Councils don't need to wait for new laws to act on climate change risks that threaten coastal homes and communities, experts say.
About 675,500 Kiwis live in areas already prone to flooding, with a further 72,065 living in the firing line of where some of the most dramatic effects of sea-level rise could hit.
How to meet this threat has increasingly proven a headache for local councils, given thorny issues around legal powers, resourcing, funding and the risk of litigation that come with it.
While many mayors have turned to the Government to provide them the laws, guidance and help they need, which is all expected to arrive through an overhaul of the Resource Management Act (RMA), a new report finds that action can be taken right now.
It finds greater use of existing legislation can help reduce and avoid coastal hazard risks in the period before the legislative reforms are implemented – a process likely to take many years.
Its authors, working under the Resilience to Nature's Challenges National Science Challenge, also highlight critical issues that require specific attention in the reform process to remove barriers and to assist adaptation to climate-change impacts in coastal areas.
"The report analyses the current difficulties of planning for ongoing sea-level rise under a planning regime that is largely permissive and enables land-uses with very long timeframes," said Victoria University adaptation expert Dr Judy Lawrence, who authored the research with planning experts Sylvia Allan of Allan Planning and Research and Larissa Clarke of GNS Science.
"Our observations and research confirm that in Aotearoa New Zealand, developments continue to be located and intensified in areas prone to coastal erosion and flooding."
In February, the Government announced it would repeal the RMA and enact new legislation including a Strategic Planning Act and a Climate Adaptation Act.
"In the meantime, current council policies, plans and practices are not adequately managing risks from ongoing sea-level rise, rising water tables, and increased flooding," Lawrence said.
"Under current development and planning practices, we're seeing attempts to manage these risks, for example by raising houses or building hard barriers.
"But these practices are virtually certain to have only a temporary effect and can make problems worse by lulling people into a sense of misplaced security.
"They transfer large costs to future generations as the sea continues to advance inland."
Specifically, the report called greater collaboration between regional and district rules, and applying regional rules that have an immediate effect on land use change and development.
The researchers recommended regions use strategic spatial plans, more effective use of subdivision controls, and offering greater clarity around how many legacy subdivision and planning consents are not yet activated.
They suggest a strategy called "dynamic adaptive pathways planning" to allow a shift away from mitigating climate impacts using hard structures like sea walls, and avoiding decisions on consent applications that could prove costly in future.
Councils, for instance, could review the status of subdivision, land use, building and infrastructure rules.
They could also make greater uses of certain sections of the RMA, such as one enabling application to the Environment Court to request that new rules intended to reduce exposure to coastal natural hazards have immediate effect - and another where subdivision consents could be turned down using best practice information.
Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) president Stuart Crosby said several councils, such as Hawkes Bay's and Dunedin's, were already working with their communities to adapt to climate change.
"However, these are complex issues and challenging conversations for communities to have," he said.
"Local government has long been calling for the Government to work with it to address the critical issue of who pays for climate change adaptation."
Crosby said the Productivity Commission, the Future for Local Government Review Panel and councils have identified funding the costs of adapting to climate change as a "significant cost" for councils and their communities.
"It's a cost councils and their communities are unlikely to be able to meet alone," he said.
"That's why LGNZ has long advocated for the creation of a national climate change adaptation fund – and a clear allocation of roles and responsibilities for funding across local and central government and communities."
"We understand that part of the Government's work on a Climate Change Adaptation Act is working through a framework for adaptation and managed retreat – including how this is paid for.
"The Government needs to partner with local government on how to allocate roles and responsibilities for funding and on the design of a national adaptation fund."
Last year, a major Government risk stocktake found nearly 50,000 buildings were already exposed to coastal flooding, and at the highest range of warming scenarios, that could rise to nearly 120,000 this century.
Particularly, it assigned an "extreme risk" around governance - council plans, legislation and funding mechanisms weren't fit for adaptation – and to the economic impact on government, directly from lost productivity and covering disaster relief bills.