed from local and state governments to understand the risk in certain areas.

"The Insurance Council has run a program for a little over a decade now to collect that information on behalf of insurers, largely to prevent 50 or 60 requests annually going through an to an individual local government from individual insurers, but there is no single place where the insurance industry has been able to go to to source information on bushfires, floods or cyclones," Mr Sullivan said.

"It's an ongoing activity to liaise with each of the local governments and/or state governments, sometimes there are dedicated agencies that might be set up to deal with a particular hazard as well."

The Bushfire Building Council has created a bushfire resilience star rating system, building on data the CSIRO is proposing to compile, to identify what risks are in a certain area.

It would also provide step-by-step guidance on how to mitigate bushfire risk in your home, including improving building resilience and reducing nearby fuel loads.

However, progress on the project has slowed since April 2019, when it was submitted to the federal government's disaster planning agency, Emergency Management Australia, for consideration for national funding.

The project has been out for public consultation for more than a year, with no end in sight, Ms Cotter said.

"For it to be useful and in a format such as an app that everybody can access it, it requires that national funding," Ms Cotter said.

"The timelines [for Emergency Management Australia to finish consultation] are not evident to us, so we - we keep asking. All we can say, I guess, is that it will take one year to get the app ready for national consumption."

Insurers also said building standards in Australia should be lifted in response to the fires and the growing threat of climate change.

Mr Sullivan said while Australia's national construction code was admired around the world, it was "failing the community in one aspect".

"That is it doesn't stipulate a performance outcome for protecting the property, except to the extent that that property protection would save life," Mr Sullivan said.

"We think it is time with the changing climate for the National Construction Code to step up and start providing a minimal level of property protection in new builds."

Mr Sullivan said lifting building codes would help stop insurance becoming unaffordable in disaster-prone areas.

"It's important though that insurers charge to the risk. We are highly prudentially regulated in Australia to prevent collapses. So we've been working with governments, successive governments now to look at the range of solutions there," he said.

"The primary suite of solutions that we see is reduce the exposure, reduce the vulnerability, conduct proper mitigation of risks for existing communities, improve the building code going forward, retro-fit where needed.

"Where those things have been done by governments, we've seen very substantial reductions in insurance premiums. A roof replacement of an older property, an average of 10 per cent reduction, up to 25 per cent reduction in insurance premiums, putting up a flood levy around Roma, an average of 35 per cent, up to 75 per cent for some people."

This story Should Australia have a bushfire-star rating for homes? first appeared on The Canberra Times.


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